Monday, October 16, 2023

I Told You So

My daughter is a single mom. Whether she wants it or not, she's got parents, step-parents, grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunties, and play-aunties giving her advice about how to navigate this phase of life. Sometimes she follows that advice, and sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes the advice she gets from one learned elder differs greatly from what the others tell her. Sometimes she listens to me, and sometimes she chooses the counsel of people I disagree with. And sometimes, she throws out everyone's wisdom and follows her own path.

Sometimes when she rejects my advice, always graciously, of course, is easy for me to get judgmental and annoyed with her. How could she fail to see the vastness of my experience, the superiority of my insight? At least that's what I tell myself. When she takes that road less traveled by and finds nothing but thorns and dead ends, I'm always there to guide her back and provide her the love and support to keep pushing forward.

But that little voice inside.

I can't help it. That little, insidious voice inside me wants to say it, or at least to make her know it without me saying it. I told you so. You should have listened to me. If you had just taken my sage advice, you wouldn't be in this mess.

But I'm learning to shout down that voice. I'm learning that my daughter might be right for questioning my judgment sometimes, that her situation is different from mine, and that what worked for me might not work for her, or just might not be attainable at the moment. After all, I was married to her mother for fourteen years. As far as I knew it at the time, I was doing everything right, everything the elders told me to do to be a good parent, to have a good marriage. Stayed in the church, check. Married Christian, check. Wait until marriage, difficult, but check. Be ambitious at work and a leader at home, double check. And then after fourteen years of ticking all the right boxes, reading all the right books, and listening to all the right people, I ended up a divorced single parent, exactly where she is now. On second thought, not exactly where she is, because while I was older, degreed, with more earning potential, I had fewer years ahead of me and so much more baggage to unpack and lessons to unlearn. So much less potential, in a way.

And after looking around with those older eyes, that unpacked heart, and a willingness to really see, I discovered that a lot of the people I counted on - the books, the elders, the experts, the play-aunties - didn't know what they were talking about half the time. I saw marriages that looked polished and perfect that were really cold and sometimes miserable when you peeked through the cracks. I saw parents who looked like geniuses with dutiful kids, only to see those same kids flee their homes to run amok in the far country like prodigal sons. And I saw that everybody is doing their best.

My daughter became a mother way too young, but now she's at the age I was when I first became a father. Looking back, I can't say I knew any more about parenting, or that I did a better job. Just about every parent I talk to about these matters has regrets, things they wish they had known, things they wish they had done better, including me. And just about every child I talk to has grievances against their parents, hurts and resentments that they have either reconciled and forgiven or still hurt over, including me. Including my own kids.

But the thing about having much older and much younger kids is that they don't all have the same parents. The older ones joke about how the littles have it so good, how the littles get to do stuff and have stuff that the older ones begged for, how they have a whole different home life than they remember. And they're not wrong. I'm still making mistakes, still learning the craft, and still hoping for grace and forgiveness, even as I grow and improve as a parent. More than that, I'm still giving advice to my older kids as they're making decisions about their relationships and their own kids.

Still advising, but not judging.

Because while my life is much better now, and, hopefully, so are my parenting skills, most of what I know now I've earned with many failures and years of painful setbacks. The older kids lived through it with me, but there's so much we don't let our children see, so much we don't let them know about what's going on with us. There's so much that we ourselves don't understand about why we parent the way we do, why we listen to one voice and reject another, so how can we teach that to anyone?

In the end, my hope is that my advice is true, because it's certainly well-intended. I also hope that all the elders in my kids life, from the grandparents to the play-aunties, are not only insightful but honest with them, and that my kids listen to the right ones at the right times, even if the right one isn't me. Last, I hope they forgive us all.