No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Friday, November 5, 2010

Making a Big Mistake, What To Do About It, and What To Learn; Or, Why I am Proud of Me and My Daughter

The Goofy 11-year old, and Me
Portrait by Carol Bily Hagen

One of the things about me as a parent is that I've never had the experience of feeling like my daughter belonged to me. I remember, vaguely, that this was clear to me even when she was still inside my tummy. My sense of things was that that was the one period of time when I got to completely hold her, and in as much as holding someone so totally has any notion of "belonging" that was the only time she ever would be just for-me. Once she was born she would, in a weird way, also be everyone else's.

As a result, my sense of parenting has always been that I am a facilitator of her growing up. That what that entails is thinking hard on what it means to be a healthy, balanced, thoughtful adult that can make both virtuous and happy-making decisions for herself while having care for others. Then, working backwards all the way to babyhood to sort out what stages of development are intertwined in such a person's life, and then thinking on how to help engage those developments in the person I am helping to grow up. All without over determining what the result should be. If she doesn't belong to me, she isn't mine to decide the character, or occupation, or hobby, or favorite color of either.

In other words, I think my job as a parent is quite simply to help my daughter grow up and develop into a person well equipped to make her own decisions in the face of whatever circumstances might come her way, and to recognize that help is all around her and hers to have as she needs and/or desires it.

It is likely clear too from such a description that I put a lot of thought into how I manage my own life too. I'm continually measuring out how to be a good person myself and ever trying to learn to strike a better balance between self-care, and care for others. The truth is it's pretty tough to do as a single mom, but considering that I think I do fairly well.

One of the side effects of thinking of myself as a facilitator to the 11-year old's life is that I haven't tended to feel proud of her very often. This likely sounds horrible to some people. Let me explain. My sense is that a lot of parents see their children and feel a kind of glow, there is a pride in the kid just being their kid, and the parents I have seen this in have this when the baby is a newborn, an infant, a toddler, and on, and they describe that glow as a kind of parental pride. I have always loved my daughter, and liked her too, and thought good things about her, and felt all kinds of things for her, but pride has rarely been one of those things until more recently.

Recently I've realized that I do get a great glow to my heart over her when I hear stories about how she has dealt with pretty sophisticated situations with real grace, or been kind to a person that clearly needed it but that others didn't notice, or made decisions through complex and careful consideration.

Earlier tonight I got an email from her (I'm out of town on a conference trip that turned to naught--I've contracted pneumonia and spent the entire conference in bed without seeing a single talk or person) where she said that she was invited by her 5th grade math teacher to take on additional work in math by adding a book on Algebra. According to her email, he told her that he could tell she was someone that put a lot of thought into things, and that he thought the extra work would be good for her. He invited her to take the weekend to decide and to let him know on Monday. Her email then went on to say she thought she would accept his offer but first wanted to know what I thought. Then she carefully described her reasons for thinking it would be both a good choice, and a manageable one, and also what it would mean for me in terms of needing to help her with some of her work.

First of all, DO YOU REMEMBER THAT SHE IS ELEVEN??!!! I mean, HONESTLY, is she A WONDER CHILD? I would say here that I don't know many adults that can so clearly articulate decisions in that kind of way, but that would be rude, so I won't.

I responded telling her that if taking on the extra math was what she decided she wanted to do, I supported it; thanked her for talking it through with me; affirmed her good reasoning skills; then told her I'd be happy to help her and reminded her too that she could communicate her worries to her math teacher so he could help problem solve them with her too.

Then I told her that I was proud of her for her good decision making skills, and for her talking to me about it.

Because I am.

The thing is, it's wonderful that she excels at math. I think that is a great advantage for her, and I'm happy she has that. But it turns out the same view I had when she was a baby is the view I have now--there is a real limit to how much I can influence how "smart" she turns out to be when it comes to these intellectual points, but there is a lot I can do to help her develop good self-care and care for others, and in the long run that will likely get her further in what matters anyway. So, it's GREAT she exceeds at math and likes it. But what I'm humbled by is her ability to communicate so clearly her decision making process, and her willingness to share it with me. That feeling of humility, paradoxically, is how I understand genuine pride--recognizing in front of me something well-formed that could not have come together simply, and that while I could not have determined it to be as it now is, I had an important hand in helping to form.

