on the less-than-perfect childhood

Thursday, January 22, 2015

click here to find photo credit (and a recipe for oatmeal)
He's standing on the kitchen counter.

I look over and see the familiar leather school shoes against the cuff of jeans that aren't quite too short. Balanced between a peanut butter jar and a loaf of bread, his head is in the spice cabinet, and he's searching for ... what? Everything he could need is already on the counter. Oatmeal bubbles on the stove, and I'm working fast. Nobody wants pasty oatmeal. I reach for nuts, vanilla, and cinnamon while removing the boiling pot from the heat. Kids are swarming around, lunch and breakfast prep are both underway, and he's standing on the kitchen counter.

"See?" I said, and I heard my own note of irritation. "You ask to help me in the kitchen, and then you get in here and mess around. That's frustrating."

Normally he is happy to tell me exactly why he's right, and I expect him to bristle at my words (I know I would). Instead he peeks out from behind the cabinet door.

"Mom." He grins. "I thought messing around was helping. I'm only eight-years-old. It's not like I'm twenty-three or something."

And I stopped. Toast burning, oatmeal roiling, I just stopped. I looked up at that grinning crooked smile and laughed out loud.

"You're right. I'm sorry." I hug him tight as I pull those lanky legs away from the counter. "What are you looking for up there?"

"The peanut butter."

"It's already on the counter."

"Oh." He grins again. "Okay." And we both get back to work.

I can be a little obsessive about the relationship I'm building with my oldest. I was the oldest child by a long shot, and, like every other mom, I try to make sure his life doesn't include the same pitfalls as mine. Am I expecting too much of him? Does he have what he needs? Am I feeding his heart and soul too? Am I leaving room for him to be a kid? And still, there are times when I do exactly the opposite of my intent. I forget how young he is, and I expect his help to actually be helpful. For all that I try to do otherwise, there are moments where I fall into the stereotypes, and my expectations for him are not the same as they are for his siblings. Because the reality is this: when you're the oldest of lots of kids, the landscape is different. The stakes are higher, and frankly, your mother has been reasoning with toddlers for a very, very long time. She needs someone to just do what she asked them to do, already.

All through breakfast I thought about his comment. Driving to school, I kept seeing his crooked grin and replaying his words in my head. I replayed my usual loop. Am I treating him fairly? Am I expecting him to be twenty-three? Only this time, another thought popped into my head: Even if I am, he'll be better off for it.

As mothers, we're all trying to create a life for our kids that is as close to perfect as humanly possible. Though we know that everybody has problems, nobody's life is perfect, we live like it's possible to keep our children away from the human condition. We take the things we wish our parents would have done differently, fears of how life events will shape our children's future, expectations we've absorbed from culture as to what kids these days should have and be and do - we stir it all together, and shape it into a single picture we carry like a blueprint for mothering. "This is how their life is supposed to be!" That image becomes our measuring stick, and we always notice where real life doesn't line up.

We forget we're better people because of our struggles.

That adversity actually shapes character rather than destroying it, and that gratitude and hope grow out of hard times. Yes, the experience of being an oldest child fundamentally shaped me. In a good way.  I'm independent, self-motivated, responsible, and more nurturing because I was the big sister. If my parents had tried to absorb the difficulties for me, I would have missed the chance to struggle and grow. I would not be who I am today.

I will keep trying to have fair expectations of my oldest child. But I will no longer lament his experience. I will let that blue print go, that ideal that nobody ever reaches. Because it isn't needed. It is not what will guarantee my children will grow into happy, successful adults. Nothing guarantees that. There is no formula that can really promise us the future we want our kids to have. But I do know this: having a less than ideal childhood will make them stronger, healthier, and more resilient adults.

Thanks be to God.


  1. Couldn't have said it better myself! So, so, so true!!

  2. As a fellow oldest child, I love this. And I struggle with the same thing with my 10-year-old. I expect a lot of him - and he usually does above and beyond what any 10-year-old little guy needs to do.

  3. I remember when Eva was born and Shep was only 12 months old. I guiltily told a woman from church who was bringing me a meal "She just doesn't get half the attention Shep got when he was born," and she instantly replied, "And she'll be the better for it."

    Yep. It's *kinda* like how God uses our weaknesses to make us & our kids stronger. Or somethin.

    Good reminder. xo



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