“As long as they’re healthy”: On when you don’t get the [parts of the] kid you wanted

It’s a classic exchange between an expectant parent and an acquaintance: “Do you know what you’re having?…Do you want a boy or a girl?” and we offer the refrain “As long as it’s healthy!”

…But what if they’re not?

In so many – if not almost all – of these circumstances, this conversation is harmless. It is a polite chat in which someone enquires about a baby, and you are excited to have that baby, and you don’t mind who or what they are – you just want the baby. And you want the best for that baby.

But what if they’re not healthy?

What if you don’t get the child that you hoped for?

Before you race on and rebut “How dare you say that, that we love all our kids, rah rah rah“, of course that’s true.

But seriously, what happens when your kid isn’t what you hoped for? To be precise, what if your child’s life isn’t the life that you hoped for them?

What if your parenting experience isn’t that one that you dreamed of, or seen modelled and broadcast by others?

What if your dear child is born sick. Or develops an illness. Or is diagnosed with a disability. Or whose brain isn’t wired like “normal” kids?

What if you don’t bond with your baby straight away. Or you aren’t delighted with the infant stage of parenting. Or if your child is naughty, unsociable, or “difficult”. What if your kid has to go and get tested, or finds school a challenge?

The short answer, and of course the most practical one, is that you just get on with it.
The kid you have is the kid you have.
The life you have is the life you have.

But maybe the short answer isn’t always the first one we should give ourselves, suppressing the pain and the questions that our heart is genuinely asking.

For I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately. Last week marked the last time we had to administer a twice daily anti-seizure medication to our three year old. He’s been on the medication for over 18 months, most of his life so far. We have not enjoyed it. It has been a blessing in many ways, that we had access to the medication that many around the world don’t have the privilege to. But in so many other ways, It’s an awful feeling and reality. I hate that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. I hate that his health condition (and treatment) may have affected his development. I am fearful of the unknown long term consequences of this period in his life.

I’m grateful that he is now well and can come off the meds. But having a sick child is awful. We have had several stints in the hospital with our boy, most via emergency ambulance. We have been lucky to go home after a few days. Yet many, many parents and their children aren’t that lucky.

I think about the young kids that spend their formative years in wards, spending weeks at a time in hospital. And the parents of those kids who want something different for them. It may indeed get better. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the situation doesn’t change, and it will be a condition that will be ongoing for years, or a lifetime.

It is a massive shift in expectations of what you thought ‘it’ would be like.

I’m not speaking here as an expert in parenting, or parenting kids with diagnoses. Nor am I even flirting with the idea that children with ‘stuff’ can’t have full, incredible lives that so-called ‘normal’ kids assumedly have. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as a normal kid, the very aspect of your child that you first view as a problem can actually be one of the best things about them and your relationship: Parenting is a ridiculous, rewarding experience. It is filled with joy and wonder at these humans that are yours.

But. It is also hard.
And some parents have to work harder at it than others.

I’ll say that again.

You might be a parent that has to work at it harder than others. Out of no fault of your – or their – own.

I just wanted to name that loving the ‘whole’ of your kids comes at a harder cost for some of us.

Our expectations of what they would be like, what you would be like, the type of schooling experience they’d have, the friendship circle they’d gather, how sociable they are, what interests they have, their anxiety or sensitivities – they may be different to what you imagined.

Different may be wonderful – But I think it’s ok to grieve that you thought it would be different, that you hoped it would be easier.

I think it’s ok to acknowledge that you might have had dark moments where you compare your own kids and say “I wish they’d be more like…”

I think it’s ok to acknowledge that there have been times where you look at other kids and long for the ‘ease’ of that parenting job.

Of course we don’t want to swap our kids. But there is power in the naming and the grace we give to ourselves in our fatigue and fear that it may not ‘get better’.

Our hopes, wishes and dreams for our children come from our deep desire for good for them. However, sometimes we perhaps don’t realise that when we project our own filters and definitions of “good” for them, it can be unhelpful (for us and them).

I’ve had a couple of scenarios in the last couple years where people have observed what my son has been ‘getting in to’ and voiced “thank God I don’t have to parent him” sentiments. They’ve been funny comments and in the context of love and appreciation of who he is etc etc, but there is a part of me that is a little bit sad about that too.

Because a) he is the best, dearest boy in the world and we love him and I’m so lucky to be his Mum and I will defend him till my dying day etc etc,
but b) it is hard and exhausting to parent him sometimes, and I am sad that people see that in him and label him accordingly,
and c) It triggers fears of what his life is going to look like moving forward.

Of course there may be a large part of unfounded and unproved anxiety in this mix, but is it ok to voice that the fear and frustration is there?

