Here is something we want for our children, although this one can be a trap: Success. The kind of hope I am referring to here is unhealthy because it is generated from the parent’s desire to feel better not for the child’s highest good. So, when you are rooting with all your heart for your kid to do well and for things to go his way—stop! It’s a set-up. Realize it for what it is: you wanting to feel better.
I sat in the Atlanta airport on my way home from a weeklong stay at my university. I was relaxed and connected with my life purpose. I felt strong and at peace, ready to go back to my real life. I had learned so much. One of my instructors warned us that we would be tested as we transitioned back into our lives, some of us even in the airport. I guess I was one of the lucky ones.
I was excited to hear from my oldest son’s father that Joey had decided to try to take the ACT. He actually went to the building with pencils and calculator in hand along with that crazy piece of paper with your picture on it so you do not send in a ringer to ace your ACT.
To put this monumental event into context, Joey is a brilliant child who has struggled since the day he entered preschool. He has at least eight formal diagnoses including but not limited to dysgraphia, anxiety, school-related anxiety and depression, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, dyscalculia, AD/HD Inattentive Type, developmental disorders, sensory processing dysfunction, autoimmune problems and a few others.
I anxiously awaited any news from Joey’s dad about how things went. I was hopeful! Then I got the text. Joey finished filling out his name and the demographic information. Then he sat there for three hours staring at his test. Just staring.
All of the joy and hope in my heart was released in the Atlanta airport with an audible “Nooooo!!!!!” that echoed down the massive corridor for what seemed like minutes.
People stared at me.
I curled up in the fetal position and felt like my heart had been torn in two, as it had been so many times. We had worked so hard to make it to this moment. Joey is so smart. He could ace that test if I was reading it to him and filling in the bubbles for him. I had dragged this poor boy through school up until this point. He was beaten and ragged and exhausted and sicker than I ever imagined.
So there I was in the Atlanta airport, tears running down my cheeks, defeated, again. Was there no mercy? Couldn’t we get a break, just once? Joey deserved so much more. Poor Joey. Poor me.
But Joey was actually just fine after the ACT disaster. He learned he really needed a reader and needed to take the test over multiple days. In the end, the school counselor and I worked to get these accommodations for Joey, and he did eventually complete the ACT and got a decent score. So what was really going on with me in that airport?
I wanted to feel better because I was tired of holding all of the emotional pain around my son’s challenges. I was looking to feel better. I wanted some validation that all of the sacrifices and lost hours of my life working tirelessly by his side were going to “pay off” in the traditional sense. I was pushing Joey to take the ACT so I could have something I could hold up to the world and say, “See! He is okay! Therefore, I am okay! Now I can feel better!”
I see this faulty thought pattern quite a bit with parents regardless of the challenges their child is facing. It has nothing to do with the child or their issues. It is about the parent wanting to feel better about themselves. They are holding on to the idea that their children will perform in some way. Get that A. Earn that spot on the team. Score that goal. Win that trophy. Get into that university. Why? Not because they want their kids to be happy—that answer is a convenient and acceptable distraction from the painful reality no one wants to admit. All parents want their kids to be happy, but we’re more complex and messed-up than we realize. Parents want to feel better. Parents are seeking fulfillment and joy, not just for their children, but for themselves. There is nothing like the feeling of watching your child win or achieve. But when it comes from a selfish place, it’s like a drug, and it can be harmful to your child.
I am repeatedly reminded of this lesson with Joey. Interestingly, the universe keeps upping the intensity of each lesson. I was so excited to drop Joey off at a university to try classes (part time) and live on campus (part time) after a gap year of recovering from high school. I caught myself hoping again that this would all work out and wouldn’t that feel good. It didn’t work out. While I was sad and frustrated, I was not torn into pieces. I was not looking for the answer to my emotional angst. I have been working on that separately from my children. I no longer look to my children to help heal my age old wounds. The side benefit of my work is that when things are tough for my children, I can be the wise grounded adult who can love them just as they are, no need for change. It is much easier to find a new path to try from this perspective than one of hurt and victimization. Joey now feels safe to see failures as lessons that inform his future choices. This is one of those really, really important life lessons many adults take a lifetime to master. This is a key to living a fulfilled life. Yay for Joey!!!