My youngest daughter is a high school senior and struggling to juggle college applications, difficult classes at school, a part-time job and outside activities. I would not change places with her for all the tea in China despite the air of excitement and anticipation I get to experience vicariously. What I know, and she can’t yet quite see, is that she is at the cusp of her real life, the part where you go off on your own, get to reinvent yourself into any image you choose, sort through all the morals and ideals of your upbringing, hold fast to the things that still speak to you and chuck the rest.
Just last night at book club a woman was bemoaning the fact that her college age child is done with coming home and wanting very much to step straight into his new life, many miles away. She is deeply wounded by this and what I wanted to say, but didn’t, was “well done”, you have done the job of parenting perfectly. You have raised a confident, capable, independent human being who is now leaving the nest. All is as it should be. Relax into the new reality and don’t try for a minute to hold him back or guilt him into staying close.
I am already certain that this will be my exact fate. Alyssa will leave for college in nine extremely short months and never look back. This is both who she is naturally and the universe’s comeuppance to me for doing that very thing to my own parents. I was so keen to start my life over I could taste it. I could not wait to meet new people and see new things. I even dropped the second half of my childhood name which I had always hated. My parents suddenly seemed hopelessly stupid and old-fashioned and I wanted to distance myself. This is all very normal and predictable and, as usually happens, temporary. Round about the time you have kids of your own, your parents suddenly look like geniuses. (“How did they DO it? They were brilliant, energetic, loving. How lucky I was!”) But it will be quite a few years before my children pass into this phase of retroactive appreciation and in the mean while there are challenges to get through.
I laughed out loud the other day at breakfast when Alyssa told me she intended to have an average day. She said it was the best she could hope for in these stressful times, and so she was setting that as her goal. A good day was far too much to hope for and a bad day was to be avoided at all costs, so she would just aim for average. I rather like the idea. We are all so hell-bent on great and fantastic and awesome that just ok no longer seems enough. I was thrilled as a new parent to receive a book titled The Good Enough Parent. I remember little of the content but still take comfort in the title alone. It reminds me of the doctor’s oath (I think) to “First, do no harm.” We have all, of course, done unintentional harm to our children just by being their parents and messing up along the way in our humanness. But having the goal to do the best we can, avoid damaging their little psyches as much as possible and being content with a big dose of good enough seems extremely wise and attainable.
I think I can use this approach in my own life too. The ship sailed long ago on the life I intended to have, the movie I pictured in my head where I was in a stable, loving long term marriage, had happy, healthy children and enough financial success from meaningful employment not to have to worry. And although I have done better than I might have imagined at editing and re-editing that original movie to fit new realities, it still never seems to quite work out as planned. What’s that saying—We plan and God laughs? I don’t think he’s laughing but I may have heard a chortle or two. Because life is just plain funny and our attempts to control it even funnier.
I am currently working on breaking a lifelong habit of chronic messiness, the kind where you not only live in chaos, but cannot locate some important item you need at a critical moment. And something I read recently has helped a lot. It talked about having a friendlier, less judgmental attitude toward our own failings. If I stop beating myself up for my messiness, it may create enough space to make a few positive changes and step out of the shame zone. Ken used to complain bitterly about me to our friend Carol who cleaned our house back in the prosperous days. She never failed to remind him that I had many fine qualities even if neatness was not among them. I loved her for that and shall strive to remember it myself, even while committing to tidying up a bit more. The key there is a BIT. I am a black/white, on/off type of person and in this endeavor it will be important not to throw in the towel the second I realize that a total transformation of a 60-year habit is neither attainable nor necessary. Incremental movement would be fine. An AVERAGE job of reforming.
So I am going to start aiming for average. Average days, average weeks, average life. I expect there will still be some very high highs and also low lows, but as in math, when you add them up and divide by the number of occurrences you get an average that may tick just above the midline. And that’s good enough.
Go out and have yourself an average day and be glad in it!