I remember sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch of my mother’s mountain home with my infant baby, my second child, in my arms. I had just received a job offer in Tennessee less than three hours drive from her. We were delighted when we got the news but this day we were there because my partner and I had travelled from Indiana with our infant son and 6 year-old daughter to find a place for our family to live and a job for my partner. Ours was a colicky baby and stress levels were high all around. I was crying and rocking, myself and the baby, and my mother told me hesitantly that she wished I could get OK about where I was at this juncture because “it gets harder,” she said. It’s a statement that probably reads harsh; it feels a little that way as I type it, but don’t remember being put off by it then. And I certainly now understand the motivation to say it.
I was talking with my daughter recently, who is now not six but twenty, about her own junctures, and found myself invoking my mother’s acknowledgement that life is actually very complicated and, in many ways, becomes increasingly so as we move through it. Now, as it turns out, life also provides innumerable opportunities to grow and get stronger and become more deeply rooted so that one isn’t buffeted about so by its forces. But those are just opportunities, not guarantees. And the movement of and through life does offer different vantage points that provide wider-scope and longer-range vision. The terrain gets more complex but one can see it with greater clarity. And in some ways, this helps one to navigate it more adeptly. But adult life is tough. And taxing. And many parts of it are totally unrewarding. And “unfair.” These facts are troubling for any of us to cope with, but particularly so for those who moved through their youth with a sense that things would go a whole other way.
An article in Huffington Post ten days ago, and an article at NPR.org ten days before that highlight the difficulty that adolescents and young adults are having in coping with the fact that their lives will be hard, competitive, and “unfair;” and they seem rather incapacited by this difficulty. The NPR piece is about “helicopter parents” who “hover in the workplace,” sending out resumes for them, arguing with employers for better pay or benefits for their children, and, if you can believe it, coming with the kid to the interview (!). These young adults learn that there is much more justice in who gets employed where than there actually is, and that if they (or their parents) follow particular formulas then the outcomes they seek will materialize. They learn that mediocrity is just the same as excellence. Although such reasoning is absurd to those of us in the know, it comprises firmly held beliefs among our children who, I’d like to point out, didn’t make them up. They learned them us. It’s too hard for us to face the terrifying facts that we do not have enough power to set our children up in happiness for life, that all the gumption in the world will be insufficient, that it actually isn’t true that they can be whatever they want to be, and that the children’s gifts and raw material, plus a whole lot of luck of the draw, are the major determinants of their future, not their “dreams.” As Mickey Goodman argued in the Huff Post piece, we have focused so much on making our kids happy, that “now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness.” We’ve made the building up of “self-esteem” primary and the hard work of building up of social and intellectual skill sets and the ability to handle defeat quite secondary, at best. You know, if you believe it you can achieve it, even if you don’t have the skills or drive.
But the fact of the matter is that adult life is hard. That your “dreams” (and while you’re dreaming, dream big, we’ve told them) are not the thing to ground your whole future in. That Facebook relationships are fine and fun and affirming, but you also have to learn how to negotiate face-to-face relationships with people who are not your “friends,” who do not “like” everything you say and believe, and who do not see your birthday as something remotely significant. And that as parents we finally are not powerful enough, no matter how much we say we’ll “give ‘em hell” and “set ‘em straight” to get the universe to conform to our familial fantasy world that our babies will get what we think they “deserve.” Mediocrity is not just the same as excellence, the future is uncertain even for people with spunk, and yes, in fact, “it gets harder.”