Despite the calm, collected, and polished image of family life that I flaunt in my digital persona, I can assure you that our reality is entirely ordinary. We are a family: a yelling, fighting, struggling, crying, laughing, failing, winning, striving, totally-unsure-of-what-to-do-next kind of family.
Now that you know how ordinary we are, I want to explore some ideas about autonomy and parenting.
Note: The perspective I offer is strictly my own. It’s full of gaps and unapologetically incoherent. A splattering of random thoughts tossed against a wall like a Jackson Pollock painting, but without all the beauty.
Let’s get to it.
Life before parenthood can perhaps be best distinguished from life during parenthood by the word autonomy. For the purposes of this post, I’m defining autonomy as an individual’s freedom from external control or influence. In a sense, my idea of autonomy here is very similar to the concept of self-determination, i.e., the process by which a person controls their own life. For the sake of simplicity, I have rolled that all up into the term “autonomy.”
Before parenthood, you have a degree of autonomy that you simply cannot and, IMHO, should not have as a parent. I say, “should not” because my experience suggests that parenting, at least in the early years, requires a high degree of benevolent altruism. That is, acting with kindly intent for the well-being of another. Simply, an engaged parent will naturally feel deprived of autonomy, and will come to regard opportunities for self-reflection and personal growth as precious gifts.
This is not to say that the act of forsaking autonomy is a deliberate act for parents. Rather, I think the comfort that we find in autonomy gradually fades as we give ourselves up for the well-being of our children. Of course, this can occur with other relationships such as marriage or friendship. However, with children the intensity of this entangled co-existence is far more difficult to abandon.
This brings me to the thesis of this post: Take advantage of your excessive autonomy before you become entangled with parenthood.
Autonomy is the perfect crucible for reflection and personal growth. It allows you to cast your sails, read the stars, and set your course. Autonomy grants you the privilege of time and mobility to ponder, to seek out, explore, and discover at your own pace – when you want to, how you want to, and where you want to. You are temporally and spatially free to calibrate your worldview and to establish the parameters of your identity.
Take advantage of this autonomy because one day—and it will be a sudden day, an unexpected day, a wonderful and terrifying day—your ship will rendezvous with its consort. Indeed, your hulls will occupy separate spaces and you will set your own sails, but your general course will become aligned. Children might come aboard and they will rely on you, and you will nurture them and raise them up until they are ready to command their own ships, to embark on their own voyage.
Maximize your autonomy before you rendezvous.
My experience suggests that the type of self-determination that occurs through deliberate and systematic self-reflection becomes exceedingly difficult as the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood multiply. The majority of this self-determination occurs before your fledglings are conceived and after they have taken flight. In the interim, you will and should sacrifice your growth and well-being for them.
Parenting is to personal growth as schooling is to academic development: it takes some of the agency of self-determination away from the individual and increases the fallout associated with failure. Perhaps this has made me more deliberate in my use of time, less idle and frivolous, more thankful and blessed for every moment.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that as a parent there will be no opportunities for self-determination and personal growth. Indeed, this blog post is proof that I have found time for personal growth. Still, I used to post every other day; finished a book every other week; wrote in my journal daily; and had inspired conversations with friends, weekly. I now look forward to those one or two precious days, every month, when I can bring order to the swelling cloud of chaos in my mind.
That being said, parenting forced me to use muscles I never knew I had, triggering pains I thought I could never endure. I had never experienced love, concern, worry, patience, awe, wonder, or gratitude to the degree that I experience these things as a parent.
It’s true, I’m nostalgic for those long gone days of excessive autonomy, which I probably won’t experience again until some time in the future when my fledglings have taken flight…and I’m old and senile and grumpy. Yet, being with my children and watching them magically unravel their hidden secrets is pure bliss, and I would not trade it for all the autonomy in the world.
After reading some feedback to this piece, I feel I need to clarify something. When I refer to “personal growth” I’m talking about a process that’s deliberate. That is, making a deliberate effort to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually through reflection, reading, various forms of artistic expression, and elevated conversation. Not the type of growth that naturally comes about through parenting. Not sure if this makes sense…but there you go.