Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.
My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.
What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.
I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs to
the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?
In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.
My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.
We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.
Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.
I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”
I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.
This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.
I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:
- Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
- Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
- Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then. Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
- Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
- Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
- Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
- No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
- Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.
As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.
When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”