Emily Bazelon over at Double X asks how we parents are supposed to feel when our children surpass us.
Bazelon’s 9-year-old son, Eli, throws better than she can and isn’t the least bit impressed that she’s able to (eventually) catch a baseball, because he can too. He beats her at Scrabble. She’s feeling confused.
From Double X:
… You’re supposed to feel pride and joy. You are supposed to brag and boast, maybe not too obnoxiously. You are not supposed to think for one moment about how you are being left behind. Because what matters is your child’s great progress. He is becoming a whiz at something he’s working hard to master. You cheer him along.
And yet I have moments, as my children grow a little older, when I feel something else entirely: competitiveness tinged with envy.
Surely, this is unnecessary and unworthy. Who cares whether I can catch a baseball backhanded? But part of me does. Maybe because the natural order of things is being upended: Mothers are supposed to teach; children are supposed to learn. Except now suddenly Eli is the master and I am the novice. That reversal of roles is beautiful and discomfiting at the same time.
…Baseball, Scrabble—what’s next? That’s the anxiety at the root of this parental envy, I think: Our sense of mortality, fading glory, heights unscaled in a sport or skill or realm of knowledge. By doing something well, our children force us to see that we are doing that thing poorly. And they make us let go of the illusion that we’ll ever do it masterfully.
I’m no stranger to envy, believe me. But I’m not feeling anything close to jealous of my eight-year-old daughter even though she’s totally flourishing in areas that have always been my domain in the family and will certainly surpass me before she’s a teen. And I love that.
I know from experience how debilitating it can be for one to think other people’s accomplishments are one’s own failures, and I think that notion takes root in this parental envy or when parents compete or keep score with their own children. Honestly, I want my kids to leave me behind (not literally, guys. Don’t forget to call me!). I’ll snack on the dust of their successes gladly.
This isn’t to say that Bazelon’s over there being a big baby, all seething with jealousy and trying to keep her boy down just because he’s got a good arm and a head for Scrabble triple scores. Kids are nothing if not a mirror that give us ample opportunity to scrutinize ourselves, not just as parents but as people, and I see my own flaws when I look at my kids, too.
But rather than feeling bummed when my kid has surpasses me — in intellect, beauty, charm, kindness — I expect to feel satisfied, elated even. Probably because I also plan on taking credit for what they do well.
While writing this and reading Bazelon’s piece, I was also watching the first day of confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. The constantly near-tears Mrs. Sotomayor, mother of the Supreme Court Justice nominee, is pretty good evidence that some parents do whatever it takes to make sure they’re surpassed, left behind, reminded of what they can’t do by watching exactly what their kids can.
What about you? Do you feel this kind of parental envy that Bazelon describes? Mothers of daughters, are you ready for a daughter far prettier than yourself? Dads? Are you going to beat the crap out of your sons Great Santini-style?