In so many ways, my children are who they were when they arrived. “Your children are not your children,” wrote Kahlil Gibran. “They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” Despite those nine long months of gestation (or, for others, the months of waiting for the adoption to be finalized), despite the layette shopping and 3 am feedings and endless pacing and back patting and rocking and bleary-voiced singing, despite the blue eyes from my father and the graceful hands from my mother, the notion that my children belong to me is dangerously benighted. My husband and I may have been their path into this world, but once they are here, they make their own paths and become their own people, shaped by the force of life’s longing to be exactly what it is and not what we would make it. And now, all these years later, I am finally getting to see, really see, the forms that longing takes in my son and daughter.
On the other hand, the crucial corollary to this insight that our children become who they always were is the simple truth that they will always, at some point, surprise us.
Our first child was our home girl. When we took her to large parties of kids and adults, she often ended up sitting in her father’s lap at the grownup table. I worried that she was too shy. Go play with your friends, I would say. They’re not my friends, she would answer, and settle in for a good long listen. In the car on our way home, she would comment in great detail on the adult conversation and its societal implications.
As she got older, her own dinner-table stories about school contained emotional shadings rivaled only by the later novels of Henry James. And by the end of a full week of these intense encounters, she might even turn down an invitation to a sleepover in order to stay in her room and read, to eat dinner with the family, to watch a movie with her little brother.
She grew into a lover of Mary Oliver poems and Rothko paintings, a reader and thinker who is fascinated by the writings of Walter Benjamin. We figured her for the dreamy artist type. We thought we knew her pretty well.
Then, during the summer after her sophomore year in college, she interned at the Boston Police Department, organizing access to resources for youthful offenders re-entering society. And now, five years later, after coordinating the Obama campaign in Alexandria, Virginia, she has ended up 3,000 miles away from our home, in a demanding graduate program, with a focus on issues of international human rights and global security. Meanwhile, our peripatetic son has settled 20 miles away from our house in Vermont—temporarily, at least, before he starts his 2,000-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time just looking, watching to see what each of them did when I wasn’t propelling them toward the front door or away from the television. There was a lot in the way—team tryouts and application deadlines and pet vaccinations—as well as my own strident fears about what my children needed to do and master and the schedule on which they needed to achieve their mastery in order to be fine, in order to be safe. When all along, on some level, what I needed to do was stand still and discover what forms those lives yearned to take. My fear got in the way. And, oh yeah, the head lice.
Recently I was interviewing a friend and healer for a book I’m working on, and we got onto the topic of attention—specifically, the role attention plays in the process of healing. The next time I saw my friend, he handed me a quotation from noted psychologist and humanist Carl Rogers, the guy who developed the notion of client-centered therapy (though the mind balks at what other form therapy might take). Rogers believed that acceptance, empathy and “unconditional positive regard” were the necessary conditions for human growth.
Personally, I have never entirely understood the term unconditional when attached to human beings. It’s never made sense to me to ask us to do something we simply can’t do. I will always think my son looks better with longer hair.