You know you are a grown-up parent when you hear the ping of new mail downloading in your phone’s inbox as you land in a new city, swipe to check and it turns out to be your child, asking you questions about her homework and telling you she loves you with the help of the caps lock key, a few exclamation marks and two emoticons. Growing up is rewarding.
You know you have grown up as a parent when your phone downloads messages after hours of being out of signal range in the field and you read a message that informs you that back home, two children are sick and could not go to school as you had planned for them. You check to see if your phone is on silent and put it back in your bag, going back to the work that has brought you here. You don’t tell anyone around you that you are a little bit of a changed person after reading that message. Growing up demands restraint.
You know you have crossed a milestone in your family when you can return home with your children and just curl up to nap before you do anything else. They are not babies any more, and you can be one every now and then. There might even be sandwiches for you when you wake up.
You know times have changed when your children lower their voice to talk to each other in the back of the car because they are trying to protect your ears from things you are not ready to deal with yet.
You know you have grown up as a parent when you realize in the middle of an argument with your child that you may be accurate, but she is more right. You know that you need to reconfigure your vocabulary to be able to tell her this. You need to pamper your own hurt ego later and pat it to sleep.
Our 13-year-old daughter, Sahar, asked me a question at the dining table in the middle of a family holiday at my husband’s ancestral home. The answer to that question was really just patriarchy. I didn’t know what to say to her except that what happens is unjust and wrong and it needs to change but I am not going to do anything to change it today. In response to a simple question, I felt a burden of expectations that frustrated me and the sting of disappointment with myself.
I looked at her with pain on my face, not wanting to say either the truth or to lie to her. She looked back at me as if she understood.
“I don’t want you to inherit my bitterness and anger,” I said to her.
She nodded. They don’t like my bitterness. They often correct me when I make sweeping generalizations about boys and girls who are their peers. They don’t validate me when I sound exasperated about their father.
“Maybe I should drop my bitterness and keep the anger,” I said.
“Yes, mamma,” she said. “Keep the anger. Anger is necessary. It’s useful to do things with.”
You know you have grown up as a parent when you are able to accept the wisdom and support of your children. When you are able to accept that you have as much to learn from being around your children as you once assumed you had to teach them.
After years of struggling to get into the grown-up role of a parent, you realize at one stage that you know too much, and it isn’t of much use to your children. We have no idea what they will bring to the situation when they confront the conflicts that we may be desperate to protect them from. We need to take days and months off to face up to how much our advice is tinged with our own fears. Fears that are fed by our own historical experiences, some real and many imagined. There’s no way some of us will stop to reflect unless we are seriously challenged and even defeated.
So really, after a certain stage, good parenting requires far less effort and tangible work. It requires a healthy, steady everyday dose of self-parenting. Trust me, it can be as exasperating and rewarding to shift focus to one’s own inner brat of a child.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar. Read Natasha’s previous Mint Lounge columns here
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org