In Lead more gently/ Live more simply

When parenting choices go wrong

Our organic, heirloom seeds were tenderly planted into compost rich beds. They were watered, fed and nurtured and we delighted in watching the growing process. Shoots that a few weeks ago peeked out of dark soil grew into greens that filled bowls in our kitchen. We’ve battled bugs, snails, squirrels and the neighbor’s dogs and we have come through undefeated – weary and battle scarred – but victoriously crunching not-so-perfect produce.

We could have chosen perfect leaves that were not first shared with insects, but that would have needed poisonous chemicals. We preferred the happy, admittedly stinky faces of Marigolds in our garden to ward off most insects as well as the occasional spray of cayenne pepper.   The resulting bounty, somewhat imperfect in outward form but perfectly formed within, brings a pleasure that is only truly known by those who raise things organically.

Which brings me to children.

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We made a parenting choice to move from the big city and raise our babies in a small town flourishing between farms that grew sunflowers, corn and cattle. It was a happy town that sprawled out in the open flatlands of the African savannah. The local economy rose and fell by the weather and every person above school going age knew from which direction the good rains came. African farms are vast and the crops depend on rain – not irrigation. So, when the warm Spring winds blew dust that settled in every crevice, you heard no complaints, only the whispers of thanks because it brought the summer rains.

Our family thrived in this town. Days were filled with sport-art-ballet-piano lessons. School days were spent learning in classrooms brimming over with talented teachers. Weekends were not long enough to get around to all that life offered – friends, excursions, church, laughter, love and endless days in the swimming pool.

Until it ended.

Our small town fell into crisis and families moved out in droves. Lifelong friends said goodbye to each other, leaving holes in the growth pattern of my children’s lives. Our home, once filled with sprouting teenage friends, became quiet. Institutions closed down and along with them went the sport-art-ballet-piano lessons. Now the days seemed too long and our children, who were once bursting with growth, floundered and spent unhealthy amounts of time alone.

School teachers were amongst those who left our once happy town. At a critical time in their development, huge gaps appeared in the trellis of our children’s education. Two parents, who themselves were reeling from the loss of their support system of friends, looked each other in the eye and made hard decisions.

This man who I married, who had always been strong for me, wept harder with each mile that passed as we left first our daughter, then our son, at boarding school. Red-bricked institutions of education, of the best our country had to offer, schools that other children dreamt of attending, now housed our babies-turned-teenagers and our home was empty long before it’s time.

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Enormous phone bills became a normal item on our budget and our car clocked high mileage as weekends consisted of driving to schools hundreds of miles away. Many nights I would sit in my children’s rooms listening for echoes of their voices and days I would fold and refold their clothes just to catch a whiff of their smell.  Our evening dinner table was pathetic as two parents saw the hurt reflected in each other’s eyes.

The sacrifices we made and the endless self-doubt paid off as our children took root in this transplanting. They started to flourish.   They made the friends that teenagers sorely need and learnt their school lessons from teachers skilled in their craft.  When you study the growth of a tree, you can tell when the hard years hit by the notches in its bark.   I see the notch of those floundering years in my now grown children but I also see the strong growth that the transplanting produced.

There is no other way of raising children but organically.   Babies are wild and free and have no genetic modification that will automatically ward off the hardships of life.   Worms gnaw at their self-confidence during the day so at night, while tickling the back of a sleepy child, mom speaks words of encouragement. Insects lurk under tender leaves of talent, whispering self-doubt in children’s ears so their dad applauds with all his might, front row and center, brimming with pride.

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Children grow organically and parents do the best they can with what life brings. Some years the rains don’t come and the pain of this leaves deep wounds that scar – possibly for life.  Some years there are insects that eat away at new growth and you feel that more is being taken than left behind.  Some years the soil is rich and the sun shines bright.  Delight in these, remembering to show compassion for those in another season. Each child grows differently and parenting is a skill learnt on the job. There are days you will get it gloriously right. Celebrate your harvest!  Then there are days when you will need to acknowledge the grace you need when you get it badly wrong.  On these dark days, remember your own parents and forgive.

On the day my son graduated from college, he gave his dad and me his sash. On it were written these words.

Mom and Dad, this is dedicated to you for making this possible. The encouragement, hope and belief that you gave your small town boy to chase his dreams, along with your sacrifices, has made this day a reality. Thank you. You are my example.

A few weeks ago my grown daughter, herself now a mother, put her arm around me and said thank you. Thank you for the sacrifices, for your generosity and for always being there when I need you.

I am very aware that these words of my children reflect more about their character than my parenting skill. It speaks of their grace, their forgiveness, their understanding that babies are born wild and free and parents are but human. There is no other way of raising children but organically and when we set about growing things organically, whether it be vegetables, herbs or children, there is a certain amount of imperfection that is built into the process.   It is best to make peace with this from the get go.

“But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren.” – Deuteronomy 4:9

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