„Rules ar not necessarily sacred, principles are.“ (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
For a long time in my life I didn’t know what my principles were. Life is easy when you don’t have real responsibilities, when relationships are allowed to come and go, when you haven’t said ‚yes‘ to someone and meaning taking all the consequences that come with that yes. Becoming a mother was scary in some part because all of a sudden it dawned on me that this step was the first decision in my life that was by all means irreversible. In fact it was the first fact of my life. If you want you can always start over some place else, do something else, start from scratch, but you cannot unbecome a mother even if you decide to let your children be raised by someone else.
Taking responsibility for a life means coming to terms with what you find important in life, your values, your principles. Most of us do not make a list of values they want to transmit to their children, nor do they think about their invisible red lines that shall not be crossed, their no-go areas, before they start parenting a child. But once this little being takes center stage we start talking about the right form of nutrition, the right form of medication, and the right form of schooling. Our decisions in these fields are partly based on inherited believes and partly on scientific opinions that will probably be reversed in – let’s say – five years time. Controversies about these topics are often fierce and seldom settled because they reflect the surface of what we believe is right and wrong, good and bad. Starting war is as simple as that. If you’re lucky your partner has the same set of believes.
While it is easy to talk about the surface of your values and let others have different ones (although you secretly believe that the form of education of your fellow parents will leave permanent defects in their children), the underlying principles, that constitute the core of your actions, are far less discussed or even thought about. Most of the time we simply act or react upon a given situation. Parenting a child makes you look at that core and more often than not pushes you beyond boundaries that you hadn’t been aware of before.
If your reaction to this trespassing is such that you can still look yourself in the eye I raise my hat. Many times I have looked in the mirror and thought that I do not know this woman. Outraged and furious, yelling, banning and grounding their children, panting with a racing pulse, barely in control, sometimes losing it and feeling ashamed afterwards.
When I started out as a parent I became angry with many things my child did. It did not sleep as I expected, neither enough nor at the times I had set for it to sleep. It did not tidy up after itself. It was not careful with breakable things or liquids. I was indignated, I felt disturbed. How could something as little as this baby break my order so profoundly. I didn’t know at that time that I was blessed with a child for starters, a beginners‘ baby so to speak.
When my second child arrived I was already beyond order. I had realised that for me order was a superficial value that I didn’t need to keep my engine running smoothly and on normal temperature. I had passed the neurotic-or-not-test. With child number two I learned that there are people in this world that can shake you to the core and that you are very lucky if you can call these people your children. I was not prepared, I must say. But who is? We all jump over the fence like Bilbo Baggins shouting „I’m going on an adventure“ and only afterwards we understand what that implied.
One of the first sentences my second child said to me was: „Stop saying ’no‘ to me all the time“. A remarkable eloquent utterance for a two and a half year old if you take into account that this child completely refused to speak until he was two and still often resorted to make unintelligible noises for indicating his wishes during his third year. For my second born the world was supposed to be at his service. Rules were followed when they fit in his scheme, when he himself found them important. He had a clear notion of how things were supposed to be, often before he had tried them out. ‚Trial and error‘ was not a concept he followed. His approach was rather ‚only try if you’re sure to succeed‘, and hell was loose when things decided to behave contrary to what he expected. He mapped out his world and one was lucky if he decided to let you have a part in it.
Until he was about four his imagination of being the centre of a universe that he had created was so intense that he often didn’t answer our questions because he was under the impression that the mere thinking of an answer would suffice to keep us acting within his frame. Finding a common ground was almost impossible if he had made up his mind. With him it was often „You’re either with me or against me“, by which he showed stark resemblence to at least two Republican presidents of the United States of the last twenty years.
When my child started kindergarten the real trouble began. While with us and being the little one he found ways to get what he wanted by exploring our boundaries and playing on our exhaustion to keep them up, in kindergarten he for the first time was confronted with rules and regulations that couldn’t be bent. From then on rules were questioned categorically. Nothing was taken for granted. He was not able to see the fairness of rules that applied to everyone nor was he able to accept his own account in wrong-doings or shortcomings. Rules where unfair when they interfered with his view of the world, when something went wrong others or the thing that misbehaved were to blame.
We worked hard to make him see the downsides of dictatorship, understand the concept of fairness and the responsibility in his actions. It’s a continuous process which accounts for many a line in my face. But capitulating is not an option because when I read the news, especially those of murder, suicide and political rhetoric alongside armed conflicts, I often see and hear my son’s logic speaking. I realise in these moments that every minute of struggle with him is worthwhile. Criminals are not able to see that their view of the world is just that: their view of the world – and that there exist seven billion other views of the world. John Donne, the famous Renaissance English poet, coined the phrase ‚No man is an island‘, by which he meant that we are all part of mankind, that we are all socially interconnected and thus are all the same. I would amend the phrase by saying ‚Every man is an island, but no man exists in isolation‘. When we’re little we have to learn that we are a separate being from our mother. We learn it by feeling the pain of encountering limits. We hit our head and understand that our body has limits, we are taken care of by someone else than our mother and understand that neither our mother nor we are everywhere, we are scolded for hurting someone or breaking something and understand that our actions have consequences. While experiencing seperateness is at first physical, understanding sameness is mostly a cognitive achievement. Only because we’re looked at (loved, cared for, restricted) by others are we able to see ourselves (see Martin Buber for that). Becoming aware of other people’s limits means seeing that our self does not expand limitless. In turn, to become aware of one’s own limitations holds the opportunity to be benign with the limitations of others. Acknowledging the differences between us can help bridge the distance and make space for seeing commonalities. The only thing we can do to close the gap between ourselves and others is continously talk with each other to maybe find the common ground on which we can act, but always allowing for the possibility to remain disparate, to remain incompatible neighbours for whom a minimal consensus of granting each other their right to live in peace could be a huge gain.
By discussing with my child his and my own limits I show him that I care for him, that his actions matter to me, that I am concerned about him. I make him see himself by showing him who I am, where I stand. It’s tough love and tremendously hard work because it is what our democracy consists of, the constant dispute and negotiation between respected partners. But I do not whine about it, on the contrary, I am thankful beyond measures because first of all I now see that my principal principle that guides my actions on this earth, that I want to transmit in my rearing is respect and that its absence in approaching me constitutes my red line. Second of all my son’s demeanour towards the world taught me to question more the so-called givens in our society. But most of all his personality taught me humility because it is easy to love someone who does what you want. But loving someone who lives by the last verse of the song by Rage against the machine teaches you not to break someone who does not do what you want.