I have always loved the movie Finding Nemo. Near the end of the film Nemo’s Dad (Marlin), speaking about his son says, “I promised I’d never let anything happen to him”. His friend Dori replies, “that’s a strange thing to promise.” This simple exchange struck me in a profound way and the echoes of it have shaped my parenting.
Marlins promise is one so many parents make and hold ourselves to with fervour. It is the promise that haunts us through every new experience, every mistake, every injury. We see ourselves as the protectors, the guardians of mind, body and soul. We shackle ourselves with the obligation of protecting our children from the world. This big, wide, rapid, imperfect world full of complex emotions, and people and situations. We hurl ourselves into the role like secret service agents in a fire fight. We work around the clock trying to shield our children from what we feel is ugly, hurtful or confusing. We try to prevent anything uncomfortable and where we can not, we try to stop it from happening again, explain it away and dull their pain (and our probably our own ) with hugs and kisses and distraction. It is a herculean feat and we, of course, are mortals.
The thing that keeps me sane is what I believe Dori was saying in that one short line. Our job as parents is NOT to prevent anything from ever happening. I believe it is our job is to be there. In being there our duty changes with each moment and every experience. Sometimes there is no doubt we are supposed to intervene to protect them, other times we are merely there to ease the fall, help heal the wounds – or (hardest of all) witness the learning and do nothing. We are there to put things into perspective, help them understand what is a BIG deal and what is a little ‘bummer’. We are there to root for, cheer for, cry with and console. We are there to sort out options, make plans and coach. But we are the helpers, we are not fixers, and we are surely not GODS.
Life is supposed to happen.
Our children NEED us to allow life to happen for them. We do them a disservice when we shield them too much. In fact we do ourselves one too! Every child needs a chance to see their own strengths and practice resilience. Every child needs to feel what the world is like and know that they will be okay. Every parent needs to see that their child IS strong, and capable. We need to recognize their resilience and foster it further. When we stand in the way of adversity we stand in the way of growth. We stifle our children’s development and we fool them into a belief that life is and should be easy. Life is NOT easy. It is wild and rugged and BEAUTIFUL and worth all the effort – but not easy. We should prepare them for the choices, consequences and difficulties. We should be doing all we can to walk with them (not for them) through the hard stuff. Let them know that we are a soft place to land – but not to hide. When our children feel overwhelmed or unprepared we can be there to honour their feelings, share the experience and offer support. Our job is to know our children, to stay close enough to recognize when they need us, but leave space for them to experience, experiment, and learn their own way. It’s difficult, but it is vital.
I long ago released myself from the promise to never let anything happen to my children. I made some different promises. I promised to do my best, to pick the right moments. I promised to recognise the difference between grave and uncomfortable, and to help my children do the same. I promised to protect my children as best I can in the moments they need protecting and to be there to support and hold them in the moments when ‘life happens’. I promised, that I will allow my children to see me laugh as well as cry. I will be brave sometimes, and share my fears without shame so that they will know it’s right and safe to do both in this family. I vowed to listen to my children and learn with them as they learn through their own experiences. And if they will allow me the privilege I gave my oath to share my life experiences with them (the good and the ugly) so that hopefully they can learn through some of my mistakes and not have to make all the same ones themselves.
My most solemn promise was to never make a promise I can’t keep. Like for example, never letting anything happen to them. Because what a shame it would be if I got in the way of this challenging, beautiful journey they are embarking on. Life.
In addition to these promises I added a prayer.
Dear Sweet Destiny, please be kind with my children.
*What are your promises? What is your prayer?