In loco parentis

I have mixed feelings about Father’s Day (and it’s companion celebration, Mother’s Day) because, while they both address honoring those who brought me up, “father” and “mother” don’t exhaust the list of those who raised me and the ways in which they did do.

            There are innumerable ways to be raised: Who praised you? Who held your feet the fire? Who set the demands for “how to a person should be” that you admired and aspired to? Father’s and Mother’s Days also trouble me because I dislike how they re-inscribe the stereotypical masculine and feminine roles to which our culture remains attached.

            They draw a small circle around and within the nuclear family that makes it seem self-contained, as if two people are or aught to be enough to bring anyone to healthy, mature adulthood. I know they weren’t enough for me.

            So when I consider what to do with these two “parental” celebration days, I ask a simple question: Who raised you?

            My father was a deeply flawed, even destructively so (especially to himself), but he still managed to affirm a thin and sickly son to pursue words and chase doing what he loved.

            My mother kept us on the straight and narrow with lashes from both belt and tongue, but her adeptness with money kept us clothed and fed and physically whole. Who set the bar high for what we could achieve, and made it clear that she believed we would reach it.

            I only remember meeting my Aunt Edna—my godmother—once, on a hot summer vacation visit to New York City where she lived. But the books she sent my brothers and me helped open the world to us, expanded my dreams, and fed my desire to be a writer before I even realized what that meant.

            Teachers, too, raised me all along the way, left pieces of themselves in me. They lent me a confidence I didn’t have on my own and let me know it was okay to question and seek my own answers.

            I was also raised by friends past and present with whom I have laughed and cried, who helped put me back together when I thought I was irretrievably broken.

            Lovers and partners also raised me. They demanded more of me, forced me to face my own contradictions and to answer for the lies I tried to tell myself and them. And in their loving me, they helped me recognized that I was worthy of love without having to be perfect, and revealed essential qualities I wouldn’t have seen in myself otherwise. And in that way, I continue to be raised by my present partner with her well of patience, support, affection, and love.

            My siblings raised me too, even when I neither wanted nor knew it. Their different points of view on, well, everything, in spite of our common experiences taught me about the instability of what we think we know. They taught me how it’s possible to love even those you don’t like sometimes. And in adulthood they’ve returned to me memories and perspectives about myself, my experiences, and my attitudes that I know I otherwise would have lost. They’ve reminded me of how the events of a narrative can stay the same even while the meaning changes dramatically.

            But most surprising of all, my children have helped raise me. Seeing the impact of my decisions on their choices, seeing how much they’ve needed me, seeing their beauty, energy, brilliance, and vitality, the challenges they face and their responses to them, all help me experience an insight I’m always in danger of forgetting: that we are each of us a work in progress; that we are forever being raised with attendant failures and successes in that process of trial and error we call “life.”

            I hope I never stop being raised, and I hope my role in the raising of others never ends.

            Toward that goal, I want to keep the following questions ever close to me:

Am I spending my attention and intention on those who matter most to me?

Do I live my priorities in such a way that those in whom I’m most invested see them clearly?

Do I affirm those I care about in ways that nurture in them a love of themselves and the things that bring them joy?

            Because that’s what the people who raised me did. I know because, living or dead, they raise me still.

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