Recently I spoke with a friend who told me two contrasting things about her parenting within the space of a minute. “Well, you know we are such hands-on parents” and, a few sentences later: “I enjoy spending a weekend with Emily, but not any longer than that.”
Both these things she said with conviction.
I wonder about this. First, what does it mean to be a hands-on parent? She and her husband are high level professionals. They think a lot about their daughter, and ask lots of questions whenever a decision is required: school or travel or friends. Both of them work full-time. Their daughter has had nannies and babysitters since she was 1. But that doesn’t answer my question. The father is a warm and kind man. He spends free time skiing with her on the weekends. When he speaks, one gets the feeling that he adores her and enjoys spending time with her. Pictures of them together decorate the apartment. The mother has always, apart from the words she utters, given me the feeling that she does not want to spend much time with her daughter. She had a difficult birth experience, and went back to work at two months. When she talks about her daughter, she often rolls her eyes, or she will talk about how great it is to have a ‘free’ weekend. The effect is one of ‘I want to be somewhere else’.
But she does think about her, and she approaches any major decision as an academic researcher does: gathering all the information in a logical manner, not leaving anything out.
So, is the mother to be lauded for being honest about her wish not to spend time with her daughter? The urban intellectual enjoys reminding us all that what people say is almost never matched by what they feel. In other words, deep in their hearts, all parents want to get away from their children, but they are just afraid to admit it. So, admitting it is actually very mature. Hmm.
Is that true? I have asked myself this question, and I cannot find any other answer than that I really truly do enjoy my children. I look forward to being with them. I am excited to plan a weekend trip with them. I want to hear about their day and what concerns them. Yes, sometimes I need my private time, and sometimes I am annoyed with them and get so frustrated or angry that I worry about losing confidence in myself. But fundamentally, yes, I do really enjoy my children. I even, deep down, enjoy their wilfulness, even when they go up against me with all their strength and I feel weak and unsure. That is what they are ‘supposed’ to do, at appropriate ages and in appropriate form.
Am I deluding myself by saying that I enjoy them? No, I don’t think so.
So, how to respond to my friend? I actually come across a lot of women who give me the feeling they don’t enjoy their children. They plan their weeks so that their children are occupied somewhere else, with the explicit wish not to be bothered by details. When they speak about their children, they don’t usually share genuine experiences. They hold forth. They are especially nasty when talking to parents who do spend lots of time on topics related to their children. Examples are: helping with homework, driving children to sports tournaments, speaking to the teacher, seeking out alternative medical care.
As usual, I just fall silent.