May 17, 2006

The Ache of Divergence

By night, as you know, I am a lunch-making, laundry-folding, story-reading Mommy. Okay, lunch-making, laundry-avoiding, story-reading Mommy. By day, can you believe it, I am a mildly zany college counselor.

During this time of year, I spend my work days frantically trying to squeeze in as many meetings with families of "rising seniors" as I can, reminding myself as the door to my office clicks shut that every story is a new story, and that just because I've helped folks walk down these paths before doesn't mean it isn't all new to them.

Lately, the hardest part of my job has been the ache that stays with me when it seems clear, even in that very first meeting when everyone's trying hard to smile and keep it together, that there are some families who are in for some rough sailing. Not the ones whose students are maybe not going to pass Chemistry after all. (Although that's a challenge, for sure.) Not the ones who have their hearts set on a school that's probably out of reach. (Hard, but generally a good long-term prognosis.) No, the families that have got my heart hurting are those in which the established parental definition of success seems in direct conflict with the student's developing definition of success. Student is a talented artist; parents won't even consider paying for something as crazily impractical as art school. Student has been swimming competitively all through high school and would like to stop now; parents are adamant that the student "play that card" and talk to the swim coach at every school they visit. Student is openly gay at school, but has begged us all to please not say anything to his/her parents for fear of being disowned.

For as long as we are blessed with the job of parenting, we have known that if we are fortunate, and if the the job is done well, our children will come fully into themselves and go on to live their own lives. In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says, "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself." It sounds right, but clearly for some of the families in my office, it is a long way from feeling right. It's so hard -- maybe even impossible? -- to see the world through any lens other than your own. So hard to have all the infinite possibilities of your child's future start to narrow down into finite opportunities. So hard to stand on the shore, map in hand, and watch as the unbidden wind sends them sailing off into uncharted territory.

Several years before I became a parent, I went on an afternoon picnic with a friend and her two school-aged children. Watching the kids play in the sand, I asked her, "What are your hopes for them?" "I'd like for them to become productive citizens," she said. "Well of course," I said, "but I mean what else? Nothing more detailed than that?" "Nope," she replied with a smile.

Almost ten years later, I have finally realized that her response wasn't bereft of imagination. It was, instead, alive with room for growing, for changes in course, for collaboration. Now I'm thinking that the only way to lessen the odds of suffering the kind of heartache I witness and nurse each spring is to consciously work at expanding your idea of who your child might become. Even as every fiber of your being is longing to find an easy, well-trod, well-lit path to nudge them down.

Hope I can do it.

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Left-handed Trees... said...

Thank you for this--it seems like it was written just when I needed to read it. My son has been having some challenges in school and it is really testing me as to what I see as the future and how to step back and let go. Children are who they are, unique and unusual--and that is what is so beautiful. Great post!

Nicole said...

Great story. We all need to be reminded of that...children are not really ours...we don't get to choose what they do with their lives. But we can pray and hope and cheer them on...

Shelley said...

Thank you, c. delia and nicole, for your kind words. Am trying to catch up on my reading of all the great pieces this week's "mso" prompt elicited... such gifts!

Chelle said...

My nephew is very lucky to have a Mom who understands that her dreams for him may not mesh with his dreams for him. Love you all!