By Elizabeth Rutherfurd
The sun was bright, but it was cool — a jeans and sweatshirt kind of day at the beach. My daughters, Marcelle six and Jacqueline three, were squeezed into their little wetsuits romping around at the water’s edge as they have done for years. But today was very different. Daddy was taking them surfing. We were at Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz, CA. Marcelle climbed on his back with her little arms around his neck, her face peering around his head, wild with smiles and anticipation. He paddled out with her on his longboard to watch the surfers, the sea otters and to peer from above into the kelp forest. With big thumbs up from the salty old surfers in the line up waiting for a wave, he and Marcelle caught their first wave together. They paddled back to shore after a long time, Marcelle hollering to me from afar, “Mommy! Mommy! Did you see?” Jacqueline was so excited; Lewis was not allowed to exit the water before taking her for her turn. It was an incredible experience for us all.
I was on the beach overwhelmed by gratitude. It was such an intense experience for me. Sure, I was concerned for their safety, but Lewis is a life-long ocean swimmer and works for the National Parks Service providing ocean rescue for San Francisco beaches. More importantly, the experience was intense because it was a metaphor for my ability to surrender as a mother. My girls were out in the vast ocean, riding waves with their father. I was suddenly aware of how my children embody the most wonderful aspects of their father. I saw in them the pure joy of observing and interacting with nature, an unquenchable curiosity—a quality I love in Lewis. I see things like this about them all the time. I see in them his strength and his intellect. My girls love bugs and hiking, rock climbing and sea creatures. They are prone to lengthy adventures in the wilderness, completely losing track of time and hunger. They are hearty and fearless and understand the mountains and the ocean in their little ways. They know and show his weaknesses. They push his buttons as they push mine—with equal force and distance. I am struck by the undeniable reality that my children know and embody their father as well as they know and embody me. This may not seem revolutionary to some, but it is to me.
I was my mother’s daughter. My father worked long days and traveled extensively as an Air Force fighter pilot. The house and the kids were my mother’s domain. My father was always a reserved person, much as my mother tried to coax him to be social. My father’s quiet soul, my mother’s natural out going personality and the clear division of labor intensified the experience of distance from my father. I revered my father, modeling him from a distance in an attempt to win his respect and admiration. My mother made nearly every important decision about how I was raised, from what I ate to how I would be disciplined. If my father disciplined us, it was almost certainly because my mother assigned him the task. In addition, if my father took the initiative to act on his own, my mother was generally running interference, moderating his decrees. My mother’s well-intentioned dominance in my life had many effects, one of which was an imbalance in my perception of them as people. My father was on a pedestal. My mother was deeply flawed. Always being the one to make or break me, to be the wall against which my sister and I pushed must have been incredibly hard.
I remember sitting in my most comfortable chair after Marcelle was born six years ago—bawling. I was not just crying. I was simultaneously consumed by pristine love and adoration and terrified by responsibility and the potential for loss. Looking down at my days old child, sitting alone in my house, I wailed because I realized that the extent to which I loved this child was also the extent to which I would grieve if I lost her. I then also realized that I was going to experience the joys and pains of her growth as intimately as I had experienced my own. I would have to watch her cry and get hurt, physically and emotionally. The thought terrified me. I already knew this child better than anyone else on the planet and she was only days old. I lived to watch her thrive. She grew only at my breast. She slept in the crook of my arm all night. She was strapped to my chest in the sling all day. We were inseparable. For me, this was a necessary passage into motherhood, and I reveled in it.
Lewis never seemed to feel left out, but rather looked on with awe and wonder at what had manifested in our lives. He seemed content to let me do my thing. He was helpful and learned to use the sling. I watched Lewis hold Marcelle awkwardly and struggle to figure out what would make her stop crying. I saw him become impatient with himself and with her. He fumbled with diapers, and I was sure he would let her slip out of his hands in the bath. I felt fiercely protective of her and did not want her to experience one moment of unnecessary hardship. This was how the meddling began. I thought it was best to tell him how to take care of her. Why did we both have to struggle to learn her language when I could easily translate? I was always there with advice, tips, and outright demands about how things should be done.
I do not remember exactly when it hit me, but it did. I want a different life than my mother. I am not interested in the clear division of labor that my parents had. I want to win bread and run the house. But in addition, I want my children to know their father. But the reality was—I interfered in every element of their relationship—his limits, love, care, even the completion of mundane baby duties. I told him how to do everything, and I had to stop. I was standing between them, preventing them from ever truly knowing one another. I was not allowing him to learn about his child through trial and error as I had been allowed to do. No one stood over my shoulder—watching and judging. I was not allowing him to blunder and more importantly, to succeed. I made a decision to extricate myself from their relationship. It is a choice that I have to make again and again.
Interference is occasionally necessary to avoid serious consequences, and sometimes this can be a fine line to walk. I interfere a lot. But every time I don’t, I am incredibly grateful. It is not easy to watch another person fumbling to respond when your small child is screaming. It is not easy to stand by and watch your lover overreact to the blatant manipulations of a two-year-old. It is hard to watch your husband walk out of the house with your baby without the diaper bag. It is also difficult to stand by while your six-year-old leaves for school in bizarrely mismatched clothing with unbrushed hair. And when the consequence of not interfering makes more work for me, it is even harder. However, I now choose not to interfere. The joy of not interfering is not immediate. It requires self-restraint, tolerance and consideration. Sometimes, I literally have to bite my tongue. Sometimes, I have to turn around and become suddenly interested in a spot on the wall. Sometimes, I have to walk away to the other side of the house and make myself read a poem. Sometimes, I go and take a bubble bath. Sometimes, I actually have to leave the house. Many times, I get involved and wish I didn’t.
The experience of observing without comment brings a new and profound light to my role as a mother. I see the effects of my non-interference in my husband’s confidence as a father. He has paid his dues, learned the hard way, and knows where he stands with our girls. He makes being a parent look easy. I am developing the ability to observe without comment while my girls fumble and succeed through their lives. Lessons that will no doubt continue to be relevant. I realize now that this is just another in the long string of lessons about surrender, balance and faith. Eventually I will have to give my children over to the world completely, but for now I have to practice in small and wonderful ways. There is joy in learning that Daddy’s way is just as good as Mommy’s. Mommy makes better food, but Daddy makes grand adventures. Mommy keeps us warm, and Daddy keeps us inspired. Mommy sings us songs, and Daddy reads the newspaper. We are both flawed, and we both love them with everything we have. We are both striving to be great for each other, our children and ourselves. I make a choice every day, sometimes many times a day. It is a choice to surrender my children to their father, his strengths, his weaknesses and his waves.
About Elizabeth Rutherford
Elizabeth Rutherfurd lives in San Francisco with her two daughters, her new baby boy Hugo, her husband and her dog. She also owns Rutherfurd Coaching Services providing coaching for families and small businesses in the Bay Area. And as if that weren’t enough, she is the volunteer director of the Parents’ Support Network of San Francisco.