“All parenting turns on a crucial question: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves.”
I read these words in the description of Andrew Solomon’s latest book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. I haven’t yet read the book, as it just came out, but it’s on my list. In it, Solomon (who won the National Book Award for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) draws on interviews with over 300 families in which the children were profoundly different from their parents. He spoke with families dealing with schizophrenia, deafness, and other disabilities, as well as those with transgender children and prodigies. (For more information, you can also visit the book’s website.)
The quote above caught my attention, as it is one that I struggle with on a regular basis, in small and big ways. My daughter doesn’t seem interested in math and science, but that would be a good career for her, so should we push it? She’s an anxious child; do I embrace the anxiety (a genetic gift I gave to her) and make life easier when I can? Or do I push her to face it, and hopefully overcome it? And of course, there is the obsession with Hello Kitty and the Disney Princesses. Do I accept my fate (and their love of all things girly and pink) or push forward with my wish for them to be strong, independent girls, unphased by the glitter and glam of pop Americana?
And what about the bigger questions, the future? As much as I’d love to tell you that I don’t have plans for my daughters, that I am willing to follow them on whatever path they may choose, it’s not entirely true. I expect them to be healthy and functional, contributing members of society. I hope they get an education, find life partners, start families, and work hard at careers that inspire them. I want them to be happy, and make the world a better place.
Now that I’ve written it all out, it seems like an awful lot to expect of another person. And yet, I can’t imagine wanting anything less for them.
I know that my daughters are young, that so much of their lives, of our life together, has yet to unfold. My daughters are healthy now, but they may not always be. As I contemplate the possibilities for the future, my anxiety-prone mind swirls with words like cancer, mental illness, rape, and addiction. There may be accidents or injuries. So much can change so quickly, or unfold slowly over the years, the result of one micro-injury after another.
So much of what happens may be beyond my control. But what about that which isn’t? What is my responsibility to my daughters? What is the line between accepting my children and every choice they make and wondering if they can do better, pushing them to step beyond their boundaries, to try something different.
As with so much of life that evades easy answers or clear paths, I suspect the answer here is not either/or, but both/and. If parenting is a long, difficult hike, my job as a parent is to keep us generally pointed towards the summit, but to hold that final vista very, very lightly, aware that it may disappear at any time. As a family, we will detour often, we will stumble and get hurt. We will argue about which path to take. We may be surprised by our strengths, burdened by our challenges, and supported by each other. Hopefully, we will find clearings along the way, moments when we stop and breathe and get some perspective on where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed. And then we will head off again, at different paces, with different plans. We will lose each other, perhaps enjoying moments alone, perhaps feeling scared and lost, and then, if we are among the blessed, we will find each other again.
I know we will never reach that summit. Perhaps we won’t even be able to continue walking together as a family. (I can’t imagine such a possibility, and even writing the words makes my chest tighten.) But I hope I will have the wisdom to know when to push us forward, when to hold back and let my daughters choose their own paths, and perhaps most importantly, when to stop, breathe, and take in the moment, wherever we may be in it.
My four short years of parenthood have been, all things considered, relatively easy. Yes, there have been sleepless nights and exhaustion so deep I couldn’t imagine feeling rested again. There has been loneliness, sadness, confusion, and frustration. But there has also been love and attachment, joy and contentment. Beneath it all, though, my girls are healthy and connected, and more or less who I imagined them to be. It will likely not always be this way, so I’m trying to stay present and grateful.
At any moment, I may become a parent who is raising a child very different from myself, from anything I have experienced. I hope, and pray, that if and when that happens, I will have the wisdom to release myself and my family from our plans from the future, and focus on what we do have: our connection to each other, and the moment we are sharing. Undoubtedly, Andrew Solomon’s book on families that have lived with these differences will offer stories and perspectives that will both nourish and challenge my ideals of mindful parenting. I look forward to reading it.
Have you read Far From The Tree? What are your thoughts on it?