If you don’t understand the phrase “do as I say, not as I do,” then you are probably not a parent. This is a parental mantra. We explain to our children why they can’t have sugary cereal, then gorge ourselves on almond croissants at breakfast. We carefully monitor the 30 minutes of screen time we allow our children each day, then stay up until 4 in the morning to binge-watch the latest House of Cards season. Parents say, “slow down,” “don’t argue,” and “please share,” then we walk through the streets at a mind-boggling pace, expressing disdain toward those who think differently, and dropping bows for that last seat on the train.
There is nothing like parenting to make you realize how wretched you are. A baby is born and is the incarnation of innocence and joy. They’re snuggled up, safe from the world in your arms, oblivious to anything that isn’t warmth and love and full bellies. Meanwhile, the very arms that hold them belong to participants of the world’s problems—whether we mean to be or not. We are simply human.
When I had a brand new baby, I had quite specific opinions on how parents were failing their kids and how I would raise mine perfectly. I would hold that baby—the one I mentioned was oblivious to practically everything?—and talk about how I would only feed her whole foods and I wouldn’t let her watch television and I would basically mold her into the perfect citizen, all while eating cookies and catching up on Parenthood and continuing to pass judgment on others. What did she know? In a way, having a baby seemed like a second chance. I wasn’t doing anything right, but I could help her to succeed in all the places I had failed.
Then that baby grew into a toddler. The way she learned the world was through mimicking. She wanted to bake and clean and talk on the phone and pack her purse and rock her dolls, because that’s what she saw me doing. It’s terrifying to view your imperfections through the eyes of your children. Our humanness, we think, just might destroy them.
But here’s a spoiler alert: We are raising humans.
I have considered my own humanness a lot this year. I have considered the ways I see the world, the ways I choose to experience it. I’ve thought about how my personality fits into it all, the emotional tactics I use to respond.
I have considered my kids’ humanness too. Their personalities and experiences may be different than mine, but they possess the same potential for success and failure, and the same emotional building blocks for coping. They need to learn how to use them.
Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies, once wrote about the passing of a dear friend and how it affected both her life and her son Sam’s life. As a mother, her temptation was to micromanage his grief. We bear the weight of our own humanness and hope to not pass it on to our children. But then she realized, “Trying to fix him, or distract him, or jolly him out of his depression would actually be a disservice. I prayed for the willingness to let him feel sad and displaced until he was able to stop slogging through the confusion and step back into the river of ordinariness.”
I have wondered how this applies to my hypocritical mantras. How for all of my chanting, “Do as I say, not as I do,” I am dispensing a far greater disservice. Rather than becoming vulnerable with my children and exposing my bad habits, I’m instead displaying the darker side of humanity: my dishonesty, my hypocrisy, my pride.
Naturally I understand that my children are not my equals, and I fully invest in the right to create the rules and hopefully carve out their best lives for them while it’s within my control. But with little eyes constantly watching and tiny ears constantly straining to listen, with all their humanness already existing inside of them, being molded through experience, I wonder how I might better model a good side of humanity by simply being willing to exist in my flawed state and let them see that from time to time. To let them watch me try to be better.
My four-year-old caught me biting my nails the other day. It’s a terrible, dirty habit, especially for a New Yorker.
“Mommy,” she said to me, eyebrows raised, shaking her head. “You’re not supposed to have your hands in your mouth.
I nodded. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s a gross thing to do.”
“I know that because you told me,” she said. She sat down beside me and I laughed.
“I told you and I should do better at following my own advice. Sometimes mommies make mistakes too, but the things I tell you are to try to help you make good choices, even when I don’t.”
“That’s okay if you make mistakes. I forgive you like you forgive me,” she said with a smile and then bounded back to her room to play.
I sat there astounded at what I’d just heard, how she’d exchanged the best part of her humanness for the worst part of mine. And in that moment, I had hope for the world again, even with me and all the other hypocrites running around.