I’ve been a parent for twenty-seven years—but for the past ten, you could say I’ve been a partial parent. Since my divorce my ex-wife and I have each had the kids half-time, so I’ve altered between being the one parent on the scene and in effect hardly being parental at all.
The other day I was talking with a friend who has not been a partial parent. Married, and for the most part a stay-at-home mom, she has been on all the time, or was until this month when her last child left home. She finds the change disorienting. She had been on completely and now she’s off.
We all know why partial parenting stinks. The kids are constantly changing houses. It’s hard to maintain the necessary continuity. Differences between parenting styles cause the children undue distraction. It’s terrible to give a child a broken home. And yet the millions of us who provide these broken homes do not do so out of stupidity. We’re just modern people standing on ceremony less and pursuing practical improvements more. Like most of us, regardless of race, creed, or religion, we ask “why?” more readily than people did, say, in the Middle Ages. We dare to tweak our lives to try to make them work better. The impermanence of marriage is but one consequence. Another consequence of this centuries-old trend is that our patterns of interaction fall increasingly into their natural states. In life, being partial is as natural as it gets.
Complexity theorists, scientists who study the behavior of complex adaptive systems (life, broadly defined) see partiality as core. In simple systems, things are either related or unrelated. In complex systems they’re partially related. (See Confidence Levels.)
I’m very partial to my daughter, my last child, who is also leaving home just now. By “very partial” I mean I love her a lot and miss her in her absence. We have been a partnership of sorts and I couldn’t help but grow dependent upon her presence, as she grew dependent upon mine. I’m partial in the colloquial sense—mighty fond of her. I’m also partial in that her absence leaves me feeling not entirely whole. The nest is empty. A part of me is missing—or rather, with her leaving, I recognize that she had filled out a part of me. Without her around I recognize that I’m not whole. I interpret the colloquial meaning of being partial as really synonymous with this “I’m not half the man I used to be,” meaning. Love is becoming partial through one’s relationship with someone or something. (See Declaration of Co-dependence.)
I love her. I feel not entirely whole without her around, and I’m partial in a third sense. Recognizing that, as Kahlil Gibran said, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,” I’ve been practicing partial parenting. The nest has been emptied weekly for ten years. Through this on/off pattern, I practice to keep myself from becoming too dependent, to avoid becoming dangerously partial to her.
Or, for that matter, to anyone. Because it’s not just partial parenting. It’s partial partnering of all sorts. I’ve loved and left or been left. I’ve left gaping holes in other people’s lives and have certainly felt a gaping hole when other people have left me. We get restless and move on. We decide it’s time for a change, we graduate, our interests change, we’re forced to move, we make a mistake, we downsize, we cut back. Our priorities shift, and we welcome new commitments that require letting go of old ones.
I remember talking about it with my daughter one day. We were just lounging on the carpeted steps in my house one lazy Saturday afternoon. She was maybe twelve, and we were talking about the importance of having a hobby. Anticipating my argument, she said “So when I’m very old I can look back at my life and know I lived well.”
“Not that,” I replied. “When you’re older your memory gets soft. I figure we’ll be able to make up any story we want about how we lived. If we’re cranky we’ll make up a story about our failure, but if we’re in good spirits I’m sure we’ll be able to make up and believe any of a number of cheerful stories about how productive and happy we were. No, it’s for during your life, because you are a loving person who will love other loving people and sometimes they’ll be off loving someone else. You need a way to grab yourself by the scruff of your neck and tuck yourself in some corner rather than chasing after them. When you’re feeling a gaping hole, you’ll need something that reliably refills you that isn’t dependent upon a particular person when that person isn’t around.”
That time she heard me. She has many hobbies and they were put to the test recently. A boyfriend had to leave at least temporarily. I watched for signs of her resilience and they were there. Yes, the gaping hole, but a capacity to resume wholeness too. She and the boyfriend are now back together, in part because they both had the wherewithal to manage the coming and going skillfully.
The Tao Te Ching has a line, “If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial.” Who knows what the ancient Chinese meant by it. It was a long time ago. But all three of meanings I’m finding in “partial” apply.
If you want to become whole, let yourself become partial to someone. Fall in love. The beloved will round you out. You can’t be whole by yourself.
If you want to become whole, let yourself be less than whole, because there’s no way to love someone from a place of complete self-sufficiency. Love means dependence of some sort—hopefully not bad dependence, but dependence nonetheless.
And if you want to stay whole while loving others, let it be partial, or on-and-off love. Don’t fuse, pretend to fuse or try to fuse. Practice supplying and weaning each other. (See Ambigamy)
My parents died young. My father died at fifty-nine, and then my mother died two years later, also at fifty-nine. I think it was just a coincidence, but you never can tell. I would never want to need someone so much I risked dying without them. It’s safer and saner to recognize that everybody comes and goes.