by cheri ruane
No Owners Manual
I remember leaving Brigham & Women’s Hospital crying in the elevator down to the car. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” I said to the nurse, tears streaming down my face. “You’ll be fine, we all figure it out” she said as she gently moved my white knuckles so the doors could close. Her face was tired, but kind. The fact that it seemed she had given this pep talk about a million times gave me very little solace. As the band of light from the window behind her got narrower, my panic increased exponentially. Really?!? I thought. You’re actually going to let me leave with this little life in our sole care? Yep, she was.
My husband pushed the wheelchair through the chaotic hospital lobby. I thought for sure someone in charge would come rushing up saying, “Whoa! Hold on there, where do you think you’re going with that two-day old baby!?” But no. . . we rolled on out of the building into the picture perfect July day; bright and warm. There were a row of cars idling waiting to pick up their recently discharged patients. Were these fumes okay for the baby? What kind of UV exposure was he suffering from? Was it too loud? Oh for the love of all that is good in the world, someone tell me what to DO!
As my husband and I triple-checked the infant seat connections in the back of our Jetta, the valet leaned in and asked, “Do you need a hand?” Obviously not his first rodeo. I wanted to scream, “Yes! Please could you take this child and give him back to us when he’s out of college? (Preferably debt free.)” But I didn’t. I just looked at him with my tear-streaked face and nodded. Within seconds he had deftly fastened and tightened every strap, clicked the seat into the base and was holding the straps apart so I could slip this impossibly small human being into its protective shell. If only there was a valet for the entire parenting journey.
What have we done by having kids??!!
I managed to negotiate my way through the infant months and toddler years. Then came the addition of kid #2, which meant switching from zone to man-to-man defense. All way harder than advertised. Yet, as my husband wisely says about parenting: “The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and you just hope to hell there’s a net gain in there somewhere.” You know what people say about that elusive and hoped-for gain? It’s that the kids will take care of you when you’re old and crazy. Ha! I see my parent slipping into old, crazy territory and all I can think is I’ll sell an organ to avoid being an adult daycare provider.
Parenting stresses evolve quickly. They rarely last for more than two weeks but when they do, they really suck. Teething, crawling, walking, potty training, schooling, socializing, learning, achieving. . . all of the INGS. They don’t stop. You go from wishing for your child to succeed and move forward socially and physically, to hoping they don’t progress too far into sex, drugs, and risky behavior. You try to pick their friends. You know, the good kids with parents like you. The ones you trust, who share your values. Newsflash: your control there only lasts through about age 10. They are starting to figure out what decisions they need to make in order to satisfy their own needs. That is some scary stuff right there. I’ll take a teething baby over a misguided pre-teen any day of the week (yes, and twice on Sunday).
So here we are with a 12-year- old and a 10-year- old. Both are awesome kids. Not just my unbiased opinion, but other unpaid sources concur. Fortunately, we have a great village that have helped us raise these kids. From grandparents that are just far enough away – but not too far – to cousins and aunts and uncles who make appearances at holidays. Not to mention the friends and their parents who have stuck with us despite our overt quirks and constant search for approval.
How does it all balance out? What must we give in order for our families to find a framework that make sense and is easy to follow? How do we move past whatever baggage our fairly well-meaning parents bestowed upon us? Through the sleepless nights (you have them all through parenthood for various reasons) you must believe that you’re creating tomorrow’s society of great people who will do the right thing by humanity and the earth; otherwise. . . what the is the flipping point?
We strive to get to a place where we can see through the static and just support these humans we brought into the world. These questions brought me to the desire to distill down what was truly important to the barest of bones. That is where I first hammered out the mantra: Happy, Healthy, Safe and Kind.
At first it felt too simple, almost stupid. Happy, Healthy, Safe and Kind. The more I said it, the more people were writing it down, or asking me to repeat it. Not the kids, they had heard it enough. At one point Casey mimicked me saying it as only an overtired underfed 10-year old can. SO unflattering.
If you really think about it, though, is there anything more important? Sure, the list could be longer, but any Marketing 101 class will tell you that brevity is key. If you’re really trying to be effective and on point, you must boil your values down to their most concentrated form.
I can think of nothing more important than basic happiness. I know lots of happy people. They don’t all have the same formula. Some work at Dunkin’ Donuts, others for State Street Bank. These happy people have vastly different income levels, living and family situations, levels of health (both mental and physical), and a wide spectrum of skills. I would offer that none of those things ACTUALLY guarantee happiness. Instead, what is most important is knowing oneself and understanding what one needs to feel fulfilled. We are expert at lying to ourselves about what that is.
