This afternoon I spent a harrowing hour biting my nails and waiting to hear the test results. No not another test on my heart or broken brain. In fact this test wasn’t even anything to do with me! I was waiting for my son to finish his placement test for what math class he’ll end up in next year. He’s already in the advanced math track so this test would simply determine whether he got into advanced-advanced math.
When he finally emerged from the testing center I was struck by two things: How tiny my 11-year-old still looks and how the expression on his face was exactly mirroring the expression on my own.
This test had everything to do with me.
“How did you do?” I asked a little too eagerly.
“I don’t know yet,” he answered with the same edge in his voice, “but the proctor said I did better than anyone else today.” And then he broke into a huge grin made even sweeter by his outsized teeth and smattering of freckles. “Aren’t you proud of me, mom?” He held up his hand for knuckles.
My heart caught at the question. “Of course I’m proud of you sweetie!” I exclaimed. “You’ve always been my smart boy!” And then I stopped, reliving a million similar conversations when I was the one with the freckles and buck teeth. (Okay I still have freckles and buck teeth.) “I’m so proud of you for trying so hard,” I corrected myself. “I know how hard you’ve been working and studying this year. And that’s what’s important – what you learn, not what math class you end up in.” (Because when I’m feeling insecure I really like to hit hard with the theme mallet.)
But I’m not sure if he believed me. I’m not sure if I believed me.
When your children are yet unborn all they are is potential. You don’t know anything about them, what their strengths are, what food they’ll hate, what people they’ll love, what worlds they will build. But once they’re born they start the process of moving from pure potential to actual human beings. And it can be hard for us parents to make that transition sometimes, especially if our self worth is tied up with theirs. It shouldn’t be – I know that – and yet it’s hard not to feel personally invested in something you’ve poured so much time, energy, money and love into.
“He really is a mini-you,” my husband chuckled when I told him about the test.
He waited for me to smile but I couldn’t. I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want him to go through his whole life thinking that if he just tried a little harder, he could be truly worthy, not realizing the finish line is always moving. It reminded me of another lesson from that parenting class I took at my church last weekend – the teacher had cautioned us to not let their brilliant, beautiful potential make us miss the brilliant, beautiful people the are now. I don’t want him to think that I love his potential more than I love him.
“You’re not living up to your potential.” Those are probably the scariest words anyone has ever spoken to me. I’ve spent my entire life running as fast and as far as I can, always trying to reach that elusive goal. It seems like I should be able to do it – after all it is my potential – and yet I never quite get there.
I was a child prodigy, sort of. I was reading at a college level by second grade. I have never gotten anything less than an “A” on anything in my life. I graduated early, was valedictorian of every graduating class I’ve been in and had my bachelor’s degree by 19, my master’s degree by 21. I say this not to brag — on the scale of child prodigies I rank somewhere between “middling” and “challenged” – but to explain the driving motivation behind my entire life. When you start out that fast, you expect to keep going at warp speed.
My teen years were a blur of trying to always be ten steps ahead of where I was. I couldn’t be thin enough or smart enough or fun enough to represent the real me. College was worse. I ended up giving my valedictory address with an IV catheter still taped to my hand because I’d worried myself literally sick about what was next. I’d had to go straight to commencement from the hospital where I was being treated for a variety of stress-induced maladies ranging from a severe kidney infection to panic attacks to an ulcer to raging IBS.
Instead of feeling proud of my accomplishments, I was terrified. Because the corollary of “you could be so much more” is “you aren’t good as you are now.” And if straight A’s and scholarships and slim hips weren’t good enough then what was I going to have to do to get there? Could I possibly do anymore? Perhaps I was just dumber and fatter and lazier than people realized. Maybe I was already at my full potential and they were the ones who didn’t get it. But I didn’t dare tell them lest they be disappointed in me. How do you top a lifetime of hyperachievement?
So instead of becoming a NASA scientist or a celebrated artist I became… nothing. Seriously, I had a breakdown. The impetus was a devastating miscarriage at 20 weeks but all that really did was sever the last anchor tying me to sanity. I spent four months holed up in my apartment playing endless rounds of puzzle games on the computer and listening to melancholy Spanish music, waiting for my husband to come home and tell me what to do next. (See, even in my breakdown I was still trying to improve my spacial and linguistic skills haha!) I wasn’t working. I couldn’t carry a baby to term. Heck, I couldn’t even eat without puking half the time (my IBS was that bad). I couldn’t get over my disappointment in myself. With all that potential, this is what I do?!
Eventually I pulled out of it by volunteering at a battered women’s shelter. I did the most menial clerical work. I cleaned bathrooms. I organized files. I wrote hundreds of thank-you cards to people who had donated money to the shelter. I rationed out diapers and bus tickets, wiped noses, listened to the every day woes of the women. It was marvelous. It taught me how bad some other people have it (and how they handle it with so much grace) but even more, it humbled me. I learned that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was (or as smart as everyone else thought I was) — indeed, I was normal and that was okay. I was still me.
Normal gets a bad rap, frankly. Nobody wants to be described as “average” or “ordinary” or, heaven help you, “just fine.” People would rather be anything but normal, no matter how awful the alternative – a fact that Miley Cyrus has banked her entire career on. But what is so wrong about normal? From a weight standpoint, normal is the best place to be. It is the very heavy and, oh yes, the very skinny who have the highest mortality rates. Unlike in fashion, if you are interested in good health, then there is such a thing as too skinny. From a life standpoint, while we laud the exceptional, normal has a lot to recommend it.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be encouraged to maximize all their talents. Achievement is good but it’s not everything. Rather, I’d like to see us encouraging people first to be happy, to be healthy, to be kind to others and then to look around for what to do next. It took me a long time to notice because they are not often acclaimed but the happiest people I know are not those who are the skinniest or the smartest or the highest-paid or even the most talked about. But they are the wisest.
I realized tonight that I did end up exactly where I wanted to be. I may not have a Nobel prize but I have four amazing kids who are growing into four amazing individuals, a wonderful husband who understands my quirks, friends who care about me, a house to keep me warm and a job I enjoy. I am happy. And I’m happy because I didn’t get what I thought I wanted.
Similarly, for my own children I have learned to define success a little differently than I did for myself at their age; the only thing I want them to achieve is true happiness. Granted, that’s a pretty nebulous concept and there are many different paths to happiness but if their road doesn’t take them through Carnegie hall I’m okay with that. So tonight when I was tucking my son into bed I told him, “I want you to know that I love you simply because you are you. You don’t have to earn it or prove it. You can’t lose it, even if you try. I love your potential, but I love you even more.”
I hope he believed me. I hope I believed me too. Sometimes wanting so much more for someone means accepting so much less.
“I love your potential more than I love you” — How many times do we say this to our kids, to our spouse, to a friend? To ourselves?? Anyone else ever struggled to balance achievement with just being?
*After reading this, I imagine many of you will think I grew up with a Tiger Mom and Dad but honestly I put all this pressure on myself. They were (and are) loving and supportive parents and I’m blessed to have them.