SELF-IMPROVEMENT is a term that inflames my desire to be a better person about as much as bright yellow SpongeBob underpants stoke my libido. Yet I’m always aiming for my “personal best” by reading spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, doing Kabbalah workshops or chanting in Sanskrit. These days I rely on my kids, who daily offer me a crash course in self-improvement. Here are some ways in which being a parent has helped me to become a better human being:
My son never moved on from the Terrible Twos. For years I tried time-outs, consequences, punishments, rewards, naughty corners – even shouting. I read the books; nothing worked. I was all out of solutions. Next tantrum, I didn’t react, recoil from his screaming, or judge it. I just sat with it. Beyond the noise of his anger, I sensed a deeper, unspoken frustration. Suddenly I got it – he needed my help to contain his anger, which was much too big for a small person on his own to hold. As I watched his emotions flare and subside, I was reminded of a meditation technique to dissolve physical pain or emotional trauma. Staying with what is difficult is a form of deepened presence, which I’ve learned through the Tantrum Meditation.
Being in control
“Over my dead body,” I said when, at nine, my son begged to play rugby. “You’ll lose a tooth, break a bone, become a paraplegic,” I explained. He cried and pleaded. “One game only,” I conceded, “and if you get even a scratch, no more.” Well, that boy was so fast, so proficient (how did he even know what to do with the ball?) that he was crowned Man of the Match. The following weekend, he fell off a fence playing chasey and broke his wrist. He had to be in plaster for six weeks. As soon as his cast came off, he was back on the rugby field. Being a parent keeps teaching me: I am not God. It’s a tough one to swallow, but I’m working on it.
Telling the truth
My friend Katrina told her kids upfront that there’s no tooth fairy. I told my daughter that Katrina was lying so, at 11, she was still hooked on the fantasy – and I began to dread every wobbly tooth. One night, mid-tooth fairy visit, I accidentally woke her and, in a moment of fatigue, I came clean. “I hate you! Why did you lie to me?” she wailed. I lied to her because I wanted to give her magic. But, in that gift, I conscripted myself to eventually betray her. Before I had kids I believed truth was an absolute. Now I know that it’s grey.
I’ve always made it a practice to volunteer and give to charity, and I’ve felt like a very nice person because of it. But this generosity is conditional – I’m in control of how much I give. Parenting takes us to a new place of generosity, starting with the time-share of our bodies in pregnancy. I handed over my sculpted abs in labour to the surgeon’s scalpel, then donated my nipples as I breastfed through mastitis. I gave up sleep, exercise, clarity of thought, independence, privacy and my allure to the opposite sex. Parenting is the perfect antidote to selfishness. It keeps moving the frontiers of my own generosity (often into the territory of self-sacrifice). Just when you think you’re all out of giving, you find you can always squeeze out a little bit more.
When my daughter was being bullied, I suggested she tell her teacher. “Mum, adults don’t always know what to do,” she said. I told her, in my wisest voice, that soon this bullying would pass, and that those bullies would become delinquents with bad karma. As a tear fell down her cheek, she said, “Yes, Mum, but what about now?” I had no answer. Parenting continually humbles me when I realise that I don’t always have the solution, nor do I know how to fix everything.