My father-in-law’s funeral was this past week. As my husband prepared his father’s eulogy, years of memories bubbled to the surface since his father’s death two weeks ago.
My husband did not recall any gift or toy or expensive shoes his dad bought him. He didn’t recall pricey trips or clothes. But two overarching themes prevailed.
First, he doesn’t recall a time during his growing up years that his father wasn’t there. His dad was present. Now, his father always worked a full-time job, so he wasn’t always physically present. But when my husband needed him, he was always there.
As a parent, being there doesn’t mean I follow my children around the house and hover close to them, tending to their every need. It doesn’t mean I follow them to school and micromanage their education or peer relationships. It doesn’t mean I never miss a baseball game or school performance. In fact, sometimes being there means walking away and letting my children find their way and fall flat on their faces.
Being there simply means that when they are tantruming toddlers, it is my calm energy that will show them how to comfort themselves. When they get in trouble, I will help them see their mistakes for what they are. It means that when my children turn out to have different dreams from the dreams I had for them, I will support the person they are becoming.
It means when they get their hearts broken or don’t make a team, I am there. When they are teens and are going through the process of individuation, kicking and fighting their way into adulthood, I give them space to do so. And when they eventually leave my house and make their own lives, I am their home base, a place to return for comfort and stability.
The second theme of my husband’s eulogy was that he doesn’t remember his father lecturing him or telling him how to live his adult life. Instead, he showed him how to live by the way he lived his own life.
I do lecture my kids and give them enough verbal guidance that they will hear it in their nightmares and potentially make me a caricature when they’re grown. In fact, I think I’m already a caricature.
But more important than my lectures, my kids learn how to treat others by the way I treat others, when I get it right and when I get it wrong. They notice how I treat the waiter who brought me the wrong order. They hear when I gossip or make fun of people. They watch when I’m angry at the car dealership because my rental car wasn’t ready when they said it would be.
My kids watch us go to work so we can pay our bills and contribute to the world. They are absorbing how I make family a priority, and how I treat my friends. They hear my opinions on social justice, education, religion and politics.
They watch how we argue and how we disagree with each other, respectfully or not. Noticing how it made them feel to receive food and flowers after losing our loved one, they will become adults who take food and flowers to other families in their own moments of grief and need.
My father-in-law never claimed to be a perfect man, and my husband is not a perfect man. I’m nowhere near a perfect wife or mother, and we are not raising perfect children. Far from it. But these two lessons from the man who raised my children’s father are so important for us to remember as we raise our own children.
- Be there.
- Show them how to live their lives.
I needed a reminder this week that many of the things we worry about as parents — the right grades, the right school, the right extracurricular lineup, the right peer group — don’t matter greatly in the long run. If I reach the end of my life and my children say at my funeral that I was there for them and that I lived a good life, then I will consider myself a success.