Being the Best

4 May

A month or so ago, my daughter Isa burst into my music studio while I was teaching a piano lesson.

“MOM!” she screamed, “We’re doing a play at school and I want to play the part of a Nazi!”

A Nazi? What? My first thought was, “Geez—isn’t first grade a little early to be learning about Germany during the war? I didn’t even read The Diary of Anne Frank until I was in sixth grade….”

“That’s wonderful, Honey!” I gushed, hurriedly shooing her out of my studio because I was working with a student. “You can tell me all about it at dinnertime.”

Later after we sat down to eat, I finally figured out that “a Nazi” was really “Anansi”—the name of the lead character in the musical that her class was planning to perform. Twenty of Isa’s fellow first graders were to put on a musical called “Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock,” about a greedy spider who tries to trick the other African animals with the intent to steal their food. I didn’t expect much from a bunch of six and seven year olds—but at this age, anything these kids do is pretty darn adorable. Then Isa mentioned that she and her best friend, Sarah, were both up for the main role of Anansi the Spider.

With that tidbit of information, my ears perked up and goose bumps formed on my arms. I immediately went into MIM (Mommy Interrogation Mode). That competitive spark that had lain dormant inside of me since my older kids were young ignited and began to burn fast and hard. Right then I knew that my seven year old daughter was meant to play the role of Anansi the Spider.

I decided to play it cool and not let on how eager I was for Isa to get this role. With the expert acting ability of a mother who has raised four children, I hid my excitement behind a perfectly crafted mask of nonchalance, and asked, “Okay, Isa—so tell me—did the teacher say anything about whether or not you might get to play Anansi?”

“Well,” she said, picking the bell pepper out of her green salad and putting into a neat pile on the side of her plate, “What we do is sign up for the part we want and then the teacher decides who gets to do it.”

“Do you think you have a chance to get to play Anansi?” I asked, pretending that I could care less about whether or not she would snag the most important role of her lifetime. I tried to hide the insane zeal that was overtaking my body by not squirming too much in my seat.

She popped a piece of chicken into her mouth and tried to explain, but I put up a hand and stopped her before she could get another word out, “Isa—manners! Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

After a subtle eye-roll (a seven year old—rolling her eyes—really?) she finally finished chewing and continued, “Sarah and I both really want to be Anasi but I’m okay with it if she gets the part—I also signed up to be a lion.”

A Lion? What? NO!  My daughter has to get the best part! She’s totally spider material!

Well, Honey,” I said, trying to sound reasonable, “You really should try to get the main part if you can—I mean, you’re a really good singer and dancer, after all.” Visions of Isa bowing to a standing ovation and thunderous applause rolled liked movie clips behind my eyes.

“I know, Mommy. I would be a little bit sad if I didn’t get the part, but Sara’s really good at it and I kind of want to be a lion anyway,” she said. “So I think I’ll tell the teacher that Sara can be Anasi.”

She put her fork down. “I’m done. May I please be excused?”

“Not yet.” I said, my shoulders sagging with disappointment at her indifference. “Eat the rest of your salad first.”

I know—I’m just pathetic. You’d think that by the fourth child, I’d be done living vicariously through my children, but old habits are hard to break. I spent years (with help from my husband) pushing my three older children who are now ages 23, 21 and 17 to strive to be the best at everything in order for them to succeed. And for the most part, every single one of our children tried their best to live up to our expectations. They excelled in school, sports and the arts. They received numerous certificates, awards and trophies that are now packed into dusty boxes high up in their closets. They were popular, had many friends and they never got into drinking and drugs. They were all accepted into good universities.  And most importantly, they’ve turned out to be intelligent, funny, and kind human beings. They even like to hang out with their middle-aged parents sometimes.

But there is one thing they are not:  they are not decisive and motivated about their futures. They are having difficulty trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. They are, to some extent, a little bit lost.

I’m constantly worried that they are not getting on with it.

Now, I can easily blame their lack of focus and motivation on Isa’s cancer diagnosis five years ago—what teenager who has had to deal with a sibling suffering with cancer wouldn’t fall apart after that kind of life-changing experience?

I could blame it on the Attention Deficit Disorder that runs in my husband’s family or on the depression that runs through mine. I could lump my kids in with an entire generation of twenty-somethings who have no idea how to work hard because society told them they were entitled. I could blame it on the fact that they received a fancy trophy with their name engraved on it every single year whether or not their team won any games.

It would be easy to place the blame on anything and everything except where it really belongs: squarely upon my own shoulders.

I do understand that the struggles they are now experiencing are common for many young adults, but I also know that how I raised them has much to do with the difficulties they face today. I can finally admit to myself that their lack of motivation in life isn’t all related to Isa and her illness, nor is it about genes or generations. The problem is that my older children have never learned to really know themselves. They’ve always struggled to live up to what I wanted them to be. Because I’ve dealt with my own issues of self worth for most of my life, I’ve spent entirely too much time worrying about whether or not others thought I was a good mother. To put the pressure on a child of being the best at everything is something I now know is unfair. How could my children possibly have learned be truly passionate about anything when they were always trying to prove themselves to me—and to satisfy some unspecified need that I had?

