Friday, October 21, 2011

The Next Chapter

“Parenting is hard. As anyone who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot. Things go wrong that you have no control over, and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those, either. The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself." Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

“I don’t think anybody feels like they’re a good parent. Or if people think they’re good parents, they ought to think again.” Joan Didion

In general, the first dozen or so years of child-rearing are a bracing, mind-altering, life-affirming time that forever changes our lives. It seems most people see their kids as little extensions of themselves, molding and folding them to present to the world, almost as new improved versions of Mom and Dad. It can be very exciting and thrilling as new worlds are discovered and new accomplishments are achieved. Of course, there can be tragic detours, brought about by one or more of the adults in the child’s life, or by mother nature herself, but barring this kind of interference (and sometimes in spite of it), the first half of the journey to adulthood is managed and controlled by the parents with ever growing skill and self-satisfaction.

Then something happens. It’s perfectly natural, but is often greeted with the most aghast kind of amazement. It can happen very early on (puberty will usually kickstart the process), or it can take awhile, sometimes years: children begin to mutate into adults, and seek to abandon their parental shackles. The process can last many years, but it involves the child’s exit from their parents’ “story” so they can begin one of their own, where they are the “protagonist”, and their parents are supporting characters. The arc of the first dozen years continues for the parents, but is diminished; the child begins a new arc and hopefully flourishes. It is traumatic and unnerving for the parents, even in the best of circumstances (and most families don’t experience “the best”).

I remember growing up in my first dozen years and always being somewhat puzzled and bemused when my mother would relay a compliment I had received from another adult. It seemed to make her very happy; I was okay with it, but often felt that she was “overreacting”. I didn’t really care so much about that adult’s “approval” one way or the other. In my next five or six years, I continued being the “good son”; my sister, on the other hand, was a true rebel, jumping out of the gate at around 13 with youthful bravado and strong will (how and why two siblings can be so different is fodder for another post). Though I made a few half-hearted attempts at defying authority, I didn’t really start my own story till I was in college, and then with a vengeance, but my parents were spared most of that because I was no longer living at home.

But despite being the kind of teenager parents might wish for (respectful, good grades, stayed out of “trouble”), I never followed the career path my mother would have preferred. She would periodically ask me, throughout my teen years and well beyond, “Don’t you think you’d like to be a doctor or lawyer?” Well, the idea was preposterous to me, not because I didn’t think I could accomplish either goal (I was always full of self-confidence), but because neither of those careers seemed to have much of a draw for me, and also because at a very early age I was infected by a “performance/artist” bug. My father didn’t seem to “care” what path I took, and at least outwardly supported my goals. Actually, my mother did, too, but I could have really made her day by adding a “Dr.” to my name.

To Be Continued

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