Tracks in Wet Cement
Surviving Life's Challenges
Not long ago, I was talking with a client in my office. He's a big, burly guy who works in the trades, and who loves his two kids even as he struggles to deal with the challenges their behavior offers him. We'd been talking about attachment and connection, about the importance of staying attuned to our children's perception of their world, and about the impact our decisions have on our children's lives. He was quiet for a moment, gazing at his calloused hands, and then he looked up and met my eyes. "It's like laying cement," he said. "Our kids are the cement, and we leave tracks in their lives. I get that you can brush over the tracks while the cement is still wet, but what happens when it hardens? How do kids recover from our mistakes?"
I've thought about that question a lot, and I suppose the answer depends on what you mean by the word "recover." I was divorced from my son's dad when he was six years old. It wasn't in my life plan--but sometimes you just have to adjust to what life brings. My son's dad and I worked hard to have what is called a "good divorce": we were respectful, we both showed up at events and were pleasant to each other. We tried very hard not to put our son in the middle of our differences. I never trash-talked or insulted him, and he also was respectful and supportive of me. I knew the divorce was tough for my son, as it is for any child. But I thought we'd managed to do a good job of insulating him.
My son called me earlier this summer. He and his lovely girlfriend were flying up from their home in Las Vegas to attend his stepsister's wedding. He said, "Mom, if you'll pick us up at the airport, we can have breakfast together. Then you can drop us at dad's office and we'll go to the wedding with him." I was delighted: visits with my son are too rare since he began practicing law in Las Vegas. And we had a great time over huevos rancheros, laughing, sharing stories, and generally catching up with each other.
After breakfast, I drove "the kids" to dad's office, pulled up in front of the door, and popped the trunk on the car so my son could get their luggage. As he pulled out the suitcases, he looked at me and said, "This brings back memories." I truly didn't get it at first. When I did, I was stunned. He was referring to all those Saturday mornings when I dropped him off at his dad's office, when he was the kid with the backpack, schlepping his books and baseball gear back and forth between mom's house and dad's house. Yes, we'd worked hard to have a peaceful, respectful divorce, but it didn't change my son's reality: his family had exploded and he was left to deal with the aftermath. Those experiences left tracks in the cement, to borrow my client's metaphor, and the tracks remain.
My sadness must have showed on my face, because my son put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Mom, I was just kidding." And I know he was--but the truth of it still lingers. I had nothing but good intentions, had done my very best as a mom--but his reality and his perception were different from mine and it is his reality that shaped his beliefs and his path forward in life.
Mind you, my son is well on his way to taking over the planet. He has a solid relationship with a lovely young woman, a fabulous job that he loves, and great friends. He seems happy and productive, and we continue to have a strong and loving relationship. I am grateful. But his memories of his childhood are shaped by decisions his parents made--as are the experiences and perceptions of every child.
Is it possible to brush out the tracks in the cement and start over? I don't think so, not entirely. Human beings are by nature meaning-making creatures. From our first moments of awareness, we watch, absorb, and learn, and we make unconscious decisions about what it all means, what life is about, who we are, and what matters most. We go on making those decisions until the day we die, often gathering evidence that fits what we already believe about ourselves.
The brain scientists tell us that the human brain has a remarkable quality known as "neuroplasticity." The brain literally changes its structure and function depending on experience and belief. This means that change is always possible--but change is also challenging. My son has taken his early experiences and used them to build something wonderful, largely because, despite our mistakes, he has two parents who love him very much and are committed to supporting and encouraging him. Not all children have that foundation to build on, so their difficult experiences knock them sideways. That makes recovery from tough times much more difficult.
If you're a parent, it helps to know that mistakes are indeed opportunities to learn. But it matters that we learn, that we are thoughtful and aware, and that we do our best to avoid making tracks in our children's cement so deep that they cannot recover. My son gave me his permission to share this story; he told me that if his experience could help someone else, he was happy to share it. We all have decisions to make, as parents and as someone's child, about the tracks we leave and the tracks we carry. Let's hope we can all learn to live with awareness, with hope, and with respect.
| Posted by cheryl | Tuesday, September 4, 2012|