Without the possibility of turning to my parental role-models as a guide for what I want to give my children, I found that I looked externally for help in blazing a new parental trail. What I didn’t realize was that the answers were always inside me, revealing themselves only after my twins were born.
Most people learn much of what they know about parenting from their own parents. This provides people with role models and blueprints for the kind of parents they want to be. For those of us with parents who didn’t do such a good job or who weren’t around, there are no role models, no blueprints, no way to know if we’re doing okay or not. This is why I turned to external sources. It is why I always hoped there was a Parenting Handbook that would be given to me upon the birth of my children. Alas, when my children were born the only books I received were the kind with lots of pictures and pages that don’t rip (though they can still be chewed, I learned). Without a blueprint, without a trail to follow, I have found there is no way to tell if I’m doing a good job or not. What if I’m screwing up and don’t even realize it? I joke about starting a therapy fund, but maybe I should really worry less about funding my retirement and start monthly transfers to that account.
I have spent much of my life trying to unlearn what I learned from my parents, and it has left me feeling a void. It is very hard to not be something. Being able to follow a path is much easier than creating your own path and that is what my wife and I find ourselves trying to do. We have a pretty good idea of the kind of people we hope our children will be, but it is at the details where everything gets fuzzy and scary.
Every night after I put our children to bed, I walk down the stairs and wonder if we are doing a good job. Actually, I’m pretty sure my wife is, but am not so sure about myself. Having unhealthy parents has also left me no one to talk to about parenting. I can’t ask my Dad what he did when I or my sister couldn’t sleep through the night – he most likely wasn’t there or has no memory. I can’t ask my mother because she doesn’t talk to me, hasn’t for about 17 years. Being isolated from my parents makes me feel isolated as a parent, as if I am in this all by myself. Feeling that isolated also makes it hard to really feel sure I’m doing a good job. Raising two children at exactly the same time only makes matters more complicated. Am I giving more to one than the other? Sure, having twins may bring double the joy, but is also doubles my questions and feelings of doubt.
This continued significantly up until about the time my children started learning how to talk. When they first started to be able to sit up, I began to feel this very powerful connection with each of them. As they started moving around and reacting to things I did, the connection only grew stronger. But when they started to be able to talk, I realized so much about the kind of father I was and wanted to be.
What I never understood before I had children in my search for answers outside myself, was the power of that word, the power of being called Daddy by little beings who came to mean the absolute world to me. When they call out for me in pain because they got hurt, I don’t need a handbook to tell me to run to them. When they call out “Daddy” in the morning, I don’t need a parenting class to tell me they are ready for me to bring them downstairs to start our morning together and make them breakfast. When I come home from work, and they come running saying “Daddy’s home,” I don’t need good role models to know to relish the moment and hold onto the hug for as long as they let me. I never understood so much of being a father is based on who I am and the love I feel for my children.
Finally, after being a parent to twins for almost four years (which must equal like eight years of parenting), I have realized three major things that help me deal with blazing my own path.
1. My goal should not be to give them the childhood I never had. It is to provide for them what they need, to end the cycle of difficult childhoods, the negative momentum my parents couldn’t stop and begin pushing all future generations of Schneiders into a positive direction. I won’t be perfect, can’t be perfect. But I can give my children a gift of unconditional love, support and affection. In any family history that would be a gigantic step forward.
2. Awareness of what I went through is absolutely vital. I need to know what my parents did and their parents did and their parents, what I learned and absorbed from them about being a parent and about relating to my children. This is the only way I have been able to affect any change. We all have said something to our children and felt ourselves channeling our parents. Imagine how many times we do that but are not aware of it. Awareness helps me to be different than what I experienced.
3. Continual personal growth helps me to be what I want to become. I have worked very hard to develop new skills, new ways of communicating, to challenge myself to overcome the things with which I am uncomfortable. Every single step I take, every personal challenge I overcome, means that my children will have it that much easier than I did, will have the head start they deserve.
For those of us blazing new trails as parents – especially paths that are very different from what our parents followed, without any handbook or parenting class to guide us, it is a very challenging experience. The trail is riddled with thorn bushes, sharp rocks sticking out of the ground and large boulders in our way. We can’t repair generations of troubled families in one fell swoop, but we can begin that process with our children. The best way to begin that process is by focusing on unconditional love for our children, on being aware of what we went through, and continuing to grow ourselves, by becoming healthier physically, emotionally and mentally. If I keep doing this, I know my children will not need to look externally for how to be a good parent like I did; they will have me and my wife as good role models to help guide them.
Jeremy Schneider is a fatherhood expert, syndicated columnist, and therapist specializing in parenting, relationships, and helping people overcome depression. Learn more about Jeremy at jgs.net.
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The Genuine Men Project was created, in part, as a means for men to share their experiences with the larger community. It is through their stories that other men have come to find that they are not alone in their journey through all different stages of manhood – especially fatherhood. These men were chose to be a part of The Genuine Men Project and book, Genuine Men Journeys in Stories and Stills because of the way they met their challenges and carry their experiences. We can all learn from the stories of men.
Wow, Jeremy. You are–and will continue to be–a great dad, not because you know all the right things to do, but because you are committed to giving your kids the best parenting you can. That love and commitment speaks volumes.