Parenting for the Needs of Your Child- Johnny's Story
I was talking to my friend the other day about how she was led to her career as a social worker because of her heart for children. It evolved into a conversation about what life experiences helped to shape our passions in life. Unlike my friend, my passion is not as much for children as it is for mothers – which ultimately benefits children. With my own children, or children living at the center without parents, I have a close connection, like some people have with all children. However, when a child has parents, I am not as hands-on. I now believe this is because I subconsciously am aware this child has a mother, and that his or her need is met. My heart lies with supporting mothers to be confident in their parenting choices (and to choose what is best for their families).
I believe that, like anyone who has been given a love for a group of people or a cause, my passion is God-given. I also believe that experiences in our life shape our interests and who we become. In an attempt to look back on my life to find out why I have a desire to serve this community, I found it came from watching my own mother. The story I’m about to share is extremely personal and was not something I wanted to share without knowing the message would help others, which I believe it will.
I’ve written before about my mother’s experiences with her parenting. I am focusing on my mother here as well, not because my father was not a present figure in our lives (quite the contrary) but rather because, as my husband said a couple weeks ago, “mom gets all the bashing, and dad gets no credit.” The pressure of parenting is intense for mothers, and it has been for far too long.
My brother, Johnny, and my sister, Ali, were born three years apart in the 1970s. My mother speaks about hiding in the closet to breastfeed my sister when unsupportive family and friends were over. Weaning occurred very early with both my brother and sister because of poor medical information at the time and an unsupportive society. My parents felt the desire to co-sleep with their children, and keep close contact with their babies. However, the culture of mainstream parenting was not supportive of the tenants of “attachment parenting” (this was years before Dr. Sears introduced an AP type of parenting into modern culture). My mom felt the pressure to parent the way society was telling her to parent. So, that is what she did. My brother and sister were “conventionally” parented. My mom said that with my brother, more than my sister, she felt the need to follow her instincts and parent in a more AP style, but she didn’t because of pressure to parent one way by the mainstream culture. My brother came out of the womb vastly different than my sister or me. Many years after my brother’s childhood, Dr. Sears wrote a book about parenting a high-needs/special-needs child and about the importance of parenting according to the needs of the child.
My parents had me when Ali was 14, and Johnny was 11. My mom was now 35 years old and more confident as a mother. Times were changing and she parented me the way she felt was right for me. She fought against criticism to parent me intuitively. My siblings grew up watching how my mom parented me and saw the benefits of parenting for the child’s needs, rather than society’s wants, and my sister parented her children in the same way because of witnessing my upbringing.
My mother also believes my brother would have benefited from homeschooling. Ali (who was parented in the same way as my brother) was doing fine in a conventional school setting. Johnny’s personality and way of learning were more compatible with an independent study structure and less distractions. Homeschooling, at the time, was highly criticized by society. It wasn’t until his last year or two of high school that my parents decided to enroll my brother into independent study courses and saw the difference their child, but he soon graduated, so he didn’t reap as many of the benefits as he could have if he had started earlier.
Johnny was extremely sociable and loving. He had many friends, some great ones, and some that were not leading him to be in a good environment. Drug experimentation started, which (as many of us know) is very common practice with teenagers. Johnny’s ADHD and OCD brain along with an addictive personality became a recipe for disaster. Partying with his friends and self-medicating led to a full-fledged drug addiction.
I think people without personal experience have misconceptions about drug addicts. In their minds, every addict is a loser, someone who can’t get their act together, without self restraint, alone, careless. Some of those attributes can definitely be true, but from my experience, I just see someone broken. My brother was blessed in the fact that he had a family who was close to him and stayed by him through multiple hospital stays from overdoses (where he had 50% chance of living each time). We were blessed to have Johnny in our lives, as well. Empathy was something he was not lacking, and I think attributed to some of his depression and self-medicating. His absolute love for our family was overwhelming. My brother proves that even if you don’t practice attachment parenting, children can be loving, empathetic, and well-attached. He loved and looked up to my dad, and was protective of my mother, trying to shield her as best he could from his destructive lifestyle, because he knew how painful it was for her to watch. My sister was three years older, but they were so close that they were like twins. I was younger, but doted on. I still, to this day, have found more devoted or loving siblings as I had in mine (still have in my sister). They were always excited to play with me and loved that I was part of their lives. This was not a story of a child addicted to drugs and estranged from his family… we were present daily.
