What you hope you do and don’t do for — or to — your kids

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across two insightful paragraphs in books — in a novella  and a memoir — that sum up ways that we moms hope to help — and not hurt — our kids.  Or maybe the quotes suggest 1) the best you can ever hope for in helping  your child get on with life 2) what you hope to avoid if at all possible.

The first quote comes from Voices from the Moon, a novella by one of my favorite writers, the late great Andre Dubus — best known for his short story “The Killings” which was adapted into a multi-Academy Award-nominated 2001 film In the Bedroom.

Voices from the Moon painfully and beautifully depicts a family in disintegration: Patriarch Greg Stowe is divorcing his wife, Joan, while eldest son Larry is divorcing his dancer wife, Brenda. And now, Greg and Brenda are in love and planning to get married, leaving Larry, Joan, and the other Stowe children, adult daughter Carol and young son Richie to deal with the fall-out. On the verge of adolescence, Richie tries to make sense of these events by seeking solace in the rituals of the Catholic Church.

At one point, Joan gets a visit from her oldest son Larry. She has managed to find some degree of contentment living in a small spartan apartment and working as a waitress in a Hungarian restaurant in their small Massachusetts town. Over vodka tonics in the bar after closing time, mother and son talk. Larry tells his mother that he’s going “fucking nuts” over losing his wife and now his father’s betrayal. Joan first talks encouragingly about his potential career as an actor and dancer. Then, she predicts, matter-of-factly, that the time will come when he will forgive his father. Life will go on, she explains and the pain he feels now will be nothing more than a “twitch.” And here’s Quote 1, about the best we moms can hope for in guiding our kids:

He nodded, and she saw, so joyfully that she had to force her words to be slow and calm, that he was listening, and how many times had she ever been able to tell one of her children something she knew, and to help the child? So much of motherhood was casting lines to children beyond reach, that she could count with less than two digits the times their hands had clutched the rope and pulled.

Next comes this cautionary paragraph from Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. Writer Daniel Smith painstakingly dissects his own paralyzing and mind-wrenching bouts of anxiety.  Early in the book, and with the help of his therapist mother, who struggled with her own panic attacks, he is able to trace the roots of his own condition:

A child is a sensitive instrument. You can hide the factual truth from a child but you can’t blanket influence. Your agitation will out, and over time it will mold your child’s temperament as surely as water wears at rock. It was not until I was nearly twenty, deep into my own way with anxiety, that my mother spoke to me explicitly about her anxiety and the grief it caused her. But by that time she was essentially talking to herself. I’d become her. It wasn’t merely genetics. It was the million little signals: the jolting movements, the curious fears, the subtle avoidances, the panic behind the eyes, the terror behind the hugs, the tremor in the caresses. It was the monkey. A child registers who’s raising him. 

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