Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Khalil Gibran “On Children” in The Prophet
My divorce made me a better parent. So often people avoid divorce “for the sake of the children”, and truly each couple must decide what’s best for their children on their own. For me, the decision to separate forced a continued commitment to relinquish control in a way that has helped me to curtail my usual desires to protect all of those around me from conflict and discomfort.
When we decided to divorce, my daughter had just turned two. I had to wean her to move out. She was pissed (for a time). I was lost (for much longer). It was (and still is occasionally) painful. My ex-husband expressed a deep desire at the time of our “conscious uncoupling” to spend as much time with the children as possible. I knew darn well that they were as much his as mine. Or rather I leaned into that excerpt from The Prophetand remembered that “though they belong with you, they belong not to you.” Of course. And also, love takes logic and hides it in plain sight.
The market crashed in 2008 when I was pregnant with my daughter, and in order to maximize my income and minimize child care costs, I worked before and after my partner’s 9-5 job and on the weekends. As such, I knew that he was more than capable of handling those trickiest of morning and evening transitions. And why wouldn’t he have that capacity? In general, and certainly in parenting, we handle what we must. We only learn the depths of our potential by being forced to excavate the darkness of the unknown.
I’d been taught to distrust the unknown – to avoid it, sidestep and skate around it. Take the familiar path, stay with (the illusion of) certainty. I’d been born into a family where, from the outside, it seemed as though just staying the course would provide prosperity. I understood my place on this privileged path as best I could. My mother grew up in a struggling blue-collar family where her mother once worked the night shift after carrying for the children all day so my grandfather could work more traditional hours. She made sure that I appreciated the abundance into which I’d been born. “You are part of the 1%,” she reminded me, do not take it for granted.
This lesson has been key to shaping who I am, but it also somehow managed to saddle me with a deep-seated fear that anything good or precious could be snatched in an instant. I don’t know why I developed this anxiety, but I can surmise that panic that comes from being over-protected. In mainstream American society, we have figured out how to find shelter from storms, discover cures for illness, bring exotic foods to our local superstores, conjure up answers to the most mundane of questions in the blink of an eye. We are so very spoiled in our ability to satiate the need to know. We feel we should, and in some cases do, know everything. Our political discourse revolves around a mind-numbing vortex of dueling banjos: “I know everything, and you know nothing.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
This is the era that brought us helicopter parenting and a generation of “excellent sheep*,” children who move in the direction they’ve been taught to move with very little connection to why or how. Surely Gibran couldn’t have imagined the high speeds of change we experience now when he wrote, “For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.” My grandparents lived through the great depression, and as my parents were born toward the end of the second world war, they were raised to go forth and live beyond the desperation of those periods.
My generation (X) came of age in the abundance of the 80s under the threat of nuclear war. Through this time, our most obvious threats were external – certainly in white middle class families. My children have come of age in a time when the most serious day-to-day threat comes from within. School shootings have become the norm. Teens and adults stalk and harass their fellow humans to the point of suicide through technologies that have done as much to bring us together as to organize efforts to drive us apart. Given the swift shift in our society, it’s no wonder that parents struggle to over-protect even at the cost of our children’s independence and self-sufficiency – especially when things otherwise are so very comfortable and controllable.
I’m a firm supporter of science across the board. I am grateful for medical advances and air conditioning and avocados in the Mid-Atlantic and the ability to google search the name of that actor in that movie that is just on the tip of my tongue. But I do think that all of this technological progress has given us a sick sense of entitlement. We feel it is our right to know, to be protected at all times and all costs. When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, I had a friend who went to school and signed out her children from a deep need to keep them close. I get it, but I remember questioning the beast that it feeds. Anxiety is an epidemic, and it spreads quickly through limited and brief contact.
When I decided to get a divorce, I committed to relinquish care of my daughter, just two, and my son, a wise old six-years of age, 50% of the time. I made this decision based on the awareness that my children are not possessions, but individual people from the moment they leave the womb. Sure, I would prefer to have them with me all of the time, but they deserved the opportunity to make a home with their father, to feel as much at home with him as with me. So many children do not have the gift of two parents who both want to be as involved as possible. Some have parents who, despite what they want, may not be able to be as present. In making this incredibly painful decision, I also liberated myself from this burden to protect and control my children like a hawk – or a helicopter.
