It’s been twenty years since I met my mother, as she reminded me in a text last night. It’s an auspicious moment, the halfway point. I’ve now been mothered forty amazing years – the first twenty – with my adoptive mother and the last twenty years with my natural mother. I didn’t realize how different mothering styles could be until my natural mother and I met – after all you only usually get one mother and it’s what you take to be the norm.
I feel enormously privileged to have two different perspectives, even if comparison is uneven; one adoptive mother, mothered me as a child, the other – my natural mother mothered me as a young adult, after my adoptive mother and I cut contact. Perhaps then I have no valid basis for comparison, but I have observation. I witnessed my natural mother mothering my two younger brothers during their formative years, and as we both met as adults I became her confidante and she, mine. She intimately shared her view on mothering, whilst assuming a maternal role in my own life. We often disagreed on the ‘how’, because the ‘mother knows best’ way I had learned from my adoptive mother was diametrically opposed.
My brother, aged seven, expressed a desire to learn the piano and I, having been strictly disciplined to learn for twelve years from the age of five, was disappointed when he quit after just one. I was even more disappointed that my natural mother let him.
‘It will be a valuable skill to have,’ I said. ‘He’ll never stick to anything if you don’t make him practice.’
Her exact reply is lost in the annals of time, but it was tantamount to ‘Maybe it’s not his thing. He’ll find his way, I trust him.’
At twenty I had not found my way (and no longer played the piano). Twenty years later, I have still not touched a piano and it’s a skill I no longer have or want. All those hours and hours unhappily wasted because it wasn’t – like so many other things during my childhood – my thing. A tiny example of a far greater whole. So whilst the comparison is neither scientific nor absolute, I can say with some certainty that a key difference in my two mothers can be summed up in one word. Agency.
Agency was conspicuous by its absence in my upbringing. My adoptive mother neither trusted in me, nor in my agency and this might be regarded by many as wise. After all what can a child know about the consequences of their decisions? Isn’t that precisely the job of a parent? I believe now, that it depends on the extent, because if you remove your child’s agency, she will be ill equipped to manage her life as an adult. In a self fulfilling prophecy, I became irresponsible and untrustworthy – even if my mother’s parenting wasn’t the only influence. Realizing your own agency and being able to govern it is one of those things that comes with practice. You learn how to be responsible through the trial and error. It starts at a young age, younger than I think we realize.
My natural mother has always trusted me, even during our first encounter where she asked me to baby sit my two small brothers. I was twenty of course, yet it is surprising because at that time I was wholly and obviously untrustworthy; my past instability is – I would say – infamous. The risks were high and the mistakes painful but she has supported me without so much as a ‘told you so’ whilst I lived through the dark times brought about by my own disastrous decisions, as I learned over the following twenty years how to manage the power of my own agency. She’s brought up my brothers similarly, even when they were at an age where agency is assumed by many parents, because it is in ‘their children’s best interests’. Unsurprisingly they are as responsible in their twenties, as I have become at nearly forty.
I believe now as a mother to two small children myself, that is essential it is to trust in your child’s agency if they are to live a fulfilling lives and create their own meaning. I’ve read tomes of parenting manuals and articles, but rarely have I found this crucial element listed. I have drawn up my own imperfect boundaries – I get the final say on outdoor clothing and more generally in matters of health. My son, no matter how much he dislikes wearing his gloves in winter, will wear them and I don’t care how much he screams at me.
But where their decisions around their own lives, preferences and futures are concerned, I promise now to step back, even if I disagree with them, even if to the outside eye, I might be perceived as a negligent parent. I’m not. But I believe more important than potentially making mistakes which might be horribly painful – for me and for them, is the power they have to make their own mistakes (which might after all, turn out to be successes). I try and take the emotional risk of my own anxiety around this decision so that they can follow their own path. I will continue to get it wrong, of that I’m sure. There will be times I will override my own principles or succumb to my anxiety. But my intention is support their right to choose, over the choices themselves.