This article first appeared on Huffingtonpost.com.
This past week has been strangely satisfying. I am visiting my brother’s family and spending time with his three little ones. They are all under the age of 10, and the youngest who is 3, follows me around like my shadow and insists that I am a part of everything she does.
I had come here thinking I would revel in the luxury of reading and writing in peace while all the cousins played cricket in the summer heat. Instead, I find myself happily strutting around like Donald Duck or pretending to be scared frozen by the roar of a bite-size Kipling gorilla. I may have squirmed at the thought prior to coming. And yet, this current lifestyle provides me with an inherent sense of fulfillment that I had deeply missed.
My own brood is older, and I am no longer central to their worlds. My oldest left for university last year and the rest are busy stretching their wings and preparing their takeoff. They are cynical of my views and form their opinions at school and on the web. They are oblivious of my advice and seek out that of real and online friends. Their solace lies in being left alone. Their joy is rarely mine to share. Their attitude makes me feel like a by-stander in their lives and I resent that.
More so because their childhood feels like yesterday. I remember the fatigue of running around with four little ones in tow, the endless vigilance, the sleepless nights, the desperation of having no end in sight. But when they came to me with their impromptu hugs and kisses, it filled my heart. When they rushed to me with their cuts and bites and turned to me for their every need, it made me feel that I mattered.
The evolutionary journey of our species has ensured that the search for meaning is our eternal quest. It is in looking for it and finding it, and then beginning the search all over again in never ending cycles that we find happiness. Parenting feeds and fulfills this pursuit. Whether it is in fishing our children’s little fingers out from the jelly bowl or in listening deeply to their woes to enable them to connect to their own wisdom, it brings meaning into our lives and makes us belong to something larger than the self.
But as I pretend to be a horse for my little niece and laugh with glee at my nephew’s joke repeated for the umpteenth time, I realize that the instincts with which we parent feed more than our need for meaning and purpose. They also provide us with a sense of relevancy that is inherently rewarding. They stoke the ego’s hunger for recognition and make us feel that we matter, perhaps more than we really do.
And then, in an ironic twist of life’s trajectory, it is all taken away. Our children begin to grow up and step out of our protective wings. They seek to exercise their novelty seeking spirit and steer away from the very embrace that once was their comfort zone. They dare to show us the irrelevancy of our words and actions and question that very notion of mattering that we have come to believe in.
That is where we can get into trouble. We try, perhaps too hard, to reassert our place in our growing children’s lives — a place that no longer exists in their mental maps, nor physical worlds. We react out of fear of rejection and behave in ways that shock us in our saner moments. Older generations did not necessarily face these same issues. Until recent history, raising children was a collective responsibility. Larger families and multiple unit households ensured that older parents continued to feel relevant until they had the desire to do so. Certain cultures still value the essential role of grandparents in young children’s lives.
But in our day and age, and in an increasingly global culture, we need to be conscious of the ego’s need for narcissistic supply, and to be aware of our tendency to overstep our boundaries and hurl ourselves into those of our children. And once we are mindful of it, to purposefully take the steps needed to accept the new boundaries and continue to find meaning through their lives while keeping the ego at bay.
It is not always easy. I think of my own inner misconceptions. Of my existing belief that I am central to their wellbeing. I think too of my own inner struggle. Of trying to curb my maternal instinct of solving their problems and wangling their decisions. Parenting humbles us in a way that is vital for our character growth, by educating us about the weaknesses in our character, the limits of our control and the realization of our appropriate place in the universe.
I need to parent with greater humility. To accept that my answers are not the ones they seek, so I can appreciate the wisdom that lies within them. To recognize the fear based reactions that seek to control, so I can rise to the capacity to love unconditionally. And to open up to the understanding that in this vast flow of life, and the insignificance of my being, I matter little, after all.
It is not a stoic thought. In fact, it is empowering, because mattering holds judgment. It liberates me from the tyranny of assessing my life through that of others. It gives me freedom from the criticism that speaks loudest in my own head. And it instills in me the hope that the seeds that I have already planted will bear fruit even though I may never live to see it.
I matter not for the accolades I receive, but because of the wholehearted and mindful way with which I live my life everyday.