My older kids are now at the point in their lives when they’re asking themselves: “What do I want to do with my life? What do I care about? And the truth is, because I’ve told them for so long what it was they needed to do to be successful, they never had the chance to figure out what truly motivates or interests them—or what it is they’re really passionate about.

Because I also couldn’t stand to see them disappointed or sad, I over-protected them because I didn’t want them to experience any sense of pain or loss. I never once let them fall on their faces. As a mother of high-achieving children, I always believed that if they succeeded at something, it proved that I was a good mother. But if they failed—I failed —and that was just too difficult for me to face.

My greatest mistake as a parent is in not allowing them to make mistakes and then take responsibility for the fact that they messed up. It’s especially hard on mothers to see their children struggle and not succeed at something because we’re genetically designed to nurture and protect and love our children unconditionally. I now see that I placed way too much emphasis on them being the best at everything, and I tried too hard to control their lives when I should have been more concerned about letting them explore and create and find out who they were inside. I should have let them learn to take more responsibility for their actions instead of bailing them out when they ran into problems. I should have spent more time worrying about my own needs and desires and what it was that I was passionate about instead of solely focusing on helping my children “be the best” at everything.

I should have not cared so much about whether or not they got the lead role in the First Grade play.

Isa didn’t end up getting the role of “Anansi”—it went to her best friend, Sarah—whose goofy personality and energy made her perfect for the part. Isa was given two parts in the play—a lion and an elephant. She was spectacular as both animals—singing and dancing her heart out with gusto. The play was a great success.

Perhaps I’ll be strong enough fight off those competitive demons and allow Isa to experience a different type of childhood than that of my other three kids. I’m older and wiser now so I hope I can guide Isa to become an independent and self-sufficient young adult, and most importantly, to nurture within her the ability to learn and create and give from the heart for Isa, not just to please me.

As I sat in the audience that afternoon, observing Isa and her classmates sing and dance in their play, I was content. Watching twenty first graders romp around having fun just being themselves, I learned another lesson: Success isn’t just about proving that you’re the best at everything and it certainly isn’t about landing the lead role in the play.

Success is putting your heart and soul and joy into doing what you love and knowing it’s enough. We should all take a lesson from first graders.

10 Responses to “Being the Best”

  1. injaynesworld May 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Sounds like you’ve raised a pretty good kid there. I wouldn’t worry about her at all — unless she comes to you one day and really does want to play a Nazi. 😉

  2. debatterman May 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    I think there are certain things we do as mothers, in the interest of protecting/nurturing/ guiding our children and I make no excuses for that part of me that wants/needs to be there for my daughter forever, something I touched on in my recent blog post (which clearly touched you). Isn’t it something of a dance we do with our children — pulling, prodding, trusting when to keep them close and when to let go? I can beat myself up (and I do) for the mistakes I may have made as a parent, or I can accept that mistakes are something to learn from and my daughter may well be the person she is not because of the things my husband and I did or did not do but because of the ways in which we show our love.

    • Allegro non tanto May 5, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      You’re right, Deborah– how we show our love certainly is the most important aspect of how we raise our children. But learning to show that love in a constructive manner is what I’ve had trouble with! As you said, we all make mistakes–and what we learn from those mistakes is what is so valuable. So I keep learning, day by day, year by year–and perhaps someday I’ll get it right!

  3. Britton Minor May 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    This is a fantastic piece, and should be included in every parenting manual in existence. We are so supportive of our kids, sometimes, that we forget to let them fly and fall on their own. But the skills of hard work and perseverance will serve them well too. Parenting is not perfect, and it sounds like you are doing a fabulous job!

    • Allegro non tanto May 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

      Well, Britton, I’m trying. I’m getting better at it all the time–God knows I’ve screwed up enough with the older kids; maybe with my youngest I’ll get it right (although I’m sure she’ll find something to blame me for when she grows up….)

  4. Becky Green Aaronson May 6, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    So true, Jessica. It’s important to let them fly using their own style and technique, but it can be agonizing to watch them when they head in a direction we wouldn’t choose, or bump along using a technique we know could be better. I think this is the hardest part of parenting–letting them be who THEY are, not who we think they should be. I know I struggle with this too. Great post, Jessica. Really great.

    • Allegro non tanto May 6, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

      It is worse than agonizing! I just want them to not have to make the same mistakes that I made.

  5. roydonkin May 16, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    Jessica, you’re giving yourself far too much power… they will each figure it out, skinned knees, broken hearts, good choices and not so good ones. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing – love them – and try to remember that at least two of them with a third well on his way are now grown-ups.

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