The most rewarding thing I’ve ever done was giving birth to four children and learning how to be a successful mother. "Your children are not your children," the Lebanese poet Kahil Gibran wrote. "They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself...You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."
I love this quote, not only because—having brought up four children by four different men all on my own—I believe it’s just about the most accurate description of parenthood I have ever heard. It also emphasizes the 'lightness' that develops when we give up trying to be perfect, and come to trust the processes of Nature while feeding, healing, and guiding each of our children towards what works best for them at any moment in time.
Like the seed of a plant that has encoded within its genetic material the characteristics that will, in time, produce a full-grown flower, every baby comes into this world carrying a package of incredibly rich potential that encompasses his or her unique nature. I call it seedpower. It holds far greater physical, creative and spiritual energy than any of us could hope to experience in ten lifetimes.
Each child is like the brush stroke a zen painter makes to represent one leaf on a shaft of bamboo. The leaf he paints is totally singular—like no leaf that has ever existed before. Yet within this uniqueness, your child’s universal beauty is to be found, as well as life energy of the highest order.
When my first son Branton was born, I was 18 years old in university. Like most parents, I had some harebrained idea that we parents need to mold our children from the outside. We need to impose on them our ideas about what they should act like, think like, look like, and all the rest. Of course, this never works—but when we are young and naïve as I was, we just don’t know any better.
With a bit of luck, sooner or later we come to realize that what most certainly does work is not trying to mold a child at all, but listening to the whispers of each child's seedpower that comes from within. By doing this, we can respond to our children by offering whatever at any moment seems most useful to them, in the form of food, health, guidance, education and so on. This is infinitely easier and more successful all round.
Taking on the job of guardian for any child from birth to adulthood involves having to make 'contractual agreements', which of course must be re-negotiated from time to time as a child grows. Like every contract, the parent/child relationship is always a two-way deal. It has to be fair on both sides. It also has to nurture both people involved. How well your own contracts develop and how much joy there is for the both of you in fulfilling them depends to a great extent on how clearly the agreements between the two of you are understood. Let me show you what I mean.
In establishing 'contracts' with my own children, I was sure of a few things. First, I was committed to supplying them with wholesome food and clean surroundings, as well as physical warmth and safety. I also wanted them to have the right to their own opinions, even when they markedly differed from my own. In return, I expected them to appreciate the home, food and care I provided for them, although I knew it would never be perfect. I also demanded that they be as honest and respectful of me and my decisions as their age would allow.
What I never asked of any of my children—and I think this is where so many parents go wrong—is that they love me. Trying to get into that particular agreement creates nothing but trouble. Whether or not your child loves you is fundamentally beside the point. Our responsibility as a parent is to use our best judgment and physical resources to help our child grow, and to discover his or her unique gifts.
Early on, I decided that I would try to do my best for my children, but they were stuck with me as a parent for better or for worse—complete with all my warts. And while I didn't expect them to love me, I did expect them to know that whatever I did, I did because I believed it to be right. Whenever some decision I made or action I took turned out to be wrong, I always owned up and asked for their forgiveness—just as I forgave them their mistakes.
What I discovered, quite by accident, was that there is a certain magic to all this. You see, when you decide to give up all claims to being a so-called 'good parent', or having your child love you, this creates a vast expanse of freedom for you both. What’s more, not only do children eventually end up loving you of their own accord, they develop a lot of respect for you—whether they agree with you or not. Most important of all, they come to feel safe, because they know that even though you can be unreasonable at times and unbending, your strength—on which they rely for security—remains uncorrupted by flattery or the kind of emotional blackmail which even very young children are masters at. In time, your children learn that your strength is there to serve them. It’s a discovery that can bring a sense of joy, even during the most challenging of times.
Now, of course, all my four children are grown up. My daughter Susannah and I have written five books together. My youngest son Aaron and I work together, developing internet sites which some say can be life-changing. My other two sons—Branton and Jesse—now have families of their own, including six unique and highly independent children. This makes me a grandmother. I adore all of them. But I confess that I am probably the world’s worst grandmother. I don’t bake cookies, babysit or do any of the expected grandmotherly things. Why? Well, I loved being a mother more than anything in the world. But I’ve done that. So now my future belongs to me. I sense there are lots more adventures that lie ahead for me now. I intend to be free to explore them. What I find so wonderful is that all four of my children respect and understand where I’m coming from and, without judgment, bless me for just being who I am.