It's not the "gift of life" if it comes with conditions.
Recently, I watched a horrible woman loudly bemoan her choice to conceive to a mutual friend, her justifications for voluntarily bringing new life into the world being, “Well, my husband really wants kids, and I’ll need someone to take care of me when I’m older, so, you know, what the hell? It’ll pay off eventually.” My heart ached for the fetus she was carrying alongside her apparent resentment.
While this incident is obviously among the more egregious I’ve heard, she’s hardly the first parent I’ve encountered with predetermined roles established for her kids. I hear it all the time — the idea that, because a mother carried a person for 40 weeks in her womb (which, is, incidentally, still the only way we have to manufacture people at this juncture although a trope of maternal manipulation is to repeat this fact ad nauseum) or that a father was there to raise a child, that progeny is now forever indebted to their parent.
This leverage is used to manipulate children of all ages into meeting the demands of their parents for years, and the older I get, the more I am convinced it is complete and utter bullsh*t.
It is paradoxical for a parent to provide a list of demands while also giving someone the gift of life. I honestly can’t believe this needs to be stated outright, but a person should not ever be created to be of specific service to any one other person. That’s not how humans work.
I’m the (way, WAY too) proud mother of one totally awesome daughter I love more than anything else on this whole planet, and I'm still appalled when people suggest that I should have another child “to keep the first one company.” As though creating a whole extra human being as an accessory to a preexisting one is not inherently dehumanizing.
Listen, I understand that we as humans have a history of creating offspring for the sake of helping around the house — particularly in rural communities where children were expected to pitch in at the family farm. And, to draw parallels to modern households, I definitely believe in teaching children that we all have to share functional efforts within a communal environment, and that we all have to pitch in to keep a household going.
This article is not debating the merits of teaching kids personal responsibility within a group; I believe teaching children how to proactively coexist with others instills a sense of competent independence when they are ready to take on the world as adults.
My point here is we desperately need to dismantle the belief that children owe parents anything at all.
Children do not automatically owe their parents phone calls or grandchildren or long-term care or financial success or even happiness just because these parents opted to bring them into the world. Period. To argue otherwise is to endorse the indentured servitude of those we claim to love and value the most.
Perhaps my favorite statement on the matter comes from the poet Khalil Gibran, who poetized my thoughts beautifully, years before I was born:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
We can never own people, even — and especially — if they biologically came from us. No matter how much a parent may want to control the thoughts and life of his or her child, that child is still a person and deserves autonomy.
I terrified my dad recently when I told him I don’t have to take care of him when he’s older just because he’s family. He looked shocked and deeply hurt until I explained, “I will take care of you forever because I love you. You have always loved and cared for me unconditionally, but those were not favors, so I don’t feel the need to repay you for anything. Anytime I show love by caring for you, it is an expression of how I feel toward you.”
The difference is a small nuance, but it is imperative to understand when dealing with people. No matter their relation to you, if you treat a person with respect and love, they will be compelled to mirror that. If you raise a child with resentment and selfish expectations for their life, you will only breed more resentment in return.
It’s disgusting to see so many parents of grown children continue to use manipulation to coerce their offspring into tending to their needs. The inherent lack of respect is overwhelming, particularly when I’ve heard about parents using possessions or wealth as leverage to guilt other adults into action.
I was recently part of a conversation in which a disgruntled grandmother non-jokingly told her friend, “Well, if she won’t let me see my grandchildren more often, I’m prepared to let her know she’s no longer in the will.”
My mouth dropped open in flagrant disdain and I poured wine into it only to stop myself from blurting, “Gosh, I can’t imagine why your daughter is actively keeping her kids away from such a delightful Grandma. They’re missing out!”
If it sounds like I'm super-judgmental of terrible parents, I absolutely am. Whether hyper-controlling behavior comes from a mother or father, I'm enraged by the lack of respect in addition to the outright refusal for parents to accept that this sort of manipulation is destructive to their children in ways that affect them their entire lives.
It is infuriating to watch adults whine to their friends that their children are "rebelling" just because they're expressing desires for lives that divert from the agenda the parents have in mind, and even more irritating when those children become angry, anxious, distant, or depressed while the parent insist it isn't their fault.
No matter how common this dynamic, I will never stop being bewildered by any parents' seemingly endless confusion as to why micromanaging their children's lives tends to backfire.
I gave my daughter life and I’m raising her the best way I know how, but I have no expectations as to how our relationship should be when she is old enough to make her own choices, and I think it would be cruel of me to start.
I wouldn’t dare attempt to place an agenda on her life, even by planting seeds that one day I should become her responsibility. (I shouldn’t, by the way. I’m an adult. I’m my own responsibility. Frankly, the best gift I could give my daughter is to never burden her with trying to manage my care when I have plenty of forewarning that that time in my life is approaching.)
Similarly, she does not owe me companionship, emotional support, grandchildren, or a marriage under that antiquated lie that “settling down” means she’s “taken care of” for the rest of her life.
My daughter doesn’t owe me any of those things. She deserves a life of freedom and choice, and while that's sometimes a challenge, I owe it to her to do my part to facilitate that.
Of course I have hopes for my daughter’s future. I hope she is happy with the life she has and I hope that, when she is an adult, she and I can be friends unlike we are able to be in this current parent-child dynamic. But if I nurture her through her youth with love and respect, I believe that, not only will we have a better shot at a real friendship, but she’ll become a stronger, more self-realized woman than if I spend her life attempting to coerce her into meeting my arbitrary list of standards.
I have my own life to work on; I don’t need to hijack anyone else’s. Full stop. Just because I facilitated another person’s existence on this plane doesn’t mean I own any part of her, even though I'm responsible for her well-being until she's old enough to maintain it independently. That’s the whole point of being a parent, by the way: taking care of a person until he or she is old enough to do it herself.
If you’re not prepared to grant another human being a life of self-assertion and autonomy, you should consider puppetry — not parenting.