Tuesday, May 02, 2006

passages and protections

Passover was a moveable feast this year, replete with family. Our seders were no more engaging than they've been previously, but were remarkable in that this was the first year that not only was my eldest able to recite the four questions, he actually did. With a certain gusto, no less. More, his little brother was so excited that he joined our (usually crowd-shy) eldest in singing the four questions at the community seder. It was a sweet, sweet moment, if somewhat cacophonous.

After the seder, we joined yet more family in Israel. This tends to produce a rather mixed reaction from the Mama, as my head tries to first implode from the family politics and then relax into warm gooey happiness from the wonder and marvel that are my cousins.

There is a certain cost-benefit ratio that is engaged when a person does not live in the same city, nay state, as her family. On the one hand, there is a lot of breathing space between grown progeny and parent, sibling and sibling. On the other hand, distance can cause the relationship to stall rather than evolve, leading issues to be difficult to resolve. (Which is probably why one of my brothers still pokes me in the ribs, something he's been doing to irritate since we were both pre-adolescent. Sigh.) Cessation of negotiations is more likely, for example, than a resolution.

Living at a distance is an emotional calculus that is highly personal. For me, this works. Sometimes. Face to face with my family on this trip, I was finally able to shut out the usual recitation of how much we miss by living hours away, and to actually see. However protective of my sanity, our brief visits are deceptive in that they offer me only snapshots of my family's life. This leaves me, of course, sadly equipped for understanding them - and of course, my favority activity: judging them. But it works both ways, and I'm not certain that they understand that.

Reliably, with each visit a certain set of topics are raised. First, the question of my rather nebulous future. Will I be a brain or a womb? Second, the matter of our lifestyle - specifically, the location thereof. A new Target has opened in the familial neighborhood, I am informed. Ah. Third, the question of our parenting style. This question is often offered with some sort of disclaimer ('not wishing to offend, but...'), and the poor schlub asking the question may vary, but it's always asked. This year's variant was an old favorite: do we consider ourselves to be overprotective?

The implication, of course, is that the questioner thinks that we are overprotective. Ah, well, he'd not be the first to ask. The second implication, however, is that the questioner understands the kind of parenting we do or might choose to do, and it is from this understanding that he poses the question. And that, I think, is where we run into difficulty.

The answer is, sadly, that some members of our family have a rather good idea of the kind of parenting that we do, while others, well, not. It's a parenting that is more watchful (don't touch the nutshells in the sandbox, honey!), a bit more careful (really, I'd rather that you didn't slide down the slide head-first...), but for all of that, as nuanced and thoughtful as we can make it. It comes with certain social risks, as my partner and I are usually the adult watching the random assembled children in an area - largely because we would be there anyway, keeping a quiet eye on our own kid. (Okay, so it's usually my partner.) And with that sometimes comes the occasional bit of funky backlash, as another parent sometimes feels guilty or even uncomfortable that we are keeping a parental eye cocked while they are elsewhere. Are we commenting on their parenting style by providing this parental presence? Nope. (Not where they can hear us, anyway.)

The simple truth is that a child's needs should shape a parent's approach. A child who has certain risks and medical needs comes with more supervision until he grows in comprehension and personal responsibility. I trust my son not to jump down the stairs - he's tried it and knows what the results will be. I don't trust him not to pick up nutshells out of curiosity, and I'm not willing to let him learn that lesson the hard way. And I'm honest with myself about the effects of peer pressure. If the other kids choose to do something that will get them hurt, he will probably do it to. When (not if) that happens, I need to be on hand to decide whether he can afford that particular lesson. Nor do I trust the children around him to have the presence of mind to realize when he needs help. Nor, mind you, should the children be burdened with that responsibility - a responsibility that adults have sensibly refused, from time to time.

So, are we overprotective? I think my partner's answer was perfect: what do you consider protective? It's not a question that this person is equipped to answer, frankly - he knows far too little of what the issues are, and, as the parent of two healthy children, he simply doesn't know what's at stake. (Nor, mind you, does he read this blog. Harrumph.) There are honest difficulties that attend a healthy child. There are real terrors, true traumas. I understand and relate to these issues - but they are separate from the issues that attend the raising and loving of a child with a chronic illness. Not lesser, mind you, just separate. The anxiety I felt about listening to our baby's croupy wheezing is not in the same category as the experience of managing a possible brain bleed for his elder brother. Or to keep the comparison in the same in the same bodily system, it's not the same as managing anaphylaxis for his elder brother. They are simply separate, different. Not comparable.

As the parent of first a medically complex child, I find myself grappling with the effort of learning to parent a far simpler one. It is a suprisingly different skill set. With a chronic diagnosis comes an on-going source of concern and watchfulness. Is the cough an allergic issue? a hematological one? The risks are greater, but the answers are often more easily come by. A 'normal' child comes with fewer medical textbooks, but more open questions. Why is he running a 104 F temperature? I dunno. What's that rash? That wheeze? Probably nothing. It'll pass. Just wait it out, while the nervous anxiey burns cute little patterns in your stomach lining. Our hematologist told us that until she had children, she didn't appreciate just how hard it was to wait through the 7-10 day viral rampage. As a medical professional, she knew that a kid with a minor illness would be just fine in the end. As a parent, she came to realize just how worrying and stressful that illness could be. It's tough.

Baby got a fever? Oh, I do know how it is. A sick child is a miserable bundle of pathos who will spread their misery around to their exhausted parents. It sucks. Kid blue and unresponsive? I know the bone-deep chill of that fear. And the loss of a child? That is an unthinkable sorrow I've only seen. There are categories for parenting: the simple (but never easy), the complex and the not-supposed-to-happen. I know two of those categories, and have tried to relate to someone who has parented in the third. These are gaps that can only be bridged by love, time, effort. By respect for the other person and their experiences, their choices. By a real willingness to listen.

But not with snapshots.


Anonymous said...

are you saying that you are a superior parent because your kid's sick?

mama o' the matrices said...

Sigh. It just figures that the one comment I get on this post would be asking *that* question.

Okay, Anon. This is a harder question than I can answer without filling up the comments section. Let me take this out to a post.