Becoming Mom and Dad

I grew up riding horses.

How to convey the magnitude of this? I grew up doing lots of things. As a change-of-life baby (a change-of-life accident, really), I was something of a last chance, and my parents were stalwart about showing me the great diversity of activities available in the world. Early on, there was gymnastics (from ages 2-13; I made it to Level 9 and say with complete confidence that no daughter of mine will ever do gymnastics), there were carpentry workshops, calligraphy tutorials, language classes, piano lessons, reading clubs, poetry groups, ice skating lessons, and many various arts and science camps. I took a surgical class in the city one summer when I was about fourteen in which we learned to anesthetize white lab mice, remove their organs, then suture the poor things back up. Later, there were also the usual sports teams (soccer and lacrosse). The point is that I was kept busy—too busy, probably—and my parents constantly pushed me to sample in hopes of helping me discover and cultivate my interests.

Riding was much more than a sampling. One summer while on vacation, I took a short trail ride through the woods on an old Appaloosa. I was completely hooked by the time I climbed down from that tired old mare, and as soon as we got home, I found a stable and was signed up for lessons. Everything else in my life became blurry background.

I invested myself totally. To the barn I’d rush every afternoon, doing schoolwork in the car, and not returning home until bedtime. Weekends were spent there, too, riding, grooming, mucking, polishing tack, and doing all the other jobs associated with equestrian sports. Early on, I trained at a modest riding academy—the kind of place where local kids came for weekly lessons on docile school horses. It wasn’t flashy. The students weren’t from fantastically wealthy families. There were no grooms, none of the luxuries so common in the world of competitive jumping. It was a great place, and I learned a lot of horsemanship there.

My progress was quick and I soon owned my own horse. We found a new trainer and before long I was spending lots of time on the road, traveling from one show to the next with all my riding mates. We wintered on the Florida circuit and bounced around the northeast and Virginia all summer long. Years passed. There were fancier horses and bigger shows and more exciting prizes. I’m too poor a writer to describe adequately how wonderful those years were. I knew at the time that I was having fun, of course, but kids never understand how good they’ve got it. I knew I was having experiences most kids didn’t get to have, but I had no appreciation of how hard my parents were working to give me those experiences. I had no sense that they were very carefully cultivating specific interests and talents. They were, I know now. It was deliberate.

Riding is just one of a whole bunch of things my parents gave me that I’d like to be able to give my kids. In thinking about this, I’ve become acutely aware that as much as I resisted my parents—their advice, their plans for me, their ideas about the good life—they were right. They were right about almost everything. And nearly every single thing they ever did that made me think “They’re crazy,” or that resulted in me screaming “I wish I were never born!” through my bedroom door, or that caused me tell people, “I can’t wait to get out of here” was the right thing to do. They are things I now find myself doing and saying and wanting for my own children. How did that happen?

I had this thought a few months ago at the farm. The sun was sinking, the sky was all oranges and pinks, and my two kiddoes were running through the fields, chasing each other and shrieking with glee. It was a scene that gave me a rush of warmth. I mean that—I had an actual physical sensation of joy. It was followed almost immediately by a shiver of panic at the thought that too soon my children are going to fight wholeheartedly against everything I’m trying to give them. I know they will—they’re mine—and it’s going to hurt like hell.

My parents decided (before I was born) to live in the country. Ish. Suburban country, I guess you could call it—a ten-acre farm with very few neighbors but only a few miles from, you know, strip malls and other horrendous conveniences of suburban life. It wasn’t country-country but it was a far cry from the then-increasingly ubiquitous planned communities of newly constructed homes (where all the non-weirdos lived), so it certainly felt pretty country to me, and that I had no choice in the matter vexed me endlessly. I was mostly alone as a kid—no human playmates, anyway, and as a teenager, living so far (it was ten minutes by car) from my school and everybody in the civilized world only enhanced the outsiderism I was sure I was suffering. How could they have thought this was the best way to raise a child? (Naturally, as the center of my parents’ world, I just assumed that their choice to live this way had been made with only my development in mind.) Couldn’t they see the very real damage they were inflicting on me?!

Here I am now as a grown woman, thinking almost only of my own children’s development, trying to raise them right. What that looks like in my mind is strikingly similar to what I think my mother must have pictured for me. Is this something that happens to everybody? Unless we consciously work against the tendency, is becoming our parents inevitable?

I just want my kids to have a happy life.

Tolstoy wrote that his idea of perfect happiness would be “a quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor.” I guess that about sums it up for me, as I think it probably did for my mother. Hopefully it will for my kids too, eventually.