Sunday, February 17, 2013

After two decades, I still don't know how to parent. But tomorrow is a new day.

We all have parenting moments about which we're not proud.  I had one recently, and it's humbling in that I thought I had learned enough over the years that I'd know better.

Guess what.  I didn't.

Here's the story: Since she was little, my daughter has wanted to, as she put it at age 9, "own (her) own show choir."  Through a great deal of hard work over the years and a large number of opportunities given to her by some gracious people, she's been on her way to doing just that. (OK, not owning one, per se, but directing one.)

So when she called a couple of weeks ago and said she's delaying her plans so she can take another job, it was clear that I hadn't read Parenting for Dummies, because my reaction was 100 percent wrong. And the sad thing is, when you have one of those moments, there's no such thing as a do-over.

It's not as if Caroline has decided to delay her plans because she's going to work at Dunkin' Donuts or spend time "finding herself."  After she graduates from Drake in May, she's going to work for a national nonprofit as a leadership consultant, gaining and honing valuable skills as she travels across the country.

Of hundreds of applicants for the job, she was one of only 10 young women selected, so there was, and is, much to celebrate. She'll travel for a year, and when she returns, she'll apply for teaching jobs.

Great news, right?  Only I didn't celebrate.  I reacted as though she had hurt me personally. I was decidedly underwhelmed.  Every "Of course I'm proud of you" was followed by a "but." I threw up roadblocks and warned of dire scenarios.  By the end of the phone call -- one during which Caroline assumed she would receive her mother's unconditional support -- she was crying.

The whole time, I knew I was reacting badly.  But I couldn't stop myself.

Pathetically, I was making the decision all about me. As difficult as it is to admit this, I've enjoyed the music-related parts of Caroline's life as much as she has, or even more than she has.  You've seen hockey dads? Baseball dads?  For many years, I've been a Music Mom, and I guess I'd allowed myself to believe my daughter's accomplishments had somehow constituted a reflection of me.

Cognitively, of course, I've known that's not true; anyone who knows Caroline is well aware of her independence and drive. Our in-joke is that she can't just be a part of an organization; she has to run it.  Sure, I gave birth to her and made sure she was fed, clothed and sheltered, but everything else has been all her.

So when she began to accomplish things on her own, I probably allowed myself to become too wrapped up in them. Sure, they weren't about me -- but I had raised her, and involvement was one of the perks. And how great was it that she had decided to concentrate on music, one of my great loves?  When she decided she was going to become a music teacher, my joy could not have been more complete.

But then the other opportunity came along, and she decided to take it. And although I'd raised my children to make their own decisions, I found myself upset and confused.  "What do you mean you're going to switch gears, Caroline?" I asked. What I really meant was, "I've been counting on this. And it's clearly all about me."

It wasn't, of course.  But that's the way I reacted. And I'm ashamed.

Fortunately, it didn't take me long to realize how ridiculously I was behaving, and to tell my daughter how sorry I was for my lack of support.  She and her brother both have been blessed with a tendency toward graciousness, and she seems to have forgiven me. But like all those other crappy parenting moments we wish we could undo, this one will hang around.

Webster's defines humility as "the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance or rank." Could it really be that it's taken me 24 years of motherhood to realize that simply because I gave birth to two humans doesn't mean they are of me and about me?

When I was 21, I had my own dreams, and I was given the freedom to make my own mistakes and relish my own triumphs. My kids deserve the same opportunities.

As a part-apology and part-celebration, I gave Caroline a gift today: a charm for her Pandora bracelet. It's a tiny suitcase to represent the road she'll be taking for the next year, and I gave it happily and with no emotional strings attached.

What I really want that gift to say is, "Congratulations for refusing to listen to your mother, and choosing to live for yourself." She comes from a line of strong women; how silly of me to ever have expected anything else.

Bon voyage, Caroline.  I'll be here when you fall, and I'll be here when you triumph.  As always, my money is wholly on the latter.


  1. Aw, Lisa. Every Mom is a work in progress. Love.

  2. I can't tell you how many times I have made similar mistakes as a parent. I'll have to tell you sometime about one that I'm still kicking myself for.

    The fact that you apologized has shown Caroline that parents are (gasp!) sometimes wrong. If she's a parent herself someday, it will take some of the pressure off. But more than that, it teaches her that a heartfelt apology can be a new beginning.

    Good luck to her. And don't stress about this too much.

  3. I predict you will be just as excited about this new position - I think you are hard-wired to be excited about your kids. You'll love it and she'll see that.

  4. Thank you, ladies, for taking the time to read this, and for commenting -- your thoughts mean a lot.