Being a parent is a hard job. It is fun and scary, obvious and mystifying, exhausting and exhilarating, heartwarming and heartbreaking, clear and confusing. There are no guaranteed outcomes. There are many highs and lows, and many tears along the way – both our children’s and our own.
We joke that kids should come with manuals to tell us how to guide their growing up and maturing into separate beings. Our kids joke that we ought to pass an exam before we are allowed to be parents. “It is a dance with us in the lead,” Dr. Neufeld says, but that is only at its most elegant. Sometimes it could be mistaken for theatre or even martial arts.
When she was four, one of my daughters was washing herself in the bathtub. She asked me if she was brown or white. Since her father is brown and I am white we had expected the question but never really sorted out what we would say. Suddenly caught out, I said, “Well, Honey, I guess you are kind of brown like your dad and kind of white like me.”
“Hmm,” she said, taking this in for a minute. Then, pointing to the rack by the tub, she asked, “But what colour face cloth am I, the brown one or the white one?”
Wrong answer, Mum. You just introduced your four-year-old to a way to separate herself from you. You did not point out a way you are the same, which is what you thought you were doing. Even though I realized my mistake, I repeated it over and over.
Throughout their high school years my daughters asked me in different ways about being women of colour in this world. What I can say now is that I was consistent in my answers … and I answered the wrong question every time.
I thought they were asking about the new feelings that come during the teen years: the feeling that everyone is staring at you or that your thoughts are so loud that people standing nearby can probably hear them. “We all feel different,” I told them. “Every one of us must figure out our own way of being, searching until we feel like we are okay. It is an uncomfortable journey for all of us, but no one is actually staring at us. In the end, we have family around us and we will be fine.”
All of that is true, but I know now that they were not talking about the hormonal and cognitive changes that lead teens to feel exposed and confused. Rather, they were asking me very practical questions about what it means to be women of colour in a society where white privilege is everywhere, ingrained and bolted into the world, both blatant and masked, around every corner we turn, and woven into the smallest of interactions. But even more importantly, they wanted to know if I saw that. They were asking me, their Mum, if I understood at a deep level who they are – women of colour, and very different from me in important ways. They wondered: how could I be close to them and really know them if I could not even see that?
That is the hard part about being a parent. Every one of my wrong decisions and wrong answers were given for good reasons, with love and due consideration. Unfortunately: love + due consideration ≠ right answer.
Life is messy. In spite of our best intentions and thoughtful actions we make mistakes. Often there is never a way to know which of our decisions was right and which was mistaken, what needs correcting and what doesn’t. There is no way to know what would have happened had we travelled down a different path at any given moment.
Parenting is not a world championship game with clean rules, referees to instantly interpret on-field actions, and a final score. It is our job to read how our responses land, to make amends when we see they are needed, to have a good cry when we aren’t sure what to do, and then, day in and day out over the many years, to try to align our actions with our heart’s yearnings for our children: for them to be both deeply connected and fully their own people. In other words, to help them reach their full human potential.