I’m moved to explore something I have some personal experience with that I hope will be relevant to you. As I reflect on myself as a mother and as a daughter, it occurs to me that both roles are heavily burdened by expectations; expectations of myself, of my mother and of my daughters. I would like to share first the burden I experience in my expectations of my mother. She was a good person, a smart person, a hard working person. I have wonderful memories of her humor and her intellect. I have painful memories of her alcoholism and her frustration serving people who were not as smart and hard working as she was. My relationship with her was complicated. As she was dying after a very long, miserable struggle with congestive heart failure, she admitted to me that she had been jealous of my accomplishments. We talked about how different things were for women by the time I had a chance to go to college; an opportunity that was rare for young women of her socioeconomic status. I had long wondered what had gone wrong between us at a very basic level and was somehow relieved to finally have an explanation. But upon her death, in addition to feeling relief that her suffering was over, I also felt this profound loss of the possibility that we would ever return to that wonderful closeness we had enjoyed when I was little.
I think the hardest thing is to sit back and watch a child unfold, free of expectations, fears, assumptions or judgment. I am ashamed that I want their lives to reflect positively on my parenting. It isn’t that I want to shirk my responsibility to parent with strength and love; it’s just that I find it difficult to give them the space to make their own decisions, their own mistakes. My dreams for them look too much like my dreams for myself. Why would I deny them their own dreams? Why would I think I could predict the mistakes that would shape their character? When I was little if you were going to eat with us, you had to bring your own fork and plate; we had no extras. Now it is important to me to have enough to serve an army. Neither of my daughters share this expectation. Why would they? When they were little, we always had plenty of matching flatware and I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner to 40 on ceramic plates! When they were little, I decided that the ultimate measure of my parenting would be that my children never lied to me. Can you imagine? Talk about unreasonable expectations. It took a lot of energy to recover from those disappointments because, even though there was great honesty, there was plenty of deceit, as well.
Perry, Purvis, Baylin and Hughes all talk about how to show respect for the moment; to suspend judgment and simply be curious about the meaning the experience had for the child. What is so hard about this? I can talk to people at parties and hear about past escapades with a sense of curiosity and amusement. What gets in the way when the speaker is a child? Why does my idea of being a responsible adult suggest that a long lecture about my own life lessons will be meaningful enough to spare a child any of the suffering that is so inevitable in life? Sparing others’ suffering may be a noble idea but I really do know it is not realistic. Intellectually, I know that mistakes are great teachers and that all lives endure some darkness; but, emotionally, maybe I just want to spare myself witness to any more suffering in those I care about. It seems my responsibility is limited to resisting the lectures, staying curious about the experience, and loving this child even in the moments that make me question their judgment and fear for their future. And here we are: back to those pesky expectations again. I guess I will just have to keeping watching this movie and lamely throw my popcorn at the screen in warning when someone opens the door to the scary basement (credit Alan Alda for this metaphor for parenting).