Do I still have moments of irrational emotion that undermine my ability to think clearly? Heck yeah. I always will. But because I can’t control – or even know – what goes on at my children’s father’s house, I’ve had to keep a clear perspective on my place in their lives. When we have much to protect, every small threat seems huge. And there is arguable nothing more precious, more worth protecting, than the most innocent among us – especially those who have landed directly in our care. But as Gibran points out, as parents we are the bow, NOT the archer. The archer, that power than regardless of all of our advances we cannot hope to hold or even understand but rather respect and cherish, must be trusted to guide us into the unknown.
To feel all of the responsibility for our children is to be crushed by the weight of a thousand mountains, to attempt to gather all of the grains of sand that blow by in a breeze on the beach, to suffer insanity at every step. I recently exchanged text messages with a friend, in which we both admitted a fear of flying as it relates to leaving our children as that, in turn, relates to a delusional need to control. But ultimately, I know that I must test my trust to feel its strength. And if the plane crashes, as Paul Williams says, “Better luck next life.” Harsh but true. I’d be back to the detachment of formlessness, and my children would persevere - as children do, as humans do, as mother nature does.
I can sit watch over my children like a mother hen and continue to feed the fiction that I can control their lives and my own, or I can live a life that teaches them that there are some, or rather many, or perhaps most things that we cannot control. In noticing that which we cannot control, only then do we empower ourselves to take the reins and responsibility for that which we can control. As a society, I think that’s where we need to make some headway and find some balance.
Another big adult lesson that I’ve learned through parenting is that I will always be learning and growing. And through my divorce, my unwillingness to present a façade of perfectness over the presence of disfunction, my children have seen that their parents are imperfect people who strive to be better, kinder and more aware even under difficult circumstances. Gibran suggests that parents must be the “bow that is stable”. The word stable is defined as something that is “not likely to be overturned”. The big cable stayed bridge in my hometown has stability only through its ability to give with storms, to bounce as big trucks barrel across its spans. If I attempt to be so fixed and finished that I am unable to go with that flow, then I crack under the pressure and the poundage. So I ask for grace as I sway, and I “strive to be like (my children)”, to be resilient and brilliant and brave in the face of so much newness.
I don’t know what kind of parent I’d be if I hadn’t surrendered half of the time I could have with my children. I know that there are still days when I weep as they walk away. But I also know that I am a better parent, that I have a clarity of conscience and a deeper connection to that invisible but palpable network of support – both human and divine – as a result.
“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
This line, every time, tugs at the wound left in my chest from the splitting of my heart at the instant my first child was born. It serves as a solemn reminder that they are already beyond us as soon as they are born. That they “come through us but not from us”. The life lessons that I’ve learned through them have to be far greater than anything I’ve taught them – although I am still striving to recognize that these things cannot be measured or scored. For now, I take solace in having learned that the steps that seem the safest can lead to the greatest suffering, and that those that seem the most unconventional can bring a welcome sense of normalcy and sanity. The biggest failures in my life have truly taught me more about myself and have proven to be more productive than I could’ve ever known.
Who knows what my children will have learned looking back? I know that they have each at different times in their young lives questioned why their father and I couldn’t have stayed married. But as my now nine-year-old, seven years beyond the separation, said recently, “That was when I was younger, and I’ve gotten over all of that.” She’s happy to have the extra people in her life who love her. She’s learned in some small way that sometimes things you don’t think you’d choose bring you what you never knew you always wanted.
Our life is not without its challenges, but no life is. Children have their own riddles to solve as they soar into the unknown of their adventures in this world. While I can teach mine that they can avoid much unnecessary suffering, they will not live a full life without experiencing pain and loss and the darkness of the unknown. How else will they recognize joy and abundance and the depth of their own potential? We continue to grow together, and for that, I am eternally grateful. All of our lives, within our families and our communities and beyond, are inextricably linked. We are all tied up in each other. We cannot live without taking and giving and harming and healing. But we can learn to see when we must give in to what is beyond our control, so we can summon the strength to serve fully and intentionally where we can, and how we to do it all with a little more awareness and compassion.
*Excellent Sheep is a book by William Deresiewicz.