The leafy New England campus, with its august buildings arranged around a grassy quad, looked straight out of a college catalog on the Sunday morning in late May when my daughter received her B.A. I sat, one of a large crowd of proud parents waiting for the ceremonies to begin, and stared at the photo of her that I’d taken on my phone minutes before. Standing in line with 455 cap-and-gowned classmates, she was beaming, lit up like a national monument, and with good reason. The day’s glory had been hard won, the four years leading up to it regularly punctuated by tearful late-night phone calls, when she’d felt overwhelmed by the immense academic workload, or some staggering personal crises: A professor hated her, a guy didn’t text her back, a friend let her down. Even without a crisis, she’d often felt exhausted and lonely, and not up to the job at hand, be it a paper or a party.
But then, as I’d found out long ago, life would never be a parade for my daughter, a self-doubting perfectionist with social antennae as sensitive as tuning forks and moods that could best be described as mercurial. There had been times during grade school and adolescence when she’d been so unhappy that my heart would break for her, and I’d wistfully compare her to her more unflappable friends, girls who seemed less troubled by the everyday challenges and disappointments of childhood. Then, just as I’d begin to worry that she might never get out of bed again, when nothing I said or did seemed to comfort her, she’d peel off the covers, shake herself out, and make her way back to the purgatory of middle school.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after all the tears and self-flagellation, she’d eventually found friends among her college classmates, allies among her professors, and the path toward a career for which she shows a clear love and aptitude, one that involves helping emotionally fragile adolescents like the one she once was.
I passed my phone over to my son, who glanced at the photograph and smiled. “She looks happy,” he said, “for once.” His remark underscored the difference between him and his sister. Unlike her, he’d always been a grasshopper among the ants. Relaxed to the point of fecklessness, he’d brushed off responsibilities the way other boys brush off dirt. When I’d compare the B’s he brought home from school to the A’s of his more studious friends, he’d staunchly maintain that B’s were “good enough.” His only real interest in high school was athletics, and he’d work out every day of the week like some Schwarzenegger wannabe, keeping himself in shape so that he could compete in the unlovely sport of wrestling on the varsity team. I worried that he’d turn out to be one of those people who hand you unwanted flyers on the street. It wasn’t until his second year of college that he found a field of study he seemed to think worthy of his attention, at which point he suddenly let loose all the effort he’d been hoarding for twenty years and wound up forging a career that actually requires him to use his head, and not a headlock. Upshot: he sat next to me at his sister’s graduation, holding my first grandchild on his lap, a loving, responsible husband and father who looks forward to wrestling playfully with his son.
As he handed back the photo of his sister, and I looked from his smiling face to hers, it occurred to me that I should have had more faith in both of them. Why hadn’t I seen that if my son went to a smelly gym every day, it might have said something, not about his attachment to trivial pursuits, but about his capacity to work hard for what he wanted? And why, rather than focusing on my daughter’s emotional lows, hadn’t I rejoiced at her ability to recover her balance?
Sure, I’ve always delighted in my children’s achievements, as well as in their sweetness, their humor, their spunk, and their oddities. I just wish I’d slid the scale (the one we mothers carry around in our heads all the time to measure our kids’ well-being) more in the direction of delight, and less toward the worrying and competitive end of things. Because now—admittedly a little late, but finally—I understand that if we compare our children to other people’s all the time, and incessantly fret about their not measuring up, we not only undermine their self-confidence, but cast a shadow over our own joy in being their parents. If, on the other hand, we dwell on their strengths (my daughter’s resilience, my son’s stick-to-itiveness) rather than on their weaknesses, if we take pleasure in their idiosyncrasies and have faith in their abilities, we will almost certainly be happier parents of more self-assured offspring.
In fact, having faith in our kids, and letting them know that we do, is probably as much a part of our job as feeding them. Our faith in them encourages their faith in themselves, their belief that they can handle the problems life throws their way, and find a path that works for them, one, perhaps, that we could never have imagined. At which point, we can confidently open our arms, let them soar out into the world—and surprise us!
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.