Today I’m 40. Hooray! Every day that I’m alive and healthy enough to live this crazy life is a gift to me. In the two years prior to marrying my husband, I watched him lose both his parents (in their early 50s) to pancreatic cancer. Now when I look at elderly people, I think they are amazingly lucky to have made it that long — seen their children grow up, held their grandchildren.
On this milestone birthday I’m thinking about the only two people in the world who have known me all my life. They have been my parents for 40 years.
My mom wasn’t like the green-living-blog-reading moms of today, but she gave birth to me with no drugs, “naively” (as she put it) hearing the hollering of other moms and wondering how bad it was going to get. “Not bad at all!” she told me 34 years later, as I was getting ready to have my own baby. She was by my side as the pitocin kicked in and I urgently called for the anesthesiologist who wisely offered to skip the full spiel and verbally consent me: “The risks include everything up to and including death.” “Ok, just give it to me!!” She was there with my husband during the delivery – the first thing I heard at the moment of my son’s birth, before his own cry, was the cheering from my mom and husband. She slept in the hospital room with us that night (there was a level 2 snow emergency), and it was my mom who, in the middle of the night when our baby awoke, jumped up while we were still shell-shocked, changed him, and handed him to me to feed.
My mom cloth diapered me with the kind of cloth you wrap around and pin. She hung clothes on the clothesline. I remember helping her hang all the sheets out, and every piece of clothing we wore. She took me on nature walks and painted watercolors with me. She planted a vegetable garden arranged in neat, brick-lined rectangles on the side of our yard – I loved that garden. She cooked every single meal – we rarely went out to eat. I remember not really appreciating this, and complaining dramatically if she made, say, spaghetti sauce with mushrooms in it (oh how I now know how she feels).
My dad is the Most Patient Man on Earth. He coached my soccer team when I was 5 – he was one of those dads who could organize practices for a bunch of 5 year olds. He threw softballs with me after school, and went to my tennis matches. He tossed me up in the air in our backyard pool, and helped me with my chemistry & math homework and every science project. When I was 16, he agreed to let me have the car to drive to school BUT I had to get up at 5:30am and drive him to the train station every morning. On these mornings he was cheerful and most admirably put up with my teenage compromise that I would get up at that hour and drive him but that he shouldn’t expect me to talk to him. (How did he put up with this?) He patiently taught me how to drive, calmly saying things like, “You’re driving off the road now.”
I don’t remember knowing anything about what my dad did at work (he was a chemist). He didn’t talk about work at home. I only remember that he and my mom were always involved in our lives, and family dinner was about what went on at school and what stuff we were doing as a family. This is a big lesson to me: kids don’t care what their parents do, how “successful” they are, etc. They only care that they get attention and are loved. If a parent is really enthusiastic about their job, on the other hand, that can make an impression. When I was about 9, my mom started her interior design business, working from home. Now that I’m following in her footsteps, I can see all the ways her example inspired me.
Somehow they managed during my childhood to pack in an enormous number of diverse experiences without ever having us feel rushed. I am baffled at how they did this. My sister and I took piano lessons, swim lessons, played every sport, soccer on Saturdays, church on Sundays, yet we still had time to spend hours playing in the woods, in the creek, in the pool, taking family bike rides, and doing all the free-range play that kids in the 70s and early 80s were fortunate enough to do.
I’m not saying all this so you can think, “Yes, yes, lucky you with perfect parents and a perfect childhood” (although I do feel pretty lucky). I am who I am at 40 because of who they are. Now that I’m a parent, I appreciate this, and them, so much more intensely.
Here are a few of the gifts they gave me:
1. Endless support. Whatever path I wanted to take, my parents have always been my biggest supporters. Knowing someone is there for me and believes in me enough to give their support gives me confidence to take risks in life.
2. Freedom to make my own decisions. This is another one that baffles me – my parents would keep their mouths shut and let me make my own decisions. I remember calling my mom from college, sobbing that so-and-so broke up with me, and hearing her say, “Thank God! We all thought…” Never would they tell me their true feelings while I was dating the person – only after. You have to have a lot of self-control as a parent to see your child forge ahead with something you know is wrong for them, but to let them figure it out. (I imagine if I were poised to do something really ill-advised they’d have spoken up.)
3. Freedom to explore. They did not object when I wanted to go to college far from home, or when I wanted to try something that wasn’t in my career path up to that point. I felt free to try anything new. When my dad was in his 50s, his company decided to send an employee to law school. He applied and was chosen, and changed careers totally. While I was in college, he was in law school. This made an impression on me.
4. Problem-solving brain wiring. If any problem came up, there was a brainstorm about how to solve it. No problem was ever allowed to be something to just vent about – they immediately moved on to problem solving mode. This was comforting to me. When I’d feel like things were overwhelming, they were always there forming some strategy to deal with it.
5. Being lazy is not an option. If an unpleasant task came up, my parents would just say, “Well, it has to be done.” They went the whole way with any task – they would see it through to the end, no matter how tedious, no matter how exhausted they were. I absorbed this, so now most of the time my brain automatically skips over the angry phase where you ask yourself “Seriously? I seriously have to do THIS?”
6. Responsibility. From an early age, they gave me a lot of responsibilities. I grumbled about most of them, but I’m glad they did it. I see how my son loves his “important jobs” and how helping out and accomplishing something creates good feelings in kids.
7. Generosity. My parents have always erred on the side of being too generous. I see now how rare a trait this is. My business partner Shannon is like this – this is part of why I love her. Although, taken to an extreme, it can lead to giving so much of yourself that there isn’t enough left to take care of your own needs, in general we need more of this. A lot more of it.
Thanks, Mom & Dad, for these 40 years. I love you.