Martorella: What do you expect?

I have been having a lot of conversations with parents lately about our kids. (Wow, there’s an intriguing opening sentence.)  My children are well past the early years when you discuss what they do — the bodily functions, cute pronunciations, milestones, and misbehaviors. Now our discussions focus more on who they are and what they may become. What are their interests, who are their friends, what do they want to be when they grow up?
Interestingly, many of my parental peers are more perplexed now than they were when they first brought home baby with no instruction manual. In those first months and years, we knew we didn’t know anything, and we were surrounded by others who knew this too – doctors, caregivers, more experienced parents. Advice and instructions, though not always wanted, were often given, usually with kind intent. We asked questions, we read books, we watched instructional YouTube videos.
But as our children age into the tween and teen years, and we begin envisioning them as young adults in the workforce and eventually parents themselves, many of us are struggling under the weight of our own beliefs and expectations.
Who are these kids? Why are they acting like that? How are they going to be able to lead independent, grownup lives? We wonder are we doing all the right things? Are we doing all the wrong things? Are we doing too little? Are we doing too much?  We feel like we should know more, as we are now dealing with rational (relatively) human beings who can use their words to communicate their needs. But are we listening?
This can be especially true when our children are vastly different from us. Extroverts with introverted children, athletes who are raising couch potatoes (or maybe more like desk jockeys), conservatives pulled along by adventurers, academics whose children struggle in school.
It is tempting to try to steer our children down our own familiar path, or maybe the path we couldn’t take. Signing them up for the activities that we enjoyed, extensive tutoring to aid towards a dream of the Ivy League, clubs/camps/volunteer/jobs to fill their extra time.
Early on, we talk about who they resemble most. We look for similar traits and appearances. “Ah, she’s creative like you.” Or “Oh, he’s got your curly hair, blue eyes, stubborn streak.” And so on.  Later, we often have to work harder to find those traits. But why are we still looking?
For a variety of reasons (that have been discussed here before), it feels like our lives are more intertwined than ours were with our own parents. Of course the intention is usually very good. We want to give them all the opportunities, help them make good choices and stay out of trouble, but maybe we focus too much on replicating an end product that we can understand, rather than letting them follow their own path.
I remember a friend asking why I always referred to “my” children in this space, not “our” children. I thought it was a natural thing to do since I was speaking for myself and not necessarily my husband, but he thought it was exclusionary (perhaps because he is a dad himself).  I didn’t change anything at the time, but maybe I should. I mean, I’m very willing to share the responsibility, as is evidenced every time there is a bad behavior that leads me to say, “That is YOUR child.”  But others ask whether we are excluding the child from the equation when we label them with a possessive.
Mindfulness expert Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D., addressed this in a Psychology Today article back in 2009 entitled, “Letting Go of Expectations, A Lesson in Mindful Parenting”, writing:“Thinking of family members as my son, my cat, my family, my wife, etc. intensifies my own ego, and causes emotional turmoil when they aren’t behaving in the way that I want. By not attaching my ‘self’ to their behavior, I am more open to understand and accept their experiences. Also, I am less likely to view other parents and children in ways that are comparative and competitive.”
Not that any of us do that last thing.
Another parent recently told me, “I can definitely see me and my husband in her, but there is a whole part of her that is just……her.”  And that is the beautiful part. The unique and special piece we haven’t seen before.
Sometimes it can be difficult to appreciate our children for who they really are, not who we imagine, expect, or want them to be. Parental support is critical, and sometimes our children may need a little push. But when our arms start aching from the force, we may need to step back.
 
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at [email protected]

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