Recently we became the proud owners of a beautiful new Bengal kitten named Misty. He came into our lives because of my daughter Katy’s deep and abiding passion for cats. For a long time, we didn’t see a cat in our future (mainly because of the rattling asthmatic wheeze that I develop after about 10 seconds in a cat’s company) but eventually it became our mission to find a way around that in order to support Katy’s passion. You can read the details here.
Finally, we did. It was a long process, but we got there. The day we went to pick Misty up from the breeder I thought Katy might possibly float away – she was so on top of the world. She’d been waiting for this moment since she was four, and the joy and anticipation she was feeling seemed too big for her tiny body to contain.
Watching Katy gather Misty into her waiting arms was such a beautiful moment. I was so moved and so grateful that we were able to make this happen for her – that finally, her dream was coming true.
Twenty four hours later, I held Katy close as she sobbed uncontrollably. “I hate having a cat!” she wailed. “I wish we never decided to get one.”
Apparently, Katy had a certain image in her head – a vision of what life with a cat would be like. In Katy’s vision, our kitten would choose her above all others, disdaining the rest of the family. He would love to cuddle with her for hours, play gently and sweetly, and fulfill her every longing and need. Upon his arrival, her life would be complete, and she and Misty would live happily ever after.
Turns out it takes more than one day for a frisky, curious little kitten to sober up, settle down and go about the business of fulfilling Katy’s every need. And Katy was devastated. Reality fell far short of her image, and for a time she was unable to cope.
She wasn’t the only one struggling with images this weekend. My husband was having a bit of a struggle himself. He shared how very difficult this parenting thing is for him – and how it hasn’t gotten any easier, and probably never will, and how it just shouldn’t be so hard.
Did you hear it?
My ears always prick up at that word. Shouldn’t implies that there is a standard which something is failing to meet. And it all goes back to our images.
As my husband and I explored his feelings, he began to describe his own image of how parenting would look at this stage of the game. With no more babies in the family, he was expecting to sleep like a log, have plenty of time to pursue his own interests, and not have to intervene much. The children would rarely fight, and if they did, they would certainly not resort to yelling – or worse – hitting. Family time would be easy and pleasurable. “Let’s hit the beach, kids!” he’d say, and they’d whoop with delight, gather up their suits without delay and zip to the car. Travel would be simple. Life would be simple. Parenting older kids would be a snap.
Those of you who know my children are probably chuckling right about now. My oldest three kiddos are amazing, extraordinary people who happen to be very spirited. Their joy is deep and intense. Their pain and frustration is deep and intense. Very little is easy-breezy for them -at least not yet. And so you can imagine how well Ted’s image fits our reality.
What struck me was how it was this image, more than anything else, that was causing Ted to experience our family dynamic as so difficult. Imagine if his image, instead, had been something like: “Let’s hit the beach, kids, right after you take about half an hour to process this idea, overcome the many challenges of finding a comfortable bathing suit, calm down after enduring a dousing of unpleasant sunscreen, work out the fight over who gets the striped towel, stop kicking the back of the car seats, integrate the scratchy feeling of the sand on your bare feet, and come to terms with the fact that a bug might land on you at some point in the day but that you will live through it.” If that had been his image, he’d have been golden. Because that, folks, is our reality. When we expect it, embrace it even, it’s fine – it can even be joyous. But compared to Ted’s original scenario, reality looks like a hassle to say the least.
How many of us parents fall prey to these images that come to us, often unbidden, sometimes not even fully articulated, and rain on our reality? As unschoolers, most of us are probably swimming against these images on a daily basis – after all, the way we are raising are children is nothing like the image mainstream parenting paints. Kids sleeping sweetly by 8:00 PM? Nope. Well-mannered in public? Not always. And so on.
It’s especially important for us to be aware of our images, and whether we cling to them tightly or have learned to hold on to them lightly – or better yet, have released them altogether in favor of reality. For the closer the match between our images and our reality, the happier we are.