From the moment our children are born we are detectives, searching for clues to how they are like us. Family and friends will scrutinize a newborn’s scrunched-up face, trying to ascertain whether she resembles her mother, father, grandmother or great-uncle. Every behavior and personality trait is measured against the template of our own, held up to the memories of how we were as children and the reality of who we are now. While we want to believe in our children’s uniqueness and individuality, we are also obsessed with mapping their traits in relation to our own.
This deeply narcissistic aspect of parenting is challenging to acknowledge, let alone correct: it can be terribly difficult to remove ourselves as far from the picture as we probably should, and so tempting to view our children as extensions or reflections of ourselves. Of course, when they are little and depend on us for everything, it seems ridiculous to overstress their independence: there's a biological imperative to our egocentrism. But when, exactly, does it become not merely desirable but essential to accept how definitively our children are Not Us? Adolescence is the traditional time for this separation—parent from child and vice versa—but might we benefit from easing into this process earlier? Starting to plan for the process of individuation before we’re flung into it by biology might ease some of the trauma.
Certain circumstances—not all of them happy—make this separation, if not easier, at least more organic. In his extraordinary book Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon takes differences between parent and child as his thesis. He explores it with a breathtaking humanity and intelligence that made reading this book a life-changing experience for me. Solomon met parents of children with differences ranging from physical and psychological disabilities, to unspeakable birth circumstances, to prodigious gifts or psychopathic tendencies. He gets them to describe and confront how the differences shaped them as parents, and ultimately changed their understanding of the world. From unsparingly truthful stories, some painful and some filled with beauty, Solomon draws out universal lessons on love and acceptance that benefit all parents. Ultimately, as in Corinthians, the greatest of these is love. Far From the Tree teaches in an astonishing fashion that there’s almost no circumstance parental love cannot conquer, in one way or another.
One of the strange gifts of parenting a child with an obvious difference is how it forces one to accept that child’s individuality far earlier than one otherwise might. I confess, with some chagrin, to imagining my children would be, to some degree, simulacra of me and my husband. Partly because he and I are so similar in many ways, it was almost too easy to envision what kind of children we would have. Only in hindsight do I see how egocentric this was. Of course, all prospective offspring are abstract until they aren’t, though this is abetted by society’s collusion on the fantasy of child as mini-me. The increasing blurring of lines between childhood and adulthood—parents and children dressing alike, children welcomed into milieus which used to be adult-only, from expensive restaurants to neighborhood bars and rock concerts—feeds our natural tendency to conflate our children’s identities with our own.
Even once our children were real, I pictured their lives taking the same general path as ours—a natural fantasy, and one that also reflects how fortunate my husband and I have been in many ways. I certainly hoped, like all parents, that my daughters would find fulfillment and success, and I suppose it was natural that in my mind’s eye I placed them upon a life journey similar to ours, in some of its details as well as its general route.
Yet as all parents come to learn, children are Trojan horses, full of unexpected gifts and challenges. As mine have grown older, it’s become impossible to gloss over how very different they are from us. Sometimes these differences can be a joy; a child’s self-confidence on the athletic field can be a huge relief to a non-athletic parent; an easy, sociable nature is a treat to an anxious or introverted parent. But there are also the differences that puzzle and worry us, traits beyond our personal experience, qualities that worryingly seem they might make life harder.
Our first and thus far most wrenching experience with difference has been having a child with dyslexia. Reading is a challenge for her and not something she chooses to do for fun. She will, at the moment, literally sit and stare into space rather than pick up a book (though preferable to both is throwing a ball against the wall). In my most regretfully self-centered moments, I ruminate over how her learning disorder is particularly estranging to me: I was an extreme bookworm throughout my childhood; I literally ran into things on the street because I couldn’t put down my book. I lived, more or less, in the worlds of my favorite books: Island of the Blue Dolphins, Harriet the Spy, Little Women. Decades later, I still think often about the books I read at nine or ten; they were prisms through which I experienced my actual life. And now I am raising a child without the experience that defined and colored my entire childhood.
In the grand scheme of things—in my rational mind—I know this is a relatively minor challenge, though it does make school rather a minefield. We know she will survive, but we can’t always predict which projects and assignments will be especially difficult. She’s fortunate to be well supported by so many adults in her life, but that can’t protect her completely from the challenges I know she’ll face throughout her academic career and beyond. And it still makes me want to cry sometimes when friends rave about all the books their children are devouring and loving. But I am trying, so hard, to treat this huge difference between me and my child as a gift, as a way of preparing myself for all the differences between us. Because in the end, she is Not Me. She has so many wonderful qualities that I will never possess, and her dyslexia doesn't erase that. We need to love her for who she is, and not how we see ourselves in her: it sounds obvious, but it can be so hard. We love our children because they are ours; but we need to love them just as much when we come to understand how much they are not.
What I cooked this week: