Parenting is a downright humbling experience. As all parents know, even our greatest efforts are often met with indifference, apathy and even downright hostility. It’s terrifyingly easy to feel we’re constantly letting someone down: our children, ourselves, or some other real or virtual community that saddles us with yet another set of expectations. From conception on—even preceding conception, these days—the trials and tribulations of raising children are a constant reminder of where we fall short. And I’m only too aware that I speak from the perspective of raising healthy children, surrounded by privileges of which the vast majority of the world’s population can only dream. Yet although I try to remind myself as often as possible how lucky I am—we are—I still succumb too often to the First World problem of feeling not quite “good enough.” Are my kids stimulated? Are they getting the best education? Are they healthy and fit? Do they eat too little or too much? Niggling qualms can wear away at even the most fortunate parents; those doubts are why I'm always drawn to the writers who remind us how lucky we are, rather than how imperfect.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “What my Son’s Disabilities Taught Me About Having it All,” is one of these reminders. Forthright and unsentimental, she brings me closer once again to perspective and balance in my feelings about parenting. Without explicitly condemning parents lucky enough to have only minutiae to obsess over—which private school will accept my preschooler? should we enroll him in swimming or tennis lessons?—Lee gently urges us to recalibrate our idea of parenting challenges. We shouldn’t sweat the small stuff; we should celebrate our incredible good fortune, and most of all, we should press on. It brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s stunningly succinct description of being human: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” As a brilliant professor of mine once pointed out, there’s not even a period between those two phrases. The irrepressible human drive to survive, to go on, pushes us forward with only the briefest of pauses to mark the line between the awful difficulty of living and the need to keep on doing it.
Yet sometimes it isn’t enough to boil parenting down to the simple act of keeping one’s child safe, as Lee suggests. My own experiences helping my daughter with her learning disorder have been a constant balancing act between doing too much and not enough, between pushing her to do what she doesn’t want to and throwing up my hands and letting her be. The Summer Olympics, of which I was an ardent and unapologetic fan, provided a bevy of possible analogies to our situation. I tried one out on her on a day when she was griping about her reading practice. “Listen,” I told her, “do you think those gymnasts cried and stormed off when their coaches corrected them? If they’d given up they would they have won a gold medal?” She looked up at me stone-faced, and though I felt a little better by recasting myself from mean mommy to tough-love coach, she seemed unconvinced. But she was listening: later, she asked, “But Mommy, the athletes get a gold medal for what they do. What about me—are you going to give me a gold medal for reading?” Although I felt like crying, I explained that an actual gold medal is nothing to sneeze at, but learning to read and study was ultimately going to prove far more valuable to her. I’m fairly sure she didn’t believe me, but I felt as I spoke how true this really is. If nothing else, it renewed for me, in that moment, my sometimes flagging desire to push her to succeed.
There’s no gold medal for parenting. There’s no gold medal for reading. There’s definitely no gold medal for life. We will never achieve perfection and we will often fall short, disappointing ourselves and those around us. But this doesn’t, this can’t mean that we abandon our goals. It means we keep pushing, we keep struggling, we keep reminding ourselves of what we have, instead of what we don’t. The struggles make the achievements worthwhile, and that’s all we have to pull us through those low points. Especially as parents, there’s no more powerful message we can send to our children. I can’t go on, I go on.
My best summer dishes: