Parenting 101: Epic Fail

Ok, in my defense I was asleep. Or at least I had been just moments before when I was awakened by my 17 year old son who said (in a neutral tone of voice), “Hey Mom. I got accepted into the Film department at UT.”

To backtrack a bit before confessing my parenting sin, you should know that my son has three top choices on his college list. The order in which he preferred one over the other seemed to be semi-fluid for a while, but University of Texas at Austin had risen to the top with two contingencies: 1) He would be admitted to his major – Film -- and 2) He would get into Plan II which is a smaller honors community within the 36,000 student undergraduate community.

The news that he delivered as I swam upward from a deep sleep was news we had been eagerly anticipating. In fact, just hours before I had asked him if he had checked the UT Austin website to see if they’d updated his status. So when he said, “Hey Mom. I got accepted into the Film department at UT,” I should have rolled out of bed, screamed in delight, hugged him and jumped up and down a few times. I should have said, “That’s awesome, congratulations!”

Unfortunately, that is not what I did. Instead, in one of those Epic Fail moments in parenting, I responded with, “What about Honors?”

It didn’t immediately strike me that I’d blown it. (After all, I was swimming upward from a deep and dream-filled sleep.) Several hours later, however, it occurred to me that I may have not given him the most enthusiastic of responses.

I knocked on his door. “Dan?” I poked my head in.
“Yeah?” he responded, eyes on his computer screen.
“I was thinking about when you came in to my room and told me about getting into the film department at UT. I just wanted to make sure that when I asked you about Honors you didn’t take my response the wrong way.”
“I did.”

Epic Fail. There’s no better way to discourage your kid than, when they achieve something wonderful, you ask why they couldn’t do better.

He’s forgiven me. At least I think he has. But not until after I told him that this only evened the score between his sister and him because, when she was accepted into a prestigious high school and arrived with the letter of acceptance in hand shouting, “I got in,” my comment was “Are you sure? Don’t get your hopes up.”

Hers is now one of those family stories that has been told many times over and which is repeated by my daughter at length, to anyone who will listen, especially when she wants to take me down a peg or two. Dan’s story will now go into the Annuls of Family History as well.
What is it about us as parents that we do this kind of thing? I have two of the greatest kids on the planet. Is it really about wanting them to be a little bit better? Is it about needing them to be perfect? Of course not. I do think, however, that as parents we have a tendency to equate happiness and success with perfection. If they get all 100’s in school, land a high-paying job as adults, marry “well” and have 2.5 children they’ll be successful right? And successful means happy, right? And if they’re happy we don’t have to be anxious about their destinies anymore, right? Of course we know that’s not right. All we have to do is look around at all the successful yet miserable people in this world: actors and actresses, politicians, financial gurus and the like. Success certainly doesn’t equate with happiness.

Honestly, I think my response wasn’t about him being successful as much as it was about my anxiety over the uncertainty that hovers around next year. Where will he be? If I could envision him somewhere – UT, Emerson, Wesleyan – if I could just have an image in my mind of where he’ll be maybe some of my anxiety about this transition would subside.

I think it finally comes down to that. Where will he be? Or maybe the question that actually underlies my anxiety is this: where will I be without him?