There’s a lot that I don’t get right about parenting. But there are also moments of grace when I do, when I love him with a ferocity that neither of us has earned.
I was in graduate school when I had my first child; I wrote my dissertation in snippets while he napped.
School was logical, ordered. I knew the rules to the game and played it well. This parenthood was a new abyss for me. Some nights, I would sit up with my baby in those soft midnight hours, watching his cheeks puff as he nursed, smelling his milk-scented breath, and feel this was my best accomplishment yet. Other nights, I started to weep as dark swept in, because night was coming, and I had no idea what I was doing, who I was in this new dance of wills.
I didn’t always understand this child, this wide-eyed boy who would not be distracted from his goals, not for anything. Who regularly emptied out my cupboards and took all the books off my shelves, and waited, delighted, for me to put them back so he could do it again. When he slept, it was always on his terms, not mine: short scraps of naps, an adamantine bedtime at 6:30 pm—if we missed it by even 10 minutes, he’d wake up at 5 am.
“He’s the most intense child I’ve met,” my mom said once.
I didn’t answer right away, mulling over this new revelation that maybe I wasn’t as terrible at parenting as I’d thought—maybe my son was just intense.
“He gets it from you,” she said, then laughed, because my own single-minded focus had made my teen years particularly difficult for her. “I suppose it’s payback.”
At nearly twelve, my son is still intense. Bright, focused, good at school. Sometimes he’s so much like me that it hurts.
He gets it from you. Intelligence and focus can be inherited traits, but there are other things we get from our parents, learned, but no less an inheritance.
In junior high, I brought a test home to my parents, reporting that I’d gotten the highest score in the class. “That’s great,” my dad said, “but don’t brag about it.”
I had just begun to learn the pleasure of a straight line of As, an incontrovertible marker that I was smart, that I had done something well. Now I learned something new: doing well on a test was good, but it wasn’t enough.
Years later, my dad would explain to me that when he was a young man, people had mistaken his confidence as arrogance, and disliked him for it. Because he loved me, he didn’t want me to face that same reaction. But in trying to temper my confidence, he inadvertently taught me to doubt myself.
Grades became both a question and an answer, something I sought to reassure myself that I was intelligent, valuable, worthwhile. Because I did not (sometimes still do not) believe I was inherently worthwhile or likeable, grades were a way to garner respect. As a freshman in college, I would climb the stairs to campus, and, overwhelmed by the throng around me, I would recite my GPA to myself in my head, remind myself that I was there on scholarship. It was a lifeline I clung to.
The problem with external markers, of course, is that they’re never enough. You always need another marker, a bigger one, to hang your esteem on. And the flip side—if you only know how to value yourself for your achievements, it becomes hard to value other people on any other scale as well.
It’s taken me nearly three decades—and some therapy—to decouple external markers from my sense of worth. I’m still not entirely there.
My husband calls me the most competent insecure person he knows.
I have an uneasy relationship with my brain. Even as I hung my self-worth on being smart, I learned not to trust my own perceptions. Anxiety sometimes sent my brain spinning in circles, treading and retreading the same ground until I could no longer see things clearly. Including myself.
Mine was a home full of (mostly) gentle teasing: if my dad or brothers gave you a hard time, it meant they liked you. Most of the time I bore it well enough, but sometimes I snapped. Generally, my brothers teased me about being stupid, or silly. (In retrospect, it seems telling that they never once teased me about my weight, which they might legitimately have done, but about the one thing they thought was safe. After all, if I’d been voted “most intellectual” by the senior class, why should I doubt myself?)
One night, I left the dinner table in tears and fled outside to the triangular corner patch where my mom kept her garden. My dad came to find me later. It was dark by then, the yard full of shadows, the sky full of stars.
I said, “I just want to make you proud. But I feel like what I do is never enough.”
My dad was quiet for a minute. Then, his voice thick, he said, “you’ve already far outpaced all my expectations of you.”
He gave me a hug, and I cried.
It was a revelation to me: the expectations I carried were ones I’d somehow picked up myself. All my dad had done was try to support me—hours spent working through calculus assignments, or reading through essay drafts. My principal told my mom she’d never seen a dad so devoted to his kids’ schooling. He came to every parent-teacher conference.
And I’d misread all of it. These weren’t signs of a conditional love—that he loved me so long as I did well in school. They were just signs of love, from an imperfect human being, shaped and misshaped by his own parents.
I wonder sometimes what legacies—witting and unwitting—we give our children. What fault lines cross generations?
My grandmother, my father’s mother, was not an easy woman. Mostly, I remember her frowning, snappish and querulous. My dad doesn’t talk much about her, so I have to fill in the gaps with what I remember of her.
She took me out to eat once when I was in high school. She complained about everything: her food, the wait time, the staff. When the bill came, she didn’t want to tip our waitress. “She talked too much,” she said, even though the poor woman had only been trying to make my grandmother happy.
At the end of her life, she was put on Prozac. “It’s like she’s a different person,” my mom said. It was my mom who mostly visited my grandmother in the nursing home; it was too hard for my dad. I wonder now if my grandmother was just depressed for most of her adult life.
At parent-teacher conferences, my son’s teacher tells us that he’s reading at a college freshman level, and she’s amazed by his abilities in math. “I think I’m one of the smartest kids in my class,” my son says, matter-of-factly.
“There are lots of different kinds of being smart,” I tell him. “Sometimes kids who aren’t book smart have really high emotional intelligence.”
“Yeah,” he says, his voice a little smaller, “I don’t think I have that.”
It’s not until much later, when the conversation replays in my head, that I hear the smallness. That I hear the unintended message: you’re not enough.
I hear other things I tell him, as the oldest child bearing the brunt of my expectations: put your brother’s toy down, leave your siblings alone, do your homework, don’t just sit around. So many imperatives. How many of them are born out of my own sense of inadequacy, my need to control this boy as if he were an extension of myself, and not his own curious self?
How does he see himself, when he hears my voice in his head?
These questions haunt me.
A few months ago, we walked into church late, fuming at each other. This child that can be so much like me has also mastered a knack for getting under my skin like no one else. I don’t remember what our fight was about now—I just remember the burning feeling that suffused me, even as I sat in the pew and listened to the end of the opening hymn. I did not sing. I folded my arms and crossed my legs and tried not to touch my son.
The spirit nudged me, but I ignored it. I clung to my anger and irritation because I felt I deserved it—never mind that my son is not yet twelve and I’m supposed to be a grownup.
But after a while, he shifted toward me, and, with a half-anxious upward glance, he leaned his head on my shoulder. I stiffened, then relaxed, letting my head rest on his thick, tufted hair, just as I have since he was a bald, fuzzy-headed baby.
Love washed through me, wiping away the earlier irritation. He is my kid, after all. After another minute, I snaked my arm around him and whispered, “I love you.”
There’s a lot that I don’t get right about parenting. But there are also moments of grace when I do, when I love him with a ferocity that neither of us has earned. I think my dad would say the same: he’s in Japan right now, on a mission, but he emails me to tell me that he read my most recent book, and enjoyed it. In dad-speak, that amounts to, “I love you. I’m proud of you.”
On good days, I believe that this love will carry us through the hard times. On bad days, I’m confident that the question is not if I’ve messed my son up, but how. On all days, I cling to a stubborn hope that the atonement works in parenthood, laying in veins of gold alongside the fault lines.