The Viennese Quack, Pikachu, and Parenting with RA

There are two things I have found that solicit the most unwanted and inaccurate advice from others: rheumatoid arthritis and parenting. Whether it is friends, family members, or casual conversation with an acquaintance, if I bring up parenting or rheumatoid arthritis, it is as if the words “please give me advice” appear on my forehead.

Parenting is a tough subject to talk about. In my experience, whether I’m conversing with parents or non-parents, everyone seems to have an opinion on the right way to do it. I have many ideas about the right way to parent my own kids, but my children continue to remind me that I am an idealist, and that they are the realists.

The role of parents on how to properly raise children is a hotly debated subject in the culture I seem to engage in. It is a complicated argument, and sure inspires some fire, harsh judgment, and hasty blame.

Betty Friedan argued in chapter five of the Feminine Mystique that parent blaming was partly the result of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory becoming popular, and pervading early 20th century advice from “experts on parenting.”1 According to Freud, children harbored unconscious attraction to their parents, and resolving these unconscious conflicts was necessary for proper growth (see the Oedipal and Electra Complex for more). In gross summary, if a mother was too permissive with her children, too withholding, too intrusive, too overprotective, too smothering, or too whatever, the child may grow into a neurotic. The role of fathers on generating neurotics was less clear, which many argue was part of Freud’s male bias and/or cultural mores of the time.

Friedan’s argument and analysis of Freudian theory are far more complicated than I have remotely touched on, but the idea is that mothers were put in an impossible role: “Go to work and your children will turn into delinquents. Stay home and risk messing them up.” The role of society, culture, and peers, is completely ignored. Somewhere along the line, it became commonplace to believe that mothers/parents are to blame for all the mistakes of their children, even when they are full grown adults.

Some people take the opposite position, and argue that genetics play the greatest role in determining personality, career choices, preferences, ethics, and lifestyle, and that parents have little to do with it. For instance, there are the cases of identical twins separated at birth, who when reunited as adults were nearly identical in their careers, taste in music, sense of humor, and so on.2 It can’t be the parenting that explains the striking similarities, so it is likely the identical DNA. Other say it is not genetics so much as the role of peers. Teenagers individuate away from their parents and towards a social group, which shapes values and preferences more dramatically than parents do.3

Plenty of books are written on these subjects, and it is much more complicated than I have touched on. I don’t know the answer, and probably never will. What I do know is that when my twelve-year-old stepson is begging for more time to play Clash of Clans, he cites the need to keep up with his friends, and how cool the kids are that have level 10 bases. We can’t let him be embarrassed by his measly level 6 archer tower can we? If I weigh in with, “Today’s hip is tomorrow’s hype, kid,”4 that won’t stop the incessant pleading for “just two more minutes please! I just need to collect my loot!” I love my stepson, and I play the game with him, but enforcing time limits is not as easy as it sounds. I also know that when he needs to feel safe and loved, or when he has a question about life and growing up, he comes to his mother and I.

It seems to me that a parent’s role is neither total, nor totally absent. Genes, peers, society and culture likely all play some role. At the same time, I have made plenty of mistakes that were not my parent’s fault, and I don’t think my genes, culture, or my peers are to blame either. I blame my lack of foresight. The more I think about this parenting question, the less I know.

Speaking of what I don’t know, I had no idea how hard being a parent was until I became one. I also had no idea how hard having rheumatoid arthritis was until I had it. Parenting is already an enormously difficult task. Add in the daily difficulties of RA like pain, fatigue, brain fog, inflammation, and stiffness, and the little things become that much harder. I love my children, and am grateful to be able to strive and to struggle raising them, but extremely hard days where I yearn for rest and being off my feet in a quiet room are not uncommon. Some days have been absolute nightmares with flares so severe that I required crutches, or had to lay in bed alone, in quiet, and in the dark. Chasing after a baby with stiff hands, swollen feet, and mind numbing fatigue never gets easier.

Just a few days ago, I was in the kitchen discussing a recent blood test with my wife that showed my white blood cell count in the borderline low range. My stepson was busy chasing virtual Pokémon characters around the house, but overheard us and saw us hugging. Even though a Pikachu could at any moment appear, and he might miss his opportunity to run after it with a phone in front of his face, he put the device down, and came into the kitchen. He gave us both a hug, and asked what was wrong. I explained it, and he stayed and talked for a while.

As we arrive at the first site of adolescence, an imaginary audience waits in public to embarrass him for being seen with his doting mother and quirky stepdad. Catching Poké Balls and powering up his avatar dominates his moment-by-moment aspirations. Our oldest is now taking the first steps into being a teenager, and our youngest in now taking his first literal steps into toddlerhood. I look at the future and it is filled with unknowns. We are constantly adapting to the demands of RA, my fluctuating health, and a rapidly changing world. There is nothing easy about being a parent with rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time, my love for my kids, the joy of seeing them laugh, and my hopes for their future keep me going despite the difficulties.

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