My mom forgot to pick me up, thank the good Lord: fight the epidemic of narcissism...
My mom would periodically forget to pick me up after field hockey practice. Sitting on the curb, the coach would drive around from the back parking lot, pull up next to me, roll her window down, “Is someone coming for you?” There were no cell phones; and fear was not the prominent factor by which people made decisions. My mom was late. She had something else that caused her to lose track of time. That was it. Nothing more. No need to call the authorities. She felt badly when it happened, but in the end, life went on just fine.
“Yes, my mom should be here, she's probably just running late.”
In the 1980’s, without the fear of lawsuits and over-protective parents, the coach went on her way. I was in no danger. After a few times of me sitting on the curb, my coach figured out the routine; I got a smile and a wave. The reality, Jan Poulterer was running late again.
My mom was a social worker. When my siblings and I came along, she ended her formal role in that job. But often, on any given day, she was caring for someone somewhere. My friends in high school would sometimes come over and get an unexpected field trip. Those days when my mom was disturbed about entitlement and us kids being clueless about the hardships people faced in the world, she would drag us to downtown Philly. “Let me help you understand the privileges you private school kids have!” Off we would go, piling into the minivan to get a tour of the city: homeless people, prostitutes, “children taking care of children…” We ended up on South Street where we would be dumped off to explore Tower Records and wander around what we thought was the coolest street in the city. In the meantime, my mom would find a meal and have a visit with one particular homeless man she adopted. It was a lesson we will never forget.
So when my mom was late, or forgot I needed to be picked up, she was reminding me that I was not the only one on her mind. I wasn’t the only one who needed attention. She was also reminding me that in the scheme of life, in light of all I would face in the future, being picked up late was nothing more than a frustration. Small potatoes.
As a teenager waiting on my mom, I was likely annoyed, probably cold and definitely hungry. As I look back, I find myself thankful. In the larger view, this was a protection from the narcissism that is all too common in 21st century children. The obsession with our kids makes us appear star-gazed in the oddest of ways. The schedules we spin around in for our kids is overwhelming. Our social media binges amp up the comparisons, creating a fear that our kids aren’t doing what everyone else’s kids are doing. We take more pictures of our kids than we can even organize. Large and small decisions revolve not around family values, but around what kids want or “need” according to cultural trends. The pulse of the masses strips away at our independent and thoughtful framework.
Our kids go first. And they get used to it. Without warning they begin to expect royal treatment, and with all the posts of all the pictures, it can almost seem like we are enthralled with them, our Instagram/Facebook-famous kids. It’s no surprise when they arrive in the tween years, we see them standing off taking pictures of themselves as if they are professional models in their own company. Being in front of a camera is normal and comfortable.
Truth be told, and maybe I fool myself into thinking I don’t need extensive therapy, my mom was not enthralled with me. Oh, she loved me, she loved all of us. But she was not mesmerized by us or captivated in a way where she felt the compulsion to have everyone see us and like us and want to be around us. She expected us to be hurt by others’ words. She knew it was normal to grow up and be left out or misunderstood. She knew adults could be harsh and flippant. She knew I would have to endure jobs that were stressful and food I didn’t like. Her expectations on life in the formative years were realistic. My mom cared about my feelings, but she didn’t try to fix what was the reality of a broken world. It wasn’t in her power and if she could fix it all I wouldn’t be prepared to live out the rest of my days in that same broken world where I would be hurt and misunderstood many more times.
Now before I start to sound cynical and Negative-Nancy, the reality of the kid-centered world today is a reaction to an unhealthy dismissal of children in days past. Not too many decades ago children were considered a nuisance; they were to be quiet. The adults circling about conversing over the state of the world and government didn’t want kids in the way. In some sense they were not protected or valued by the very people who were set as watchmen over their souls. Children are a gift from the Lord. Jesus himself wanted them around and commanded the disciples to let them come directly to him no matter what. However, the gospel should also inform how we parent and how we relate with our children. I think my parents did this well. We were loved and cared for, memories were created for us as a family, we were known and our gifts were named by both my mom and dad. But we were not the source of my parents’ well-being. We were not the only piece of life that mattered. We were sinners dropped right into their living space. Sinners assigned to their authority and discipline. We were never to be first. That place was not for us, and it taught us that God was also not here to orbit around our small lives. The gospel reminds us that we are not the object of worship, but rather we are to worship someone far bigger. Someone who loves sinful, prideful, broken children. Kids learn this not just by praying at meals or being read from a children’s Bible, they must live in a second place posture. When my parents’ attention was divided we knew there were other important people and other important uses of time. When I was forgotten, I was reminded that I was not the only one who existed. In a subtle way, like water over a rock for years smoothing out the sharp edges, I was humbled by being second. Or third. Or fourth. I could let hardship and disappointment roll off of me with more ease as a result. The gospel, “the first will be last,” grounded me. It also protected me from growing up resenting my parents for not having a sense of self outside of me. Sadly, I have seen this happen with many teenagers as they move into adulthood.
As an adult I recall having an epiphany. Being the third born in our home, there are fewer pictures of me than my sister who was first-born and my brother who was second-born. I would act mad and make comments, “There are no pictures of me! I was a neglected, unwanted child!” “Kim was the favorite!” We would laugh and not take it too seriously, but I did notice it. Now, from the long view, I think my smaller pile of pictures was an exchange for something else. Something good. The helpful expectation that life wasn’t about me. We had five foster kids in our home while I was an adolescent. My mom made sure they felt no different than us, no less loved, no less prioritized. One of those kids, my dear brother Tim, stayed with us forever. We kids, all of us, were best kept in second place, in the back seat, submissive to, instead of controlling of, our parents’ lives.
“When I say overparenting is not a great idea, I’m really talking about three things: Don’t do for your kid what they can already do. Don’t do for your kid what they can almost do, because that’s where they have those successful failures. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don’t — but that’s where they learn. And don’t do for your kids out of your needs, not theirs.”
We all know the danger of looking to our kids to meet our needs. I know it would be the most difficult thing for me. They become the banner we wave hoping to lesson the sting from our own insecurities. We have leftover stuff from our upbringing that must be named and processed. Our kids, otherwise, will be the ones who bear the consequences of us needing them too much. So consider what it means to develop who you are apart from your kids. What do YOU enjoy doing? What interests do YOU have? What goals do YOU want to aim for this year? What books do YOU want to read and be influenced by? What trips have YOU wanted to take?
Give your kids the gift of a life-well lived. Let them be the recipients of a mind that is engaged and days that are divided off from them into some valuable outlets. And let your circles know you as more than a mom. Being a mom is a good thing and a high calling. But don’t let it be all that you are. And speaking as one who was forgotten to be picked up now and then, don’t worry that your kid will end up in therapy if you put them second. The more likely reality is that they will end up in therapy if they are always first.