Parenting in the moment and parenting for the future

I think the New York Times “Well Blog” sent out a link to this piece from the archive a few months ago. Though I can often hardly stand even to open the Well Blog emails because the blog’s content tends towards the cringeworthy, I opened this one, for whatever reason. There, I read about a baby boy who was afflicted with fatal Tay-Sachs disease.

Googling revealed that the boy, Rowan, died a while after that, around the age of 3. His mother, Emily Rapp, wrote a book about parenting a dying child and the grief therefrom (The Still Point of the Turning World). Rapp calls herself a “dragon mom:”

There was tiger mom and panda dad, and I thought that the dragon was perfect because it’s medieval and weird and sort of magical. Dragon moms are this amazing group of women and no one tries to one-up the other one.

In that same interview, Rapp rejects the frequent expression that others “can’t imagine” what it’s like to lose a baby. So, I won’t disrespect her opinion by offering that particular platitude here. I have not myself parented a dying child, and have only parented a living one a little (she’ll turn 1 next month), so my viewpoint on the matter should be taken with a grain or more of salt. But a fragment from Rapp’s New York Time piece did rub me the wrong way.

Rapp insists that “Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.” But “loving your child today” isn’t all there is. Parenting immature children in a corporeal world necessarily means expressing love specifically through future-oriented action. Though the dichotomy is not a stark one, loving a child today entails doing your best to look into the crystal ball on his behalf and making all-things-considered judgments about how to prepare.

I do understand the positive takeaway from a story like Rapp’s for those of us whose children aren’t actively dying. The message is to savor every moment, to be more present. That death comes at unpredictable times creates genuine problems for deciding how to live, and how to parent.

The death of a few children will come as a surprise. Their parents may find themselves wishing that they had stopped to smell the roses more often. A child who gets hit by a car on the way to school doesn’t receive a visit from the Make-A-Wish foundation. The time her parents spent coaxing her to eat peas was indeed a waste, though it couldn’t have been known to them previously.

We do well to remind ourselves to avoid using excessively harsh words with our children, to avoid going to bed angry at them. But it shouldn’t take a reminder of their mortality (or ours) to prompt these kindnesses. Though attachment theory is overblown at times, it is not really possible to prepare a child for the world without providing a secure base for her. Not at all coincidentally, doing that will often be pleasant, too.

The real problem with being a tiger mom isn’t that it’s inherently disordered or wrong. Tiger moms haven’t failed to grasp that the real meaning of parenting is to live in the moment with one’s children. The problem is that being a tiger mom actually doesn’t work. If it did, then we might owe it to our children to trade off some of their happiness now for their success later in that particular way.

Rapp describes oddly peaceful days with her dying Rowan: “cuddling, feeding, naps.” They are the product of having “abandoned the future” — Rowan will never speak, or take the SAT, or provide any return on their parental investment in the conventional senses. The dragon moms of terminally ill children have no choice but to accept a pleasant (or at least dignified) running down the clock as compensation for the loss of the regular parenting experience that is no longer available to them.

But while Rapp claims the message is that all parents ever have is the ability to love their children today, her content and tone belies her conclusion. It is a terrible, twisted fate to have to watch a child die. We begin the parental project with the strong expectation that we will gradually chaperone our slow-growing children into long futures, and that they are the ones who will see us into our graves. In the modern world, with vanishingly low child mortality, this is more true than ever. Rapp’s experience teaches that to be robbed of the future-oriented character of parenting, while you’re still doing it, is exquisitely painful. But the proper response to this tragedy is not for the rest of us to give up the long view, even a little. It is simply to grieve with those who’ve necessarily lost it.


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