The Birth of Wisdom

The philosophy of motherhood

Parenting well and learning to let go

Reflections on the desire for indepedence

When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Wonder Years. I used to cry a lot - particularly in any episode that involved adolescent heartache. The Wonder Years remains my favorite television show over 20 years later, but the aspects about the show that used to move me no longer do - and some aspects that hardly made a blip on my radar when I was 13 is what moves me the most now. Indeed, I have gauged my journey into adulthood based on what parts of The Wonder Years have most moved me to tears. When I was a teenager, the plights of Kevin and Winnie are what kept my emotional attention. When I was a newlywed, I was moved by any episode that centered on Kevin's parents (I still am moved by those, actually). Recently, I saw the episode where a 13-year-old Kevin, desperate to gain independence from his mother, asserts his authority and plays no-equipment tackle football against her wishes. When his mother's fear comes true, and Kevin is injured, he realizes that, after pushing his mother away and demanding autonomy from her, he can no longer run to her to be comforted the way he used to. His newly-found sovereignty precludes it. His mother realizes this too, and, with a painful expression on her face, allows Kevin wrap his own injured hand.

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When I was 13 and watching this episode, I sided with Kevin - his mom needed to stop babying him, just like my parents needed to stop babying me. Now, I may still side with Kevin - at some point parents need to let go - but now, unlike before, I feel his mom's pain. And now, instead of cheering Kevin's independence, I reluctantly accept it, and I cry along with his mother's loss.


Every night my daughter and I have a small argument concerning how many books she gets to read with me until she needs to go to bed. 3 or 4 books are my limit - but every night she wants more. Not only does she need to go to sleep, I tell myself as I put her in her crib against her will, I still have work to do. Papers need grading, the house needs cleaning, food needs cooking, blogs need to be written. And then I catch myself - for one day I will have to beg her to give me even 15 minutes of her time. One day, hopefully in the far away future, will be the last day I read her a book before bedtime. Pretty soon, she will be reading on her own and will be able to go to sleep without my comfort. Pretty soon, she won't run to me anymore when she's in pain or discomfort. One day, she will be ashamed of her need for me - and it will be at that time that she will become less in need of me.

I suppose that's natural, and right, and the way it should be. I often felt smothered by my parents, never given a chance to really experience childhood to its full capacity. For example, I was 23 when I learned to ride a bike. 23! Because my father was so worried that I would get hit by a car on the streets of Miami (a warranted fear, I may add),  he never taught me to ride one. And believe me, learning to ride at 23 is much more painful than learning to ride at 5. To this day, I also do not know how to swim, because my mother was so afraid of me drowning that she never let me in the water at all. I missed my initiation into my high school club because they wouldn't let me go to the annual formal without one of them, and they were both working that night. However, there are a lot of things my parents were right to protect me from - living in the kind of city I did, it was wise that I wasn't allowed out a night without a chaperone, that I had a strict early curfew, and that I wasn't allowed to go out with anyone they didn't know. My friends had a nick-name for my parents when I was a kid - they were my American Express cards, because I never left home without them. I hated it then, and sort of laugh about it now.

But all this does require me (and us) to consider some basic questions: When do we let go of our children? How do we let go of them? How much independence is required for healthy growing, and how much is too much that would impede it? When is freedom warranted? When should it be taken away? Do we let our children engage in actions that may hurt them (like no-equipment tackle football... or driving)? When or how do we draw the line?

I don't have to answer those questions right now. Right now, my daughter still looks to me for complete guidance. For her, I am still an omnipotent hero who has the final word on everything, and whose arms will always be open to embrace her when she desires it. And right now, she desires it often. Mother's Day is this weekend, and I will, of course, call my mom and send her a card and a present. And I will tell her I love her. And I will remember that I spent a good portion of my life pushing her away and fighting for my independence, and yet, as an adult with a child of my own, I'd give anything from time to time to crawl into her lap and be enveloped by her embrace and her comfort. And one day my daughter will wish that of me, after years of pushing me away. But just like I can no longer climb onto my mom's lap, she will one day be unable to climb into mine. Somehow, the sovereignty of adult life precludes it.

Kevin wraps his bloodied hand in gauze all by himself at the end of that episode. His mother looks over from the kitchen, fighting the urge to do it for him. The adult voiceover makes the observation that "it's hard to tie a bandage with just one hand." But then the reality of adult life becomes clear: "Sooner or later though... you learn."

I can hope that my daughter won't have the desire to learn that any time soon.

 

 

 

Bertha Alvarez Manninen is an assistant professor of philosophy in the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University.

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