So, I sent off the supportive email to my little one. And got back a quick, "thank u 4 saying that i love u 2".

Then I laid here in bed NOT dying, but feeling like it might be less painful to (dramatic but dear lord pneumonia is brutal), and realized something.

As I've made clear here multiple times already, the 11-year old and I are living in an entirely new area. We're here because I won a fellowship that is significant for me in finishing my work. It's an incredible opportunity, and has already made an impact in my life and my work.

The thing is though, I'm not convinced taking it was the right decision. I have a hard time making any sense of what it would mean to say, in such a case as this, that I made a mistake. But I'm going to go ahead and risk it here by saying, I think I did. I think I made a mistake in moving us all the way over here in the way that I did. That is, the mistake was in how I made the decision. Maybe in the long run I'll realize it really was better that we took the opportunity, and it really will guide us towards a future that is bright, etc. But, the truth is I think that with everything I felt and understood choosing this option actually came down to going against what I wanted.

There are innumerable cases when going against what one wants is crucially important, and as any good Aristotelian knows, OF COURSE you go against your own simple desires all the time (though he also says those even come to shaped by your own good decisions over time). What I mean instead is some more existentially important sense of want--the want of what kind of life I wanted to be living; the want of what I was taking myself as responsible for; the want of what pressures (that seemed to come from the outside, but could have been my own projections) I could feel around me and finally just caved to. But, mainly, the very important want of what kind of life I wanted to be living and held accountable for. That is the wanting I went against. As a result, I put myself into a very different sort of life that it turns out I don't want, and so of course am struggling to be much happy about. Even as I am grateful too for these opportunities. Both can readily be true.

The approach I took to deciding was to reason things through thoroughly. I also did something I've done before--first I only talked to my closest allies. Those I had to let know, and that I thought would ground my understanding it better. The first night I only told my good friend Paul that was visiting at the time, my boyfriend at the time, and my mom (who then called everyone in the world). The next day I didn't really tell more people because I needed to ignore it for a bit. Then that night I told my two closest friends, once they were done with work, and talked to my boyfriend and mom and Paul some more. The next week I talked to my two advisors at the job I had at the time, and then I stopped telling people.

The decision making timeline they gave me, amazingly (and tortuously too, actually) turned out to be an entire month. After a couple of weeks more people knew about the fellowship and very quickly people started responding with a simple, "well you have to take it." Their view was that it was too good an opportunity to pass up. My mom was incredibly well grounded and supportive without pushing me in any direction. Though we've since broken up, my boyfriend, in many ways, was the most helpful at the time because he did a lot to encourage me to talk through it, and also not to jump at saying "no" too quickly. He wanted me to be sure and fully imagine the opportunity before I turned it down. He also encouraged me to see that I could choose for myself, even though it seemed like all kinds of outside pressures and expectations were also involved. This is the point I don't think I really got well enough till recently.

The thing I've realized since actually moving, having accepted the position, obviously, was that throughout the entire process I consistently felt like I couldn't do it. Not that I wasn't capable--I'd clearly done plenty of things in my life that showed I could handle it. It was that I felt I didn't want to go through the kind of radical change it would demand of my life. That I wanted to stay where I was. I felt that consistently and repeatedly all the way till the moment I got into the car to drive out of my boyfriend's driveway and then across the country. Then to avoid the feeling I just drove incredibly long days until we arrived.

What I gave up was a life I was strongly invested in. There were quirks about that life that I'd had to adjust to, that I wasn't entirely happy about, that I was still learning to negotiate. But it was very much the life I was making for myself. In moving I gave that up. The feeling I had was telling me that giving that up was exactly what I did not want. In the end though I went with the everyone view--it was too good an offer to pass up. Any list making clearly sided on taking the job.