For me individually, only through some deep self-awareness work could I honestly come by happiness. Not so simple after all. As a mom, however, I can focus on happiness with my kids by asking them quite plainly, “did you have fun?” This is telling on many levels. Yes, I know it can be fun to do naughty things and get away with it. However, I’ve noticed the fun factor is short lived if there is not an authentic gain for good as the end game. No one likes feeling badly for something they’ve done. At least not at first. There’s an inherent aversion to creating discomfort or disapproval in others. If we, as parents, can paint that picture for our kids at an early age, they have a greater chance of finding this happiness in healthy, sustainable ways.
Health is taken for granted by anyone who hasn’t been really sick or injured. We tend to just assume that we’ll always feel good and be pain free. Our survival instincts teach us to cope with illness and pain to the point where we normalize them. Only if the pain or illness is remedied are we then able to look back and say, “Holy cow, I forgot what it felt like to be healthy.” This is an unfortunate human condition, yet one that we, again, can instill some sense of responsibility onto our kids. Health (both mental and physical) can be evaluated through many different metrics. However, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter, you can easily determine how healthy someone is by how at ease they are. Can they find a place of peace and contentment in the absence of relentless societal stimulus? This is a gift greater than monetary wealth and career-based achievement. There are plenty of rich CEO’s who are anxious and miserable. So health holds a key piece of the parenting framework.
As humans, we have a deep need to feel safe. It is primal. That is why we have fight or flight
mechanisms, defense mechanisms, reflex mechanisms. Our bodies and minds have evolved over time to do everything possible to protect us from harm, thereby making us safe. Cavewomen had very different threats than we do today. The saber-toothed tigers and hypothermia of the paleolithic age are the designer drugs, sexual harassment, and cliff diving of today.
As adults, we have all developed our own sense of what is safe. It is our responsibility to guide our children to discern these things as they become adults. Our comfort with risk is not our children’s. THEY must figure it out to be their own true selves. This is hard for we parents to embrace as it means letting go a little. How many times have you thought, “thank god social media didn’t exist when I was young and stupid, there’s no proof!” We did stupid stuff, took risks, got caught, learned our own lessons and tolerance, and developed a risk vs. reward equation that met our needs. The cumulation of all of this is personal safety, and it’s something that we must teach our kids. (I know this is super hard as we don’t want anything bad to ever happen to those little buggers, but it will, and they will react.)
The most basic trait of humanity is empathy. You ultimately choose what you do with your judgement on others(let’s admit it, we judge all of the time). If someone is hurt, down on their luck, or angry or sad–we have thoughts about it. Being able to put yourself in that person’s shoes is infinitely hard, and takes a lifetime for some to master. Kindness, on the other hand, is something that can be taught, learned and ingrained into your way of life. [Kind / adjective: having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.]
It really doesn’t take much for someone to feel kindness. A simple gesture–checking in if someone is okay; a smile; asking how someone is; a genuine compliment–these things cost nothing. They are but a moment of awareness that other people matter. I know this is a tall order for kids. They are the center of their own messy universe. However, if we can lead by example, kids are receptive to these influences. They see their parents and role models being kind to the cashier at Market Basket or the Lyft driver or their partner and neighbors, and they will model that behavior. NOT because they feel obligated, but because ultimately it will engender goodwill and a level of humanness that is often lost in American society today.
Being a Good Human
Happy, Healthy, Safe & Kind…is it foolproof? Sadly, no. Does it clarify life when things get really complicated? Usually… yes. No matter what the issue, you can always refer back to those four touchstones. Struggles with just about anything become more manageable when you put it in perspective. My son once asked if I’d be disappointed if he ended up being a garbage man. “Are you a happy garbage man?” I asked. He thought about it and said, “Yes, I think I might be.” He knew where this was headed. “Well if you’re also healthy, safe and kind that means you’re a good person bringing good into this world. So, I would be proud of you.”
He looked skeptical. I’m a bit of an alpha-achiever thanks to my own upbringing, and he’s recognized that. I’m careful to make sure he knows that despite those tendencies I’m not always happy. In fact, I’ve been pretty unhappy at times in my life. I’ve fallen into unhealthy habits and abandoned being kind to myself based on what others expected. That is not successful adulting. It can lead to excessive drinking, escapist tendencies, and being “checked out,” all of which culminate in a general numbness that is not sustainable. I haven’t shared all of the sorted details of my own journey with my kids, obviously. Instead I let them know that everyone’s definition of success is different, and they will figure it out for themselves. I’m here to support, nurture, challenge, and care, but their ability to find contentment is within them.
Happy, healthy, safe, and kind; for me, that’s being the best parent I can be.