Just after giving birth to my first child, I reconnected with an old primary school friend who had just found out that she too was pregnant. This serendipitous moment sparked a deeper connection between us as we began to share our expectations, anxieties, and memories over Facebook Messenger in a style reminiscent of the back and forth correspondence in You Got Mail.
I find myself carving out time to sit down with tea or finding a quiet moment while in transit to read through detailed anecdotal, humorous, and nostalgic narratives about the personal journey my friend was and is on during what is one of the most momentous times of a woman’s life: growing a life.
One of the many prominent and poignant matters of life and love we ponder over is, of course, our own childhoods, our upbringing, and what we hope and plan our approach will be to parenthood. With each digital mail received, my distant friend who is separated from me by thousands of miles of land and ocean leaves with me deep impressions about a plethora of issues I never knew would be at the forefront of my mind.
All parents, at one point or another, speak about the notion of doing right in the areas where perhaps our parents went wrong; to provide in ways we were not provided for, not necessarily materially but emotionally, physically, and by way of offering an environment that fulfills, educates, and nurtures. One of my major concerns is the ability to allow my son to exercise autonomy. But can our marked efforts to do better in what we believe are key areas in our child’s lives create deficits in others?
I have always felt that I wasn’t given enough autonomy over situations and personal decisions; to have a voice that determined some of the direction I wished to go in, and that was listened to. The somewhat traditional views of my family meant that there was an innate authoritative position that belonged to the parent, and the child should and would be directed rather than allowed to self-determine in areas where it would have been safe enough for them make their own decisions– or at least be given options one could have free rein to select from.
This in turn has already manifested in me an intentional and purposeful stance on giving my son choice, a voice, and much more freedom than I was ever given. However, what deficit might I be creating in areas where a ‘no’ will protect him, as well as providing security and emotional stability in the fact that I as a parent care enough to confront, intervene, and put into place the boundaries that all kids need? When and where is the right time to take away choice? When and where is your voice the final one? Balance is everything.
I have spoken to a number of adults who in their childhood were given more freedom than a child is usually permitted to exercise in their lives, and have heard time and again that their perceived freedom of choice actually translated into abandonment or a feeling that their parents did not care. The burden of choice, and what it is to make decisions for yourself when you don’t necessarily have the tools to do so meant that for some, their autonomy was not a gift but a weight.
The “hands-off” approach to parenting in some scenarios can instill a sense of responsibility, accountability, and freedom, but can also leave a child pining for attention and seeking out destructive ways to be seen and cared for in a more intentional way. This made me think about old tropes regarding parenting, about embracing the idea that sometimes our voice needs to be the overriding factor in our children’s lives and that this, in fact, can be the purest way of showing love and affection.
Autonomy, I guess, can be given in small but significant ways that help our kids develop their characters and voices. Small decisions: food options, what to wear on a Saturday morning, what activity to participate in after school (or whether to have an extra-curricular activity at all), are all ways a parent can create balance and avoid emotional deficits in a child’s life.