The Weekday Parent
Parenting is a sometimes thankless job made even more difficult when the spotlight is stolen by a partner who does not always pull their weight.
- Lyrics often quoted by my mother
When tales are told around the dinner table at family gatherings, my father has three advantages over my mother:
- He is no longer alive.
Death tends to sanitize memories so that we focus on the positive sides of the ledger. Perhaps it is our mind’s way of protecting people who mean a lot to us after they are gone or a sense of fairness that people who cannot defend themselves should not be held accountable. Regardless of the reason, I am more likely to recall positive memories of my dad than vivid recollections of some very heated arguments.
2. He did not play a very hands-on role during my childhood.
If a parent off-loads the responsibilities of day-to-day parenting, then the path is cleared to make positive interactions count. Divorced parents with physical custody have to do the work of ensuring their children do their homework, perform their chores and eat their vegetables. Weekend parents get to have fun with their kids. While my parents were a couple throughout my childhood, my dad was a workaholic who was rarely home, and that made quality time spent with him a special event.
3. My dad got a lot better at being a parent.
My relationship with my father was a lot better as an adult than as a child. It improved even more after he retired. These newer memories tend to crowd out the outdated ones and tend to define how I remember my dad.
My mother holds none of these advantages. She is very much alive which means that not only can her current behavior trigger memories of past indiscretions, but occasionally she can do things to make me angry in the present. With my father at work, my mother was the one with the responsibility of saying “no.” While our relationship certainly changed as I grew older, she did not have to take a great leap to become a great parent. She was already there.
When looking back on my childhood, the memories I have of my mother are a lot more complex than those I have of my dad. With my father, memories are more centered on activities; family vacations, him coaching my little league teams, him taking me out of school for a fishing trip. The childhood memories that I have of my mother often involve lessons that helped to create the man that I am today.
I remember hearing classmates in junior high school mocking David Bowie’s sexuality and stating that they sort of liked his music but did not really like him because he was gay. Parroting these peer lessons at home while listening to the song “Under Pressure,” I asked how he could be singing about “love” if he was gay. While I do not recall the exact words that she used, the lesson that she provided was short and very clear: this type of hatred would not be tolerated in our house. This taught me not only about acceptance but also about the need to question prevailing thought.
Another defining memory centers on a double lesson of being persistent and supporting those you love. In New York, we took state-created Regents exams in the place of final exams in many classes. In preparing for my 11th grade English test, it was clear that my difficulties in spelling were going to present a problem. Seeing that my efforts at studying were not helping me to improve my scores on practice tests, my mother attempted to help. With every one of her efforts failing to help me get better she found new ways of trying. At one point she even recorded the spelling of difficult words onto a tape so that I could listen as I went to sleep. Nothing worked but she kept on trying and she never gave up on me. This gave a desperately needed boost to the self-esteem of a struggling student.
The final memory that I would like to share is one that my mother would never remember. The details of the day have slipped away, but I was having a bad day in the life of a teenager. Most likely it was something inconsequential but at the time it felt like my world was falling apart. What I do remember was my mother giving me a hug that made me feel safe. I can still remember that feeling like it happened yesterday. Knowing that this place of safety exists is a great place to start a journey into adulthood. On this Mother’s Day, I would like to thank my mother for providing it.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.