I can’t dance to save myself. If there really is a condition called ‘two left feet’, I’m terminal. I remember waltzing lessons in the high school gymnasium. My unsuspecting partner was the lovely Georgie Peach. Any chance of my year 8 infatuation being reciprocated was in tatters once I’d stomped on her feet so many times she had to sit out the remainder of the class nursing her bruises. Decades later I’m no better. Truly, I reckon the connection between my brain and what’s below the knees is permanently ruptured.
To be honest, my parenting often feels the same. If good parenting has a rhythm, I struggle to find it. The meter of the dance is mystifying. Knowing when to step in and when to step back, when to hold close and when to let go is constantly puzzling. I misjudge it as often as I get it right. Generally my kids are patient with me, but sometimes, with bruised feet of their own, they tell me to back off — though in language less restrained.
The trouble is, reading the cues is difficult. We all know there are times when our kids push us away while, unconsciously perhaps, they’re hoping we refuse. Teenagers can be as confused by their own resistance as we are baffled by their mixed messages: I love you; I hate you; I need you; I don’t want you; go away; please stay.
Of course, the challenge is about more than reading cues. There is an inner wisdom to the dance than can be just as elusive. While I might sense it in my reflective moments, there is scant time for reflection in the ‘heat’ of exchange. Or when we see our kids hurting. Parental panic is a thing. But the questions are persistent. When is it my parental duty to lead and when should I follow? When do I offer my fraternal wisdom and when do I shut up and listen?
We all want our kids to be resilient and street-smart adults, empowered to ‘make the call’ and, even, free enough to fail. But we also love more deeply than we can rationally fathom. Our drive to protect is instinctive and strong. It kicks in with force if we intuit danger or pain of any sort. At the same time we know just as deeply, though not as instinctively, that intervention is not always in their best interests, nor ours. Sometimes we need to let our kids have the dance floor to themselves. But when?
The one encouragement that I hold onto in all of this is that the parenting dance is a slow waltz. Parenting is no one-night stand. It’s a long-term relationship. When I get it wrong and bruise my kids’ feet or they bruise mine, we’ll dance again tomorrow. And, who knows? We might even get it right. What’s more, ours is a dance of love. As I remind myself often, when my kids know they are loved and they know that our relationship is for keeps, there’s room for bad days. Even with two left feet, the waltz continues.