For most of us, parenting is a lifelong lesson in having healthy self-esteem. We are constantly questioning our strategies and tactics, getting down on ourselves when things go sideways, feeling raw about our fundamental worthiness to shepherd a helpless little child into functioning adulthood.
Some of us face additional challenges. Being poor means having fewer resources – financial, social, and otherwise – for a task that seems to always require more. Special needs of many types make for extra levels of difficulties, panics, and preparations, to say nothing of the weariness of dealing with others who are ignorant, insensitive, or downright cruel. Adoption, such as what we have gone through, comes with it its own challenges, from having to jump through extra hoops to prove you can be a parent to dealing with additional social and cultural nuances so that your children can be all they were born to be.
Which is why I think it feels so good to give and receive affirmation to and from other parents. Whether it is a “love” on Facebook, a knowing guffaw while comparing bedtime horror stories, or a kind handwritten note sent across many miles, we desperately need to receive such life-giving care and so we are heartened when we receive it and take every opportunity to give it freely.
Affirmation is always life-giving. But the opposite of affirmation, opposition, is not always life-altering. Affirmation builds us up. But opposition does not have to tear us down.
Sometimes non-affirming words, even if given inartfully, are the tough love we need. There’s a difference between every child is unique and every parent knows what’s best for their child, versus we always make good choices and never need correction. For sure, sometimes we need to learn the hard way. But sometimes we need to be told that we’re wrong, that we’re going in the absolute wrong direction, and need to do an about-face. That kind of opposition does not have to tear us down, and in fact can be a precious part of building us up.
But that’s easy to envision. Of course we need to be corrected every once in a while, and thanks be to those who are willing to say “I disagree with what how you’re looking at this.” But some opposition is deeper and is thus harder to overcome. Family expectations, cultural mores, and religious upbringing fall into this category. No matter how independent we are in our thinking and life choices, this kind of opposition weighs heavily on us, because it gets to the core of what we believe is right and wrong.
It is wrong to blindly subscribe to a “I am the captain of my own ship” approach to life, that scoffs at any sort of outside code that would seek to bind us from freely making whatever choices come to mind. This can be a fairly American way of thinking but is not necessarily the wisest way forward for a parent. Family, culture, and religion leave incredibly important imprints on who we are and how we should live, and there is a lot of good in that. But those influences do not always reconcile with each other or with what we consider to be what’s best for ourselves and our families.
Without getting too personal, I can say that I have had to rethink all three of those things as I consider how to take care of myself and my family. As I have encountered opposition of all kinds – whether and how to add to our family, whether and how to adopt (and then to adopt outside of my race), what sorts of parenting approaches to take in certain situations – I have had to examine what of my familial, cultural, and religious foundations are worth hewing to and what need to be ignored.
I am shaped by a myriad of forces. Some are in-born: not long after Amy and I first met, she described me as someone who, if I was told to go right, would immediately go left to see what that was like. Some are faith-based: I am not afraid to do what I think is the right thing, regardless of the cost, because I worship a Savior who did the ultimate right thing and as a result paid the ultimate cost. And some are environmental: Amy and my decision to adopt an African-American baby (and, hopefully, another) was moved in part by the contemporary experience of blacks in America.
Some of this, too, boils down to being a parent, and getting older, in that I care less what others will think of me or if they will be disappointed in me or angry at me, and I care more about being spent in the service of taking care of my family. Not being liked and being disagreed with isn’t pleasant for anyone, but as parents it will invariably happen. Whether we allow it to alter our lives in detrimental ways is entirely up to us.