I had that dream again.
I was shopping for my son in a children’s clothing store. As I looked through the different racks, thinking about which items he would want or need, I suddenly realized there was no point, because my son was dead.
Each time I found something in his size that I thought he’d like and went to pull it off the rack, I stopped myself because it was only then that I remembered that my son died (he was dead in the dream, not in real life). Then I’d somehow forget he died and keep shopping. But every time I pulled a piece of clothing from the rack, I’d have that sudden shock of remembrance happen over and over again. After going through this cycle five or so times, I eventually resigned myself to a seat by the changing rooms in the back of the store and sobbed uncontrollably.
Then I woke up.
It was the middle of the night. I knew my son was alive and well, but I still felt the intense emotion of losing him. I would never get back to sleep while being so emotional so I decided to do what I would wish I could do if he died - I crept into his room, climbed into his bed and snuggled next to him while gently laying my hand on his back. It felt so good to hear his strong breath and feel his warmth. The reassurance that he was alive and with me was finally what lulled me to sleep.
This dream had a profound impact on me because I’ve been mulling a question over in my mind for a few days now.
What does it really mean to love your child?
Countless times I’ve heard, “just love them” from media, on the playground and from friends and family.
But I am so wary of this phrase when there’s so much harm and abuse done in the name of “love”.
As parents, we spank our children in the name of “love”.
We shame their food choices in the name of “love”.
We shame them for being gay out of “love”.
We argue and show immense disappointment when they leave the faith, we taught them out of “love”.
We criticize their every move out of “love”.
We pressure them to get good grades, practice their sport or instrument out of “love”.
But we also protect them from unhealthy friends… or don’t, out of “love”.
We monitor their media use… or don’t, out of “love”.
We make them go to school… or don’t, out of “love”.
We keep them from drugs and alcohol... or teach them how to use them, out of “love”.
We get them vaccinated… or don’t, out of “love”.
What tactics are reasonable to encourage them to make choices I see as healthy? What is reasonable to prevent them from making choices I see as dangerous? And which ones are borderline abusive?
And does loving my kids mean I am at their beck and call, even when I don’t want to be?
Using the L-word doesn’t teach me what to do.
From my own experience, my response to any questioning of my parenting techniques has always been because I “love” them.
But as I self-reflect, that’s not exactly true.
When I yell, it’s because I have no more patience for their behavior. I don’t care about best practices to get them to stop, I just want them to stop. That’s not love, it’s control.
When I constantly demean what they find as funny, it’s not because I love them, it’s because I’m embarrassed by them.
When I refuse to be happy with any grade less than an “A”, it’s not love, it’s my ego.
And then there are many, many times where I just need a nap. So, whatever keeps them safe and quiet is what they’ll get, whether it’s healthy or not.
I’m suspicious of anyone who begins an answer to these questions with the words,
“It’s simple, you just…”.
Because it’s not simple. Parenting is anything but simple. It’s a delicate balance that requires constant self-reflection, intense self-awareness and continuing education.
But my dream/nightmare this week taught me something:
At the end of the day, if I end up being one of the unlucky parents who has to bury her child, what will I regret? What can I do today that will help soothe the bitterness of that loss?
These new questions have become my north star in managing how to “love” my children.
No matter their choices, no matter their mistakes, at the end of every day, I will put all of my frustrations behind me, and I will cherish them. I will hold them with my arms and with my eyes and “will” them to feel my joy for them simply existing.
At the end of the day, I will err on celebrating how far they’ve come rather than how far they must go.
Stacey Carruth is a mother of four who lives in Arapahoe County.