This is the first installment in the series about the extraordinary parents that taught me about parenting, life and death.
With no family or friends in the area, I attended my Parents Anonymous group meeting every week for many years. Having a group of parents – mothers and fathers – to compare notes with was a godsend for me. I especially liked the objectivity and different perspectives that other parents brought to the table. This talented and caring group of parents helped me understand a myriad of issues much quicker than if I were left to flounder on my own.
What kind of issues did I bring to the group?
• Anger and stress
• School related issues
• Hygiene questions
• Giving allowances
• Children’s chores and what is the right amount
• How to handle a teacher-specific issue
• Bullying problems in school
• When girls start to wear makeup
• Dealing with my husband
• Bereavement and grief
My group members would each give suggestions and tips on what they would do – or not do – in each situation. I would go home after each meeting with ideas I had not thought of. You have heard the old adage, ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees?’ Well it is true in parenting as well. When we are in the midst of a situation, sometimes we cannot see other options. In the group we often repeat our own mantra, ‘trust the group.’ The consensus of the group would often be the best solution.
The members in my group are my heroes to me; I learned something from each and every member who entered those doors. Our members came from all walks of life: wealthy, economically disadvantaged, single parents, adoptive parents, divorced parents, mixed race couples, single dads, grandparents and more.
Fathers were fewer in number but they brought a fresh perspective and understanding to the group. Because we were there to work on parenting issues, many moms were able to get feedback from dads about why a husband did this or that in a particular way or tips on how to communicate better with fathers. Dads tend to interact differently with their children because of their gender; they roughhouse and display affection differently. Our entire group learned more about the qualities of fathers— they are much more than a paycheck.
Not all issues that come up are parenting issues per se, but the group members have the freedom to talk about anything that causes them stress, and thus affects their parenting and their interactions with their children. As an example: A landlord may tell a parent she is late on the rent and at risk of eviction. The mom may in turn become stressed to the point of losing control with her children. By talking about it in the Parents Anonymous group, the mother may be less likely to lose control because (1) she has vented and is more aware how it affects her parenting and (2) she may also get information that leads her to a resource that shows the landlord is in violation due to eviction criteria not being met.
Meet five Parents Anonymous co-members and hear what I learned from them:
“If you don’t use soap and water when washing your hands— then all you’ll get are wet germs.” Becky would say.
Becky was a nurse by trade and had experienced several family members’ untimely deaths in a relatively short span of time so she became the grief master— the go-to person for death information. Becky helped me with grief after my abusive mother died. My grief transcended normal mourning because of the abuse heaped on me over a lifetime. The physical abuse ended when I left home but the emotional abuse continued long after my mother’s death. For some unknown reason, I would burst into tears at the worst possible moments. I related an experience reaching for a box of Oreos® at the supermarket and breaking down into tears in aisle three.
Becky said matter-of-factly, “Grief will have its way with you, when it’s done, it will be finished.”
With those words, Becky gave me the gift of life— a smothering burden was lifted from me. I left the meeting that day a much better mother than when I entered. I also learned from others in the group that because the relationship with my mother was twisted and broken, it stood to reason that my grief was also twisted and broken.
Carley was a very conscientious mom who took great care to do the best for her son Ellis. She put a lot of effort into helping him with his homework, reading with him and talking with his teachers when needed. Carley also volunteered at school and I would not hesitate to say that part of Ellis’ success was due in part to her efforts to give him the best start in life possible. She also saw to her son’s religious instruction as well. Other family ties were maintained with visits and celebrations. I remember Carley telling us about comments Ellis’ grandparents made during a visit; she chose to focus on that one comment; was that an insult or did they mean something else?
From Carley I learned to believe in myself more and not to keep re-visiting old issues I had put to bed. She taught me to focus on the broader picture rather than examining every comment or moment in any situation. Time is a factor for me and I choose not to angst over what I feel are small things. It doesn’t mean that thinking long and hard is wrong, it simply means what works for Carley doesn’t necessarily work for me.
Charlotte is amazingly creative and has a wonderful way with people. She is very loving and giving, almost to a fault and in doing that in order to recycle and reuse things she overburdened herself and her family. More than anything else, I learned that letting go of stuff can be a very good thing
Charlotte also taught me to appreciate the things that my husband does do around the house, no matter how small. Charlotte was a self-proclaimed “Feminazi” who often poked fun at her husband when she said he did not do dishes, vacuuming or any other so-called traditional women’s chores. For me, I felt that would be disrespectful to my husband and damaging to our relationship. I am the role model for my daughters; that is not something I would hold up for them to emulate.
To think of Develyn and not smile would be impossible! She was the funniest woman I ever knew and no matter how bad thing were at home for her, she never let it get her down. She displayed the strength of the pyramids in dealing with many situations. Develyn could also stretch a nickel from Jersey to Staten Island and back again. Develyn called once saying she bought a thousand brown pipe cleaners just because they were such a great price (I’ve done this too). I asked her what on earth was she going to do with a – thousand- brown – pipe cleaners— and then we laughed like mad… then she took most of them back to the store for a refund. Ah… the suburbs!
Develyn loved and adored her children and put a lot of effort into pleasing them. She told the group once that when her son was small and one of his toys broke, she would hide it then secretly replace it with a brand new one. That might have been where her parenting difficulties began. For myself, seeing the cause and effect of not letting your children feel disappointment or experience consequences taught me a good deal. The Parents Anonymous group members will be forever grateful for Develyn’s humor, strength and friendship.
Donna first came to Parents Anonymous after she was mandated by DYFS, New Jersey’s child protective services agency, to attend the group. She seemed nervous to be there and she was very quiet and reserved. We learned from the facilitator that Donna was a parent with special needs; she was as normal as anyone else but very slow to understand conversation and speaking in a group was new to her. In time Donna grew more comfortable with the other members and spoke up more but she was still painfully quiet.
What I learned from Donna came when I met her two young sons— they were the very picture of their mother, quiet and reserved. As I observed the two youngsters a light bulb flickered and I remembered a poem gracing many walls by Dorothy Law Nolte titled “Children Learn What They Live.” Donna’s children were polite and almost whispered so as not to disturb anyone. I looked around the room and you could almost pair up parents to their children by their demeanor and manners. I almost laughed at myself that I was so surprised.
Donna and I both were in the Parents Anonymous group for several years, giving and getting support. I will always be grateful for having known Donna and happy we remain in contact.
What have you learned from the people around you? Do you think people would pair you up correctly with your children?
*All names are changed to protect privacy and confidentiality.