Am I Writing My Daughter’s Future, or Rewriting My Own Past?
Last night I was talking to my fifteen-year-old about her summer PSAT prep class, which she doesn’t want to take. She called me after class today (I’m a long-distance dad) and when I asked her how it went she said: “Not well.” I started laughing and she said, “This isn’t funny, Daddy,” and so I explained that I wasn’t laughing at the situation, but at the clarity and stand-up-comic brevity of her response. We talked for half an hour or so, and I started to think–for the first time in an honest way–about why I wanted her to take this PSAT course. “I wish I had,” I thought.
I never graduated from high school, though I wish I had. I never went to a top fifty school as an undergrad, though I wish I had. I’ve never attended an Ivy League school, either as an undergraduate or a grad student—I never set foot on an Ivy League campus until I was giving my first paper—though I wish I had. I wish I had the pedigree that some of my friends who are professors have. It’s (more than) a bit silly–after a certain stage, all that counts is your work–but nevertheless it stays with you, if only because, well, wouldn’t it be nice if your kids could have that? If only because you wish you yourself had? It’s getting dangerously close to circular logic—and circular logic, like concluding an argument with the belief that you already wanted to believe, is a good sign of self-deception. Go back and look again at the steps, and more often than not you’ll find sophistry.
First, we lie to ourselves about ourselves. Then, if we have children, we lie to ourselves about them. (It doesn’t make things easier that they lie to us about themselves, and lie to themselves about themselves as well.) I lie to myself about how adept I am as a parent, about how much care and time I spend on my children, about how good I am at parenting—all the while feeling that I totally suck at it (isn’t that part of the proof that I’m doing a better job than I think I’m doing!?) and that I am learning as I go (see how open I am?!). But one of the most pervasive and pernicious lies I tell myself is that my needs are my daughter’s needs, that I can write her future in the ways I would like to rewrite my past.
The fact is that the many fuck-ups my parents made—and yes, some of them included guidance about education, because neither of them went to college—are totally different than the fuck-ups I am presently making. Or at least they are different in their particulars; they no doubt projected themselves onto me in just the same unhelpful way I am projecting myself onto my daughter. Here’s an intersection of love and lies I hadn’t really thought about until now: How I use my daughter to protect a kind of self-love by telling myself lies about how I make life easier for her, as though I am doing anything other than making her life no easier or harder than my parents made mine, albeit in grossly or subtly different ways.
This is not to say that we can’t make the lives of our children easier: If we gave birth to them in the wealthy West and we ourselves were born into a particular socio-racial-economic strata, we have already done that. If we come from abusive homes and raise them in non-abusive homes their lives are better; if we were raised by alcoholics but raise our kids sober we (probably, I think, I hope) improve their lives. Immigrants come to America to improve the chances their children have in the world for good reason. But supposing–as so many of my friends do, including those who have immaculate intellectual pedigrees–that your child’s life will be advantaged by what they may have one day if they make the appropriate sacrifices now (like giving up a month of summer so that you can get an extra few points on the PSAT) goes beyond trying to make your child’s life better than your own, and starts being about trying to make your child into someone you imagine you might have been. And what do you know about that person? Are you sure he or she would have been happier than the present you? Would have been a better parent than the present you? A better professor, a better writer, better at life?
Nonsense! And that’s only talking about you. That’s before you even get to considering your child, who is someone altogether different than you are in many ways, in ways you don’t understand yet (nor do they), and no doubt also similar to you in ways you have yet to fathom (and they will only slowly and reluctantly come to admit). Who am I thinking about, when I’m thinking about the PSAT, my daughter, or me? Am I making the sacrifice or is she? Please. As a good friend said to me, “Clancy, you’re an adult for a long time.” (This friend is 81 years old and still practices medicine fifty hours a week, though it should be said that not everyone gets to be an adult as long as Grace. I hope I’m as lucky).
Readers of my column know that I think lying is over-maligned, and much more necessary than any of us are willing to admit (including, yes, self-deception). But the importance of the truth is also hard to overestimate, because there are times when we must strive to be clear-eyed with ourselves. What’s the PSAT compared to a lazy June afternoon when you are beautiful, and growing, and fifteen years old?
Photo by cdsessums
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