The starting gun fired 25 years ago, beginning my personal marathon that is otherwise known as parenting. From the moment my son, Aaron, was born, I was faced with a dizzying array of decisions. Cloth or disposable? Crib or co-sleep? Comfort or cry it out? Just when I handled those issues, the game changed and I was confronted with a new set issues. How much TV is OK? What about spanking? Did I really have to wear Mom jeans now? I blinked again, and I was wrangling with issues like cars, curfews and colleges.
In the beginning I shot from the hip, but it didn’t take long to figure out that making these decisions would be easier if I had a clear idea of my overarching parenting principles. Of course I loved my kid like crazy, but beyond that what was important to me? I settled on two things: connection and authority. Being connected to Aaron meant I was genuinely interested in really knowing who he was as a person. Having parental authority meant I didn’t let him forget that I was the mom and he was the kid. Perhaps more important, I tried not to lose sight of that fact myself.
When kids are little, it is easy to establish a connection. They count on you for so much, and your abilities compared to theirs are nothing short of magical. You can read! You can tie two unwieldy shoe laces into a bow! You can turn powdery flakes into delicious oatmeal! Anyone who has kids knows that the list of tasks parents have to do for a small child is endless. I found doing it with a light heart and a good spirit helped to transform the mundane chores of everyday life into something magical.
Some of my best memories with my kids are when we concocted silly routines to accompany the drudgery of daily life. Why just pack a lunch when you can see how many tangerines you can juggle before putting them in the lunch boxes? Why just drive to school when you can have a good game of slug bug, complete with elaborate and ever-changing rules, along the way?
As kids get older, they realize by degrees that you don’t actually have magic powers. But by then your connection should be so firmly established that no one really notices or cares when this happens. Meanwhile, your parental authority will undergo a transformation as well. Your role as an authority figure gradually disappears, and by the time your kids reach adulthood their respect for your authority simply becomes respect for you.
At least that’s what happened to me. Aaron and I were always lucky to have a strong connection. We have similar senses of humor and personalities that mix well. And once he reached the point where he realized I didn’t have any actual magic powers, I had another trick up my sleeve that kept him impressed enough to shore up my position of authority in his view: I am a lawyer.
While it’s true that lawyers are a dime a dozen, it nevertheless meant something to my son. It took extra years of school! It required really hard tests! You had to have a license! My status as a lawyer became the last little bit of magic I had in my son’s eyes. About that same time I began to notice that Aaron had magic powers of his own. He could put all my CDs on my iPod! He could sync my Blackberry to my computer! He could mail-merge my Christmas card address list!
Because he was pretty much grown, I didn’t really have a role of authority in his life anymore, and I was OK with that. But he still viewed me with a fair amount of respect — respect that had at least something to do with my profession. I was OK with that, too.
Then, a couple of years after graduating from college, Aaron decided to go to law school. Excellent, I thought to myself. He respects what I do so much he wants to follow in my footsteps.
I was accustomed to the notion of children’s lives revolving in loosely overlapping circles over the lives of their parents, much like a Spirograph in slow motion. My dad was a literature professor at Saint Edward’s University, which is where I ended up attending college — and I majored in literature, too, even taking classes from him. Years later, the Spirograph circled around again, and I found myself teaching a writing course as an adjunct professor at that same college. My dad had gone to Notre Dame. Decades after he had graduated, that’s where I attended law school. My mom founded a Montessori school that my brothers and sisters attended. A generation later, my children and their cousins went there, too. In short, Aaron’s decision to go to law school felt both flattering and familiar.
As he studied for the LSAT, he turned to me frequently with questions. After he got his score, he asked for my opinion on different law schools. He bounced topics off me for the personal essay he needed to write to include with his applications. He seemed to have more respect for me than ever.
I couldn’t wait for him to start law school. I was sure that with all of the trials and tribulations a first-year law student faced, he would seek my counsel and respect my input more than ever. And at first I was right. At the beginning of the semester, we talked about his different classes, his professors and his strategies for managing his work load.
But a few weeks into the semester something changed. He was working harder than ever, going to the library early in the morning and staying until late at night. I had never seen him take to something like this before. Every so often when he would get a couple of seconds, he would call to check in. But he was so totally immersed in his classes that he would want to talk about the cases he was studying or different legal theories.
“Hey, Mom. Do you remember the Sanyo v. Arista case from Civil Procedure?” he asked one time.
“Um, no, I don’t think so. What was it about?” I responded.
“Oh, wait. Never mind. It was decided in 2003 — that was way after you graduated.”
Apparently, a lot of cases had been reported in the two decades since I had started law school. To make matters worse, when one of his professors did reach back into yesteryear and dust off an ancient relic of case law that was around when I attended Ye Olde Law School, I didn’t recognize the case names, much less remember the issues or holdings.
This was getting embarrassing. I came to dread these calls and started “accidentally” not making it to the phone in time to catch his calls before they rolled to voice mail. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to Aaron. I just wasn’t thrilled at being stripped of the last vestige of respect my son had for me. I thought his studying law would give us a lot in common, but instead it was highlighting some big differences. Differences like age, memory capacity and . . . what was the third one I was going to mention?
Law school consumed his every thought. Instead of music, his iPod was loaded with course review materials — and he actually listened to them. My accidentally knocking over his sister’s glass of orange juice wasn’t just a spill to clean up, there were facts to analyze, law to apply and liability to determine. “There are no accidents. Someone is always negligent,” he was now fond of saying.
His class notes were meticulously organized and cross-tabulated with his textbooks. My boyfriend Clint, also a lawyer, and I tried to be patient with him, but he was driving us both crazy. Clint decided Aaron was suffering from a unique form of obsessive compulsive disorder that was far more extreme than simply having a Type A personality. Thus, Clint coined his condition Type AT (after Aaron’s first and last initials). Whatever you called it, the truth was undeniable. My previously laid-back son had become a law nerd.
Then it hit me. Aaron was a much better law student than I had ever been — and he was going to be a better lawyer, too. Sure, I liked law school and made good grades — but Aaron loved law school in a way I never did. That epiphany brought another realization: I had a tremendous amount of respect for the adult my son had become.
Somehow, we had come full circle. When Aaron was little, he thought I had magic powers and he had a lot of respect for me and my authority. Now, I was pretty sure it was Aaron who had the magic powers and I had tremendous respect for him as a person and for the authority he was developing in his area of study. While I can’t say I planned it this way, it sure feels like this is a good place to accidentally end up. But as Aaron would say, there are no accidents.
Christina Pesoli is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Her son, Aaron Terwey, just completed his second year at Notre Dame Law School.