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The Great Unknown

by The Next Family March 01, 2011

By: Shannon Ralph

Shannon Ralph as a Girl

I spent the afternoon today with my daughter rummaging through a box of old family photos. My daughter was more than a bit amused by momma’s clothing and hairstyles circa 1985. It’s fun to look back at those pictures. To see who I was back then. To remember what I was thinking and what I was doing during certain times in my life. To see the stages I went through—some good, some bad, and some downright ugly—to become the person I am today.

As I am sitting here listening to the excited screeches of my three children playing some weird version of Cops and Robbers in another room, I find myself wondering what they will become in the years to come. Who will they be when they grow up? What kind of people will they mature into when I am finally, reluctantly, forced to let them go? I find myself full of questions today. Unfortunately, I am horribly lacking in the answer department. Welcome to parenthood, huh?

At dinner with my mom and sisters a couple of nights ago, we were discussing the rearing of children. My mom raised four children on her own. (Yep, that’s us in the picture above. I am the one on the left rocking the sexy Marcia Brady hairdo.) Not a single one of us died or ended up in prison…to date. In my book, that makes my mom a leading authority on the topic of raising children. So I assailed her with my questions. How do you raise your children to be good people? How do you teach them to do the right thing? How do you get to a point where you can let go of them and trust that they will make good decisions? After much wrangling and discussion, we came to a definitive conclusion. The answer? We concluded that we simply do not know the secret formula, if such a formula exists at all.  You try your best and then you hope and pray that it sticks. Parenthood is a crap shoot, at best. A conclusion that is not at all comforting.

I have a cousin who is a couple of years younger than I am. My sisters and I grew up with her and her older brother. We were constantly together as children. She spent nights at our house. We spent nights at her house. My cousin was given everything in life. Everything a child ever needed or wanted, she had. She had two parents who adored her. Though they certainly weren’t wealthy, she enjoyed financial stability growing up. I am sure she was read to and played with and encouraged every day of her life. I was incredibly jealous of her as a kid because she had everything in the world I ever wanted. Her own room (I shared mine with both my sisters). Every toy. Every article of clothing. Every opportunity.

Despite a picturesque childhood, my cousin ended up pregnant her senior year of high school. After graduating, she went on to get married several times to a handful of different men. She has been with abusive men. She has been with incarcerated men. She has been with men who treated her like complete garbage. She has two children now who are being raised by her mother because she is too strung out on drugs to care for them. Or apparently about them.  She’s been given every opportunity to change. To mend her ways. But she continually makes bad choices. I am not sure that she will ever get her life back together. So what caused her to be this way? Where did her life take a turn for the worst?

I also enjoyed a relatively picture-perfect childhood. That is, up until I was ten years old. When I was ten, the oldest of four children, my dad developed a brain tumor. It was a quick and lethal and he died right before Christmas, shortly after I turned eleven. For years after that, I would listen to my mom cry herself to sleep every night. Prior to that point, she had never held a full-time job. She went from being cared for by my grandparents to being cared for by my dad, a guy she met when she was nine years old and he was thirteen. She did not have the means, nor the know-how, to care for four young children on her own. In essence, I came from a broken home. Perhaps not broken in the typical sense of the word, but something definitely “broke” in all five of us the day my dad died. We were never the same again. My childhood abruptly ended at eleven years old when I realized that the world was not the safe, secure, happy-go-lucky place I had always assumed it to be. I was rocked to my very core by the knowledge that bad things could and do happen to good people.

Eventually, my mother enrolled herself in college and graduated the same year I graduated from high school. Throughout my entire four years of high school, my mom worked full time and went to school full time. My three siblings and I spent a lot of time at home alone. Times were lean, to say the least. The bill collectors were fervent and determined. We learned to say that my mom wasn’t home, even when she was. My grandparents helped us out. Our church helped us out. My sister, Amy, and I took care of the two younger kids when mom was at work or school. My siblings and I had a lot of free time on our hands. We spent many hours unsupervised and alone. We had plenty of opportunity to get into trouble. We had the means. We had the motive. We had every right to be angry and rebel. We had lost our dad. Our rock. Our family’s anchor. We could have gone crazy. We could have revolted against authority. We could very easily have turned into delinquents. But we were good kids. We’re still good kids (if you can call a bunch of graying thirty-somethings “kids”). As I look back on my adolescent self, I wonder why. Why were we good? Don’t get me wrong. My siblings and I were far from perfect angels. We made ill-advised decisions. We got into trouble and acted idiotic. But our “trouble” was minor. Stupid things every teenager does. All in all, we were good kids.

So what was the difference between us and our cousin? What is the secret formula to raising good kids? I look at my own children and I wonder. Sophie is similar to me in many ways, but she also has a defiant streak a mile long. Will that propensity for rebellion get her into real trouble one day? Lucas is a happy child. Always joking and playing. But he’s my sweet, sensitive one. He struggles with anxiety at times. A lot of the time. Will anxiety get the better of him and fuel his decisions? Nicholas is my baby. He’s a follower. He worships his older brother with a rabid devotion. Will he eventually be a leader, or will he be a follower his entire life? Who will he follow? And to what end? I worry. I fret. I look at my aunt, who I absolutely adore and who is an exceptional mother, and I think, if she can have a kid that messed up, what chance in hell do I have of raising good kids? I don’t know the answer. Parenthood is the great unknown, I guess. I adore my children. I try to teach them right from wrong. I try to set a good example. I tell them I love them often. I kiss them and hug them constantly.

All I can do, like any parent, is hope and pray that it is enough.

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