There are a lot of clichés about parenting that strike you as incredibly true once you’ve had kids of your own. My favorite is probably “You’re only as happy as your least happy child”—and, man, there have been a lot of times when I’ve wished that weren’t such a brilliant insight, that I could share my kids’ emotional ups without always sharing their emotional downs.
There are other good ones, too. “You’ll appreciate your parents so much more once you have kids of your own”; “Children thrive with clear boundaries and rules”; “Sleep begets sleep.” All correct. All worth remembering.
But lately I’ve been thinking about one cliché in particular, both because I believe it’s smart and true—and also because I don’t think it’s true at all.
There’s a saying that goes something like, “Your children will lead you in a direction you never expected to go.” As someone who co-wrote two books about autism, I can vouch for the accuracy of that. Before I had a son who was diagnosed with autism, the word meant nothing more to me than part of the description for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. But after years of driving around to therapies, researching worthwhile interventions, and learning to prompt and prime my son, I was—to my own amazement—ready and able to co-write a book on the subject. (Two books, actually.)
I promise you that when I was 15 years old and dreaming about what my future held, “autism expert” was nowhere on the list.
On the other hand …
I always wanted to be a book writer. Always. There were times I didn’t think I’d be able to achieve my goal but the goal was always there. I was equally intent on becoming a mother. So, really, when you think about it, the fact that I had a kid and learned to help and support his specific needs, and then co-wrote a book about that—not really so far afield. Sure, I didn’t foresee that a child of mine would get this diagnosis, but once he did, I followed my own instincts in dealing with it.
Also not featured in my 15-year-old musings about my future? Gay rights. But then my second son came out of the closet his senior year of high school. Did I become a wildly avid gay rights advocate who donates money to all sorts of LGBTQ organizations and who won’t vote for any politician who’s opposed to gay or trans rights? You bet your sweet ass I did.
“My second son came out of the closet his senior year of high school. Did I become a wildly avid gay rights advocate who donates money to all sorts of LGBTQ organizations and who won’t vote for any politician who’s opposed to gay or trans rights? You bet your sweet ass I did.”
Of course, this wasn’t a huge departure for me. I already believed that people should be free to choose both their gender identity and whom they want to love. Having a gay son simply made the battle more personal—it’s less like I’m cheering from the sidelines and more like I have a position on the field.
But even if I hadn’t already held a pretty liberal position on the subject, like many parents in a similar position I think I would have found my way there. I mean, I learned to bake gluten-free when that same son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and I learned everything there is to know about Addison’s Disease when my daughter was diagnosed with that, and right now I’m trying to watch every great film in the canon with my movie-loving youngest. I’m all-in with my kids—what matters to them matters to me. And I think that’s probably true of any parent whose politics or beliefs shift because of his or her child.
Which reminds me of one more smart parenting cliché: “Your children are who they are. You can help them find their strengths but you can’t change them fundamentally.”
Brilliant, right? And now I’m thinking that maybe it’s true about us parents too: we also are who we are, but the choices we make out of love for our kids channel and focus our energy, and often bring out the best in us along the way.
So do our children move us in directions we never thought we’d go? A very hearty yes. And an equally hearty no. We follow where they lead, but we also find the path there that feels right to us.