With the media-driven, marketing day of love just around the corner, I thought a post about love was timely. More specifically, how Ryan and I learned to love each other — I like to say we grew into love rather than love at first sight — which, in turn, taught our young adult daughter how to love.
When Ryan met me, at 20-years old, I was CRAZY. I was an unstable, insecure girl with the relationship mental age of 16, coming from a dysfunctional situation. Up until then, all the men I had met were sought out and used to fill a void, as most girls with daddy issues do. Self-medicating to kill the pain of family divorce, affairs, bullying and abuse in high school – I was what some might lovingly refer to as “a hot mess.” It was at this volatile point in my life that I met Ryan.
Then known as Ryan McKinney, this guy was a ridiculously handsome and rebellious 20-year old with a shaved head and beard. He was an aspiring rapper and DJ, who rode a motorcycle and went to Cypress Hill concerts and got into trouble with friends. By trouble, I mean he got pulled over because of a headlight out; they found opium on him and the rookie cop didn’t know how to classify it, so he got charged as a minor in possession of cocaine. But I digress.
This young man was the kind of rebel that most girls at that age, including me, find incredibly attractive. He wooed me with evenings filled with corner store Chianti, frozen chicken patty sandwiches, 3-foot bong tokes, and Sade’s ‘Love Deluxe’ on repeat. My insecurities were everywhere this poor guy looked, but instead of making me feel like a damaged piece of meat that he didn’t feel like digesting, he showed me something others did not: patience. It was in those little moments of clarity and love that I saw potential for more.
Again, like my last post, a disclaimer: This is NOT to say that things have been perfection. In fact, the first 5-7 years were ROUGH. That “seven year itch” thing is true. Life is rough to begin with, but add lack of time together and a baby to that mix, and it’s not ideal. I’d felt the emotional effects of divorce (twice), and however cliché it sounded, I refused to give up without a fight. Thankfully, I married to a fellow Earth sign: hard-working, loyal, and resilient. We both agreed divorce wasn’t an option.
The baby years are easy because you think, ‘Oh, she won’t remember this fight, she’s just an infant!’ Then all of a sudden, she was seven and watching us battle over things like money, friends, family, life. Ryan and I had to learn to be friends, spouses, and parents at the same time. As we learned to cohabitate and be a functional parenting team, we were also teaching Madison. Often our lessons were learned together.
Then one day we woke up and she had her first crush. How would we handle it? I wondered if Ryan would be one of those dads with a shotgun he cleaned when boys came over. So I asked him. His response: “I don’t need a shotgun. She can date whoever she wants, and if it doesn’t work, it’s cool. All I ask is that she is respected and feels safe. You don’t like her anymore? Cool, just tell her. You cheat on her or make her feel less than the young queen she is, then we need to have a discussion and I may pay you a visit.”
In that instant, he became the dad we all wish we had. The dad you knew to fear but you also knew would give you space and let you wander and discover. He was the dad that took her out to dinner periodically as a young teen, explaining to her that she needed to respect herself so that others would follow her lead. The dad that took her to buy her first red bikini when she was headed to a summer intensive in California at 15-years old (even though I asked that she get a one-piece because I was raised Catholic, I can’t help it). He was a quiet mentor, a trusted advisor, her emotional guide. He was the perfect yin to my yang. He balanced her need for quiet confidence, because she had a mother who embodied every Italian mother stereotype that there ever was.
I grew up with my daughter. I was a hurt and damaged daughter myself, who had to overcome a lot of psychological conditioning. I continually second-guessed my choices as a mom, never wanting to make the wrong decision. I was/am/will always be filled with constant worry about Madison’s well-being.
There have been so many years of anxiety about my choices as a mother and her choices as a growing independent. I’ve battled my need to use guilt as a parenting tool, but have also learned to go down other avenues. When someone hurts her, I turn into a fierce momma bear, a moniker lovingly used by her friends for me to this day. That’s what a mom does. We all want a parent that will pull out a sword and battle the dragons for us, at least I did — so I decided to be that parent. And now, almost 20 years into parenting her, I’m learning she can wield her own sword, and that I can holster my own.
To the parents who have insulted me (on purpose or otherwise) by saying, “I would never want to be my child’s best friend!” that’s your rule, not mine. As the parent of an only child, it is just who we are. Even as a parent to multiple kids, it is possible to be a parent and a friend. You are their parent, their friend, their confidant. You lay down the law but instill trust, and display the kind of unconditional love that allows them to talk about whatever: sex, drugs, or Yeezy. It’s “all Gucci,” as my niece, Bailey, would say.
So when I was informed by a 13-year old Madison that she wanted to hold a boy’s hand for the first time, you can imagine how it affected me. I got this weird feeling in my heart that’s hard to describe. It felt like a combination of adrenaline, heartburn, and bliss. I tried to contain my desire to shriek and sit cross-legged on her bed and ask her all the details. If you know me at ALL, I rarely am able to contain myself, and this time was no different. I let my idealist, romantic young girl ooze out, and relished this intimate mother-daughter moment that I’d never had growing up. I was being a girlfriend, but also finding the line as a parent. I was sharing in her first crush bliss, mmhmmm-ing and OMG-ing right along with her. She gushed about his “baby blue eyes” and “sweet texts,” and I gave her mom advice on how to handle it and move forward.
Later that week, I watched the hand-hold take place, and I may have shed a tear. Not because my baby was growing up, but because she wanted to include me in one of her milestones, something I didn’t echo at her age. As a mom, I am proud to say I have been included in all of her milestones. As a friend, I am proud to say I celebrated them with her.
In our 19 years of marriage, we’ve had more than our fair share of parenting tests, and have learned the lessons that we’ve passed on to our daughter. Would people write a book about our process? Probably not. Would they learn from it and find it helpful for their own style of parenting? Maybe so. I am often asked for advice from friends just starting their parenting journey. When teaching your kids about love and relationships, the best thing you can do is show off your accomplishments while letting them walk next to you during your mistakes. When you learn together, you grow together.
This John Mayer lyric said it best:
“Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too.”