Unfortunately, drugs are mind altering and can warp your perception of life. Hopeless, having done rehab and feeling his mind and body were literally broken, he decided to be extremely selfish. Johnny used the police as a means to end his life. He was shot and killed by the police on June 11, 2000. Such a violent death brought cameras and journalists to our door. It was my first experience with the media, and set the tone for what I know about the media today. I learned that some media outlets can handle issues with respect, while others just want the sensational story. “Blue Suicide” was not a common occurrence where we lived, and it was a heartbreaking lesson of what can happen to a life lost in addiction.
My mother will never say the police killed her child. If it somehow comes up, she says drugs killed him, and it is the truth. Watching my parents handle losing a child, respectfully approaching the police and apologizing to them that they had to do something so awful because it was necessary, was heartbreaking. I was 14 when my brother was killed and the statistics of marriages staying together after something so horrific as the loss of a child is extremely high. My parents’ marriage was always strong, but they ended up leaning on each other after this in a bond that seemed even stronger than before.
It gave me a surreal feeling to turn 26 this year. My brother died at 25. It felt like I was on borrowed time. Even though my life is my own, I realize I am now older than my sibling was at the time of his death. This is devastating and motivating at the same time. I started thinking a lot about my parents recently, because I am a mother now. They carry sadness daily. It becomes a new sense of normal for the whole family. Always in the back of our minds is a thought that one of our own is missing. I think a lot about the fact that my children will never get to meet their uncle, and Brian will never get to know who Johnny was, but must understand his personality through our stories. Seeing the similarities of my brother in my nephews and my own children is hard enough, but to know my parents are watching their son in their grandchildren is bittersweet. Losing a child is a wound I understand cannot be compared to anything in this world. It is a very unfair part of life that my parents have to experience. Even what should be joyful occasions will remind my mother of her senseless loss. I unexpectedly ran into my brother’s best childhood friend at Disneyland (it had been years since we last saw each other) a couple days ago and I texted a photo of all of us together and sent it to my mom. As happy as she was to see time moving on and the rest of us thriving, it was a painful reminder to her.
The most troublesome thing for me is the guilt involved in the loss of a child. It is a toxic and undeserving guilt but, no matter what, your mind goes to what you could have done differently when an outcome so tragic like this occurs. As parents, we are all going to make mistakes. There should be no guilt in this because it is part of life, and as long as we are trying our best and making thoughtful, loving decisions we need to accept that we are not perfect and life isn’t perfect. However, my mom also has to live with the guilt that she didn’t get to parent the way she felt was right because of societal pressures. She should be able to look back and think, “I made every decision based off of what I thought was right for MY CHILD at that time.” She and my dad can’t say that because we live in a bullying culture. That infuriates me. Would the outcome have been different if she had felt free to make the choices she and my dad felt were right for my brother? I don’t think so. There are so many factors that led to what happened, but that is not the point. The point is that there is unnecessary guilt from giving in to pressure from strangers and a society that does not know who you or your children are on a personal level. Blanket statements about parenting are destructive. We need to start realizing this as a culture.
Daily, mothers are shamed, pressured, and guilted into making parenting choices they don’t feel are right for their children. Anyone who ridicules parenting styles they don’t understand is speaking out of total ignorance. The most obnoxious make the most noise. Unfortunately criticism and ignorant statements can cause mothers to make choices that are not for the good of their child or their family, but rather because they are so ostracized by their communities.
I am outspoken about issues like normalizing breastfeeding and a parenting style that is misunderstood in our culture because I don’t want to watch another mother have a “what if” moment because she didn’t listen to her own instincts. We are all going to make mistakes, but we should not let society dictate what they will be. It goes much farther than normalizing just one style of parenting. It is about acceptance of meeting the needs of each individual child.
To parents: society does not know your children, and you know them better than anyone on this planet. Do not let hateful, bigoted, or ignorant comments shame you into parenting in a way you know is not right for your family. You are supported, whether you realize it or not. You owe it to yourselves and your children to be strong and move forward with the right decisions for your family. From feeding choices to the very structure of your family (I received an email today from a gay couple questioning whether to adopt or not because of what they feel is society’s deep hatred for same-sex couples starting a family). Just know there is an army of parents behind you. Some with similar parenting styles as you and some differing, but all supporting your thoughtful and loving decisions for your family.
You are not alone.