When my older daughter turned 9 this year, halfway to legal adulthood, I started thinking about what it was I wanted to accomplish in my “second term” as her mother. While I recognize that I’m not the commander-in-chief of the free world, I still think I too can have a legacy. I want my work as her mother to go beyond the accomplishment of having fed and clothed her for 18 years. I want the things I’ve done to have been meaningful. So in the next 9 years, I’m asking, what are my goals? What big achievements are left for me as a parent? I taught her how to talk, walk, eat with utensils, and negotiate with terrorists (i.e. her sister). What else does she need to learn from me in this time before she enters the adult world?
Thinking about your legacy is not an exercise in narcissism, it’s an exercise in discovering what matters.
Now some would argue (my husband, largely) that our work is mostly done. Nell is pretty much formed already and our job is to just sit back and make sure that she stays on the path we’ve set her on with all our book reading, allowance giving, and sideline soccer cheering. We’re lame ducks now, he argues. Sure, maybe we’ll get a chance to grant some lesson-teaching presidential pardons for her inevitable adolescent misdeeds, but the die determining the person she will become has already been cast.
Experts tell us that how we parent pre-teens and teens is as important as all the butt wiping, bike riding, folk tune teaching we’ve been doing up until now. That, while we’ve laid the groundwork for our parental legacy, there is much work still to be done. Legally, we’re still responsible for her anyway, right? So we might as well stay in the game and be useful.
But as my daughter inevitably begins to pay more attention to her peers than me, how, I wonder, will I stay relevant?
The things I say, the things we do today, are actually the things they’ll remember, afterall. My years spent breastfeeding them and the infinite cups of “coffee” I drank when their toddler selves passed me little pink plastic cups during hours of playing house together have been long forgotten. What memories then do I want to linger?
As I so often do since becoming a mother myself, I look to my own experiences with my mom. I know my own mother has given me the gift of travel, the love of seeing new places. I know someday that I’ll remind my children that their Nona wouldn’t just give someone the shirt off her own back. No, she’d go to the fabric store, pick out some bright fabric and teach them how to sew themselves a new shirt. If she really liked you, she’d make you a three course meal to boot. With champagne, because she loved to celebrate any occasion. She’s never missed a play of mine and always found the money to treat us both to a massage. My mom has been equal parts my fiercest critic and my biggest cheerleader. I think it’s a legacy she can be proud of.
But I guess I’m still trying to figure out who I am as a mom.
In my fantasy second term with Nell, I’m getting arrested protesting climate change and I’m writing Pulitzer Prize winning plays, all while picking her up from school right on time without even once looking at my phone as she tells me about her day. She’ll look back at her childhood as a time of self-exploration coupled with “gentle parental nudgeray” (Fantasy Me is soo going to author a best-selling book by this name, btw). She’ll admire everything I ever did and become one of those rare, well-developed people who never needs therapy as an adult and who wants to fly me to tropical islands for mother-daughter getaways.
In reality, I know I’ll just muddle along as best I can getting both kiddos to functional adulthood. I know you can’t really decide for yourself what will stick with your children. As much as I want them to remember all the special meals I cooked for them, and the times I showed up for performances, it’s more likely that they’ll remember the Thanksgiving I told Libby to make herself a damned peanut butter sandwich if she wasn’t going to even try a bite of my butternut squash lasagna, or Nell’s one school performance I missed when I was traveling. They’ll remember the mornings I growled at them for keeping me awake all night after they crawled into my bed because of a nightmare. They’ll roll their eyes remembering all the times I threatened to throw away their most beloved possession because it was left in the middle of the living room floor for the 1080th time.
There are choices as parents that we all have to make between competing needs. Everyday I’m juggling between either finishing loading the dishwasher or sitting and reading “The Westing Game” with Nell. Do I clean out my inbox or go on a long bike ride with her? Should I sign both girls up for an after school program or force them to play with each other one afternoon a week at home? I know I’m getting a lot of these choices wrong. There are times I’m too tired, too thoughtless, too selfish, too busy, or too blind to choose what I should. But there are other times, when I choose wisely. There are moments when I stop and think, when I choose to make a memory with them. A good memory that might just rise to the top in the future over all the cruddy things I do as a mom. Each memory forming a legacy.