The weird thing is, I've never been a person that makes decisions based on that. I've always been the person that takes the risk of trusting her gut, and fully commits to the result, and comes out having made it work. That's the trouble with "too good to pass up" illusions--they trick you out of your own comfort zone.

Now, at the effect end of that decision, I'm still sorting out what to do about it, and it will likely take some time.

(Also, do you see the kind of awful delirium pneumonia triggers? Dear lord, all these thoughts in a sick bed? Most of it hasn't been so thinkee. Thank god! Though it has been a lot of OH DEAR LORD OW moanee, which is bad enough already.)

So, anyway, after laying here for a bit. I was thinking about how I was proud of my daughter, and what that meant to me. I was proud of her decision making ability and her communication skills. But remembering all that I just spelled out about my own lesson in all of this--that I needed to more thoroughly trust what I FELT was right for me when making decisions, especially major ones, I realized I had to email her back again. Her math decision is an easily repairable one to be sure. She could decide against it, then a week later change her mind and stick it out. Or, the reverse, she could get two months into the extra work and realize it's not right for her. But if being 11 is one of those intertwined developmental stages towards that potential-good adult, then this math decision helps set the ground for how she makes less easily repairable decisions later. So, in as much as I can support her understanding how to make a good decision for herself now, it'll hopefully be easier for her to as a grown up too.

(Let's be clear here: I don't mean "feel" in any kind of naive, self-centered, narrow visioned sort of way. Again, we're not caving to simple desires here. Though I will confess the idea I'm getting at here does verge on some new age sounding "follow your heart" kinds of too cheesy advice, but I deny that's all I mean here either.)

I sent the 11-year old another email. This time I said, "Dear Honey Girl, I think you have done a really good job thinking through your reasons for how to decide whether to take Algebra or not. I love you very much. Now that you have thought through your reasons, it is important to get clear on what you feel is right for you. Make your decision from that, even if you can't explain your reasons for the feeling. One way to do that is to get nice and calm, then imagine you have made one choice and see how it feels. Then imagine you've made the other choice and see how that feels. That will help you do what's right for you. I love you very much. YOUR MOMMA!"

She wrote back and said, "thank u MOMMA u r rite i will do that i LOVE u 2!!!"

***Post Edit***
The blog post title says that I'm proud of me too. I realized, maybe I should explain that a bit better.

I admit here to having made a mistake, and a pretty significant one too. It's also, quite luckily, one with all kinds of benefits. I realize that. As I've said, I'm grateful.

The thing I really want to say though is that one of the crucial lessons I've learned from all of this is a simple but potent one--it isn't whether we fumble, it's how we handle it when we do.

I've fumbled. Now I get to help my daughter understand this crucial part of the decision making process much much better ("following her heart", so to speak (just to be ironic because of what I said up there earlier about the new age movement)). And, hopefully, I can also practice such good advice with grace myself a little easier now too.


  1. Wow.

    First, sorry you're sick, sounds quite sick. Really hoping you recover fast.

    Second, I'll be back to comment; it usually takes me a few days to really absorb your posts. You'll be on my mind this week!

  2. Well, it might not mean all that much, but I have your back. I have found myself in a similar position myself, where people have really good ideas of what I should be doing but me being completely lost. While I do understand why you see your choice as a kind of mistake, I trust in your ability to change your circumstances. In all the time I've known you, I've never seen you as powerless, and I know that there are lot of people in your life that support you, particularly that genius you call daughter.

    - Glenn

  3. This resonates with me. I've often had the experience with decisions that I feel a right choice for me before I can explain it, and I take those feelings very seriously.

    For me it can be hard to tease out worries and anxiety, which can resist good decisions, from the feeling of resistance that comes from commitment to a different life. One difference is in my body - the anxious resistance tends to be more in my chest and gut, the existential (or whatever I should call it) in my neck and face.

    Also, I admire your understanding of parenting.

    - Marianne

  4. I want to think more about this notion of feeling, I'm thinking of it as a self-reflective critical feeling. Like intuition without all the nasty patriarchal overtones. I want to think about this over a glass or two at the wine loft.