Conversations With My Kids: Fear

It hits me, on occasion.

What, you ask? That I am nearing the end of my motherhood journey… Or at least in the conventional understanding and/or definition of the term.

Who is a mother? What does she do? She’s someone:
Who wipes your nose
Who cooks/provides your meals
Who taxis you from one venue to the next…

Of course, I know that one never stops being a mother just because one’s child attains legal adulthood or full self-sufficiency (Your kids don’t just evaporate at 18!), but it’s because the definition of motherhood is so narrow that many women who have invested so much of themselves into the enterprise feel adrift – unmoored – when their children no longer require their assistance to thrive within that narrow scope. My eldest will be 17 in December and the youngest only turned 11 in June, so I have a while to go before I have to confront those feelings fully; but I can see them looming on the horizon.

I haven’t written much on the idea, but I today I’d tell any new parent who will listen to enjoy the years of diaper changes, temper tantrums and incessant requests to, “Watch me! Look what I can do!”. As a weary, constantly harried new mom, I was given often given the same advice and did not appreciate it – not one iota – at the time. the recommendation that I revel in my own self-inflicted oppression felt disrespectful.

I couldn’t wait for my children to become self-sufficient. I pushed them towards it, trying to get them accustomed to as much as they could do on their own as possible. And now that we have crossed those defining milestones like shoe-string tying and egg frying, I am left wondering if I am up for the next phase of my mothering duties. My kids’ needs are far more cerebral and less physical these days…and I wonder if I have done enough self-improvement, development and knowledge expansion to give them the type of counsel they need to successfully navigate these new churning and uncharted waters of adolescence and young adulthood. A cup of coffee and the occasional green smoothie was all the fuel I needed to carry out the duties of a “good and involved mother”, but now the requisite instruments for success in this trade are the snark of Tony Stark, the wizardry of Dr. Strange and the piercing gaze of Sauron with which to divine what’s really goin’ down in Hobbit Town.

Self-portrait of me, glaring magically and Cumberbatched-ly into my children’s future. Anticipating. Prepared. Sorceress-ly.

Which brings me to the point of today’s topic on fear.

Like many parents, the nature of the time I have been spending with my children has changed drastically. The pandemic has left many of our services either limited or forever shuttered, which means that kids have fewer opportunities to participate in the type of events that would have me chauffeuring them from one venue to the next. Our conversations in those moments racing between red lights were superficial. Did you bring your water bottle? Wait for me in the lobby. Don’t you think you’ll be cold wearing that? Now that we don’t have the distraction of constantly shuttling ourselves to and from locations at breakneck speed, our discourse is a lot more thoughtful. It’s both exhilarating and scary, because my children demand and expect a level of honesty from me that my previous mode of parenting rendered unnecessary. This goes both ways. Now that we are all more present, they are bringing issues and thoughts to me that they would have either previously ignored or kept hidden. Now, my household has a lot more time to talk about these thoughts and over the weeks since I’ve been back from the US, the conversations have given me interesting insights into the kids’ minds.

“I don’t think I want to go to art school,” my eldest announced.

Inner me: Auntie, if you don’t keep quiet and face your future eh?
This is the retort Traditional African Mum that was ready to hurl at her in the face of this declaration. It’s reflexive. But New African Mum is unlearning to relearn to what-what-what-etc-etc. So instead I asked:

“What has lead you to this decision? What’s changed?”
“Well,” she started slowly, “my teacher said she went to art school – and she told me that it’s one of the most judgmental environments she’s ever been in. She said it was so bad that she switched her major to photography.”
“I see. Anything else?”

I knew, of course, that there was nothing else. The threat of being judged was the point of this sudden about face. My daughter has wanted to be one thing for as long as I can remember. Well, two If I’m being honest. From birth to age 6, she and I would cuddle watch America’s Next Top Model with almost religious fervor. This ignited a desire for a career in modeling and to eventually “live in a hotel”. Those fantasies have since been abandoned for something a little more pragmatic, but just as exciting. She wants to be an animator and has done for the last eight years. The whole family has invested itself in this dream. Her uncle – an illustrator himself – bought her a SurfacePro. I’m constantly buying art supplies so that she can work on her freehand. Her art community consistently gives her strong encouragement and critical feedback. Two years ago at age 14, she even picked out a school (Ringling College of Art and Design) and has been building her portfolio to meet their entrance requirements.

Inner me: Nah mehn. You want to throw away years of love and devotion over hearsay? Have you no manners or decorum?!

“So…what do you want to do instead?”
“I think I might switch my major to photography too…”

The suggestion was made with the enthusiasm of Eeyore accepting an invitation to frolic through a glen in the Hundred Acre Wood on a sunny spring day. She’d go, but don’t expect her to actually enjoy it. This was one of those moments when I had to make a choice about whether or not to stick to my beliefs about child-rearing and choices. I could come in like a raging bull in a china shop and tell her what to do, or I could – as my gentle parent belief system dictated – leave it to her to make her own decision.

Well; y’all can just call me Ferdinand. My response was a hot-gentle-mess.

“That’s not what you want to do,” I half-growled, half-sang between clenched teeth. “You’re whole life, there have only been a few things that you’ve been passionate about as a career or lifestyle, and photography ain’t one of them.”
Inner me: Careful, careful, don’t crush the ego…
“Yeah, but I don’t like the idea of some teacher or professor whatever telling me I’ll never be good enough after I put so much effort into my work!”
Inner me: Ah. Do you know how may mad people in this world are waiting to tell you you’ll never be good enough? The professor will even be doing you a favor by preparing you for di pain…
“You can’t plan your whole future based on someone you haven’t even met yet at a school you haven’t even applied to yet. I wouldn’t advise it. And besides, every person in our lives has a part to play in this revolving cliche known as ‘The Human Experience’. Your unnamed professor is just one of them.

I then went to describe the teacher’s pet who eventually becomes the office snitch. The slacker in class who eventually becomes a manager (s/he uses their social capital to ascend the corporate ladder, resting on the work efforts of others and then taking credit for the results).

“And yes, the professor who’s job it is to tell you how much you suck at something your passionate about. It will either demoralize and destroy you or push you to do your best. This guy that you’ve created in your head based off your teacher’s college experience is just another stereotypical character in your life’s stage play. You get to decide what kind of power s/he has…But I beg you; don’t let fear steer your future.”

Five-to-fifteen seconds of internal reflection later and:

“Yeah. You’re right. That makes sense.”

Inner me, inner patting of the back: You did good, china shop bovine

What about you, Dear Reader? Have you ever let fear guide your decision-making? Has someone else’s failure/discomfort steered you away from your calling, heart’s desire or passion? How did you redeem the time, if at all? The reason I can speak so earnestly to my daughter about Boogeymen and Self-sabotage is because I spent the first half of my own life under the grip of the first and committed to the second. I have only recently learned how to take my power back…and more importantly, forgiving myself for allowing phantom fears to alter my destiny.
This is a safe space to discuss!