We’ve all been there, though, hey. We’ve all looked at our friends and thought “thank God my kid isn’t like that”. It makes us feel better about our own situations, which is not entirely unhelpful, but I think we are well served to remember that;

a) We all have our stuff. We don’t see the complete story of what that family, child, parenting is like. The grass is not always greener. All we need and should offer is empathy and solidarity to each other in it. Also,

b) My husband and I, all of us parents, have been given these children because we are who we are, and because they are who they are. If you come from a religious belief or not, even if you just lean into the genetic makeup of your children and yourself, you have been given each other to navigate the road ahead.

One of my dear friends said this of the “as long as it’s healthy…” conversation.;

Replacing the X I’m “as long as baby is X” (healthy, smart, social, “good at” sleeping, blah blah) with ‘loved’.
As long as baby is LOVED.

– Mandy. Wise as ever.

But if we break down what “loving” might mean or look like here… 

Relating to
Delighting in
Advocating for

—-Our kids will require different proportions of these loving elements at times. And sometimes that will come easy, But sometimes it won’t. And I think it’s ok to acknowledge that.

Nature vs Nurture: Are we engineers or shepherds?

I spent a lot of time playing the computer game “Castle of the Winds” as a kid. It was one of those gloriously nerdy quest-based games where you collect weapons and search a castle and and cast spells and fight monsters. One of my favourite aspects was manipulating your hero’s variable characteristics, from strength, intelligence, constitution, and dexterity. If you were smart, you could learn spells easily, but that took away from your strength, which was needed to carry your pack and fight enemies.

Castle of the Winds character creation

I weirdly think about that game a lot as an adult, and wonder what my subconscious hopes of my children’s mix of characteristics have been – and if they are realistic or helpful.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t want better for our kids – Shan and I were talking about this the other day and he said your kids should be disappointing in some respect, because you should want better, the best for them – and in many ways, this is the role of parenting, that we guide our children into greater emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, social capacity. Of course we want the best for our offspring.

But our kids aren’t us. And they may need us to love them in a different way than how we see the world, different to how we interpret loving actions to be.

As much as we can trace our genetic inheritance from our parents and to our children, there is a role that nurture plays in this role. and I think it’s one of my most favourite things about the world.

I am a sociologist and so Shannon likes to pick fights with me all the time about the role of socialisation in society, that I don’t believe that gender exists, that we are taught everything ra ra ra, just to see me get riled up about it and defend the role of social learning. What I tell him every time, and what I remind my students, is that the glorious thing about nurture and nature is that there is a mystery to it. We still can’t pin point the exact combination or role that birth vs environment has in who we are; but what we do know, is that it is both, and they are in relationship with each other.

While previously the debate might have been one of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture,’…The conversation has since shifted toward one of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ Martschenko, 2020

So in my expert ‘opinion’, conflating and simplifying a mass of sociology and biology, there is a role of nurture and nature. It is a dance. Genes are subject to environmental factors, and our context is interpreted through the design of who we are as humans.

So what does this have to do with parenting and having trouble with the ‘bits’ of our kids that are difficult to navigate?

I think it is an encouragement that when you’re facing the challenges of parenting, or if you’re feeling failure of the parenting job that you’re supposed to be navigating, when the child you created isn’t living the life you hoped for them – that they are not blank slates for you to ‘win’ at engineering. Dr Russell Barkley has said that parents need to stop thinking themselves as engineers in parenting, who can ‘win or lose’ at the game, rather think of themselves as shepherds;

I am a shepherd to a unique individual. Shepherds are powerful people. They pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze, and nourish, and grow. They determine whether they are appropriately nourished, they determine whether they’re protected from harm. the environment is important, but it doesn’t design the sheep. No shepherd is going to turn a sheep into a dog.

– Dr Russell Barkely, 1997

We are given the task to provide the best context in which our children can grow. This is the practical environment they live in, but it is also the relationship that we develop with them, the relationships with others that we can encourage and facilitate, and the support that they may need for these to occur. This is a wonderful and often intimidating task. But we need to be cognisant that there is no such thing as a designer human – they do bring characteristics, genetics, designations that we will need to respond to, facilitate, and learn from, just as every parent/child relationship does.

We can take delight in our children’s characteristics, and see the heritage of us as parents or other family members in their makeup. Perhaps we are surprised at new and a-historical traits that they posses. Likewise, maybe there are aspects in their characteristics that we are triggered by, intimidated by, or frustrated by. Regardless of how they are made up, I think it may be freeing to recognise that we aren’t the winners or losers of an engineering competition; rather there is a interplay between who they are, who we are, and the story that we write for our families.

This post is not supposed to solve every parenting problem or frustration that we have. I wish it could. But I just wanted to share that I’ve had these thoughts, and have found it helpful to voice and allow myself to process them rather than just pretend they never existed.

It is hard to parent the [amazing, wonderful] kids we have sometimes.
And I want to offer solidarity to those of you who have sometimes, maybe felt the same.

Here’s to good shepherding. x

Barkley, [1997] 2022; Parents as Shepherds, not Engineers. The ADHD Report. Vol 30, No. 8

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