Parent’s Remorse?

I’m floating in a sea of parenting anxiety this week. Well, maybe not anxiety as much as unease, concern and self-doubt. Plus, some anxiety. It feels like a perfect storm.

My three are all in periods of vaguely disquieting transition right now and I sit with it in my lap and on my heart, living proof that you never stop being an active parent, whether the worry is this month’s ear infection or big life choices that carry years of consequences.

Older son is in his first year of grad school, on his way to an advanced degree in … wait for it … Philosophy. Younger son is in his last semester of undergrad, facing those scary unemployment numbers out in the real world with his BA in … English Literature. Daughter is waiting on pins and needles for verdicts from the uber-selective college(s) of her choice, and I don’t care how accomplished and self-confident you are, it’s hard for any 17-year-old not to feel judged like a finalist in the Miss America pageant right about now.

These might sound like good problems to have. Each is a result of hard work and the message we sent from the day they were born: Find what you love and go for it, pedal to the metal. Don’t follow any path because someone says you should, or because it’s the direction your friends are going. Choose the road less traveled and make it happen.

Obviously, they all got the memo, but did we forget the addendum?

During our family’s early growing years (those far-away 80’s and 90’s) it seemed like the sky was the limit. We worked hard, we saved, and we were rewarded with a reasonably comfortable and happy life. Those were the days when the latter was an expected result of the former. Our kids were never made to feel that earning a living should be in conflict with self-fulfillment, or that putting food on the table would require compromise as long as you were willing to put in the effort. That seems like such a luxury in today’s economic times.

Husband and I both came from families that appreciated and encouraged an appropriate amount of informed risk (a story for another day), and we passed that on to our own. But here we are in what feels like a different universe, and I’m having serious second thoughts.

Did we make a huge mistake by failing to teach them the value of playing it safe? Sure, it’s great to go for the grand slam, but doesn’t it make sense sometimes to settle for a walk and not risk striking out, as long as you get on base? Did our you can be anything you want to be, as long as you do it well approach point them toward futures filled with disappointment and frustration when they bump up against real limits imposed by the real world?

Maybe we should have pushed engineering and accounting. Maybe we should have demanded practical minors to provide a recession-proof hedge against those liberal arts majors. Maybe we should have pushed harder for the Mandarin and Arabic courses that the more practical students were signing up for. Should have, could have, would have …

I guess what I’m really asking is, will we be to blame if they’re not able to attain the fulfilled and successful working lives we raised them to reach for? Did we send them in the wrong direction by offering an unrealistic vision of what’s possible?

But then I need to remind myself that anything’s possible. The road is theirs, not mine. Ouch.

Bottom line — they will make their own choices and be responsible for the outcomes. As hard as it is to accept that I can’t work my Mommy magic anymore and promise them everything will work out, it’s a fact. And who am I really promising, anyway?

I come full circle and realize it’s my own uncertainty that’s at the root of the feeling in the pit of my stomach, not theirs.

It’s my want to shield Daughter from the sting of the thin envelope, even while I know that disappointment is as powerful a teacher as success. It’s my hope that Younger will land a position that pays the rent and uses his brain, so he’s not trapped in an unskilled job that numbs his spirit — or no job at all. It’s my need to know that Older will finish all those years of schooling and come out into a world where universities still hire Philosophy professors.

The struggle isn’t to be shunned; they’ll struggle no matter what. And I’ll struggle to remind myself … it’s their choice, not ours.




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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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