As a kid, I lived to make my parents proud. I would case each new situation to discover what was implicitly expected and strive to over-deliver, to find some way to dazzle.
Before I had Gretchen Rubin’s language of being an upholder, I would reflect on how my father’s high expectations for me had become my own high expectations for myself. I flourished in the classroom, drinking in the A’s and words of praise. I can still remember vividly how my fifth grade teacher, without seeming to feel any compunction to spread the love around, would choose my weekly story crafted with spelling words as the one to read aloud to the class each and every Friday.
I believed I was special. I believed I was talented. I believed it because I heard it, because other people said it, because I had data to support it.
In retrospect, I wish I had done more things simply for the joy they bring. I wish I had written simply because writing makes one a writer. I wish my sense of self wasn’t built on a foundation of other’s perceptions. I wish I had learned earlier how to struggle, or even that there is dignity to be found in the struggle.
This year, I am teaching a mini-me. She’s whip-smart and her tears are easily triggered. She loves books and has stellar comprehension. She’s creative and all her doodles gets praised by her peers. She won the grade-wide writing competition. She’s always the first to volunteer to read aloud. Each and every day there are countless moments in which she could please any teacher, but I found myself proudest of her when I watched her elect to join Girls Running club and then struggle to run four laps around the track.
You see, early on, I had decided that sports weren’t my thing because I didn’t dazzle at them. I wasn’t especially coordinated. I longed to bring my latest book with me to left field. I participated because it was expected, but I did it without passion, because somehow I deduced that trying to master something that didn’t come naturally was beneath me. I did these things with a frown.
Watching this girl plod around the track with an exuberant smile on her face gives me hope that she has yet to draw this erroneous conclusion. It reminds me of my own daughter, who takes pleasure in the effort that self-mastery requires, in how hard she works to pull up her own leggings, to buckle her own car-seat.
I don’t want any more young girls to grow up with a self-worth contingent on the approval of the world.
I don’t want them to find that one day when their father can no longer be reached over the phone, that they can’t quite figure out who exactly they are supposed to be working so hard for. I want them to know without any doubts at all that all the worthy effort has and will always be for their own benefit. That their life is their own.
Because yesterday, my primary care doctor said I was doing wonderfully. My dental hygienist complimented my commitment to flossing. Each time, I had to blink back the tears that pooled instantly in my eyes because I’m so persistently hard-wired to need this kind of recognition and as a fatherless thirty-three years old, a mother to an eternally demanding toddler, in a job with no clear ladder to climb, it is in short supply. I loathe how deeply I crave it, how my very skin seems to drink praise in before I can even rationally decide if it is merited or if I respect the opinion of the person speaking in the first place.
Believing in yourself only when others indicate you’re a solid choice is precarious. It’s a flimsy sort of self-love, prone to morphing into self-loathing. The absence of applause can be distorted to mean that you’re floundering, instead of the much more innocuous and likely possibility that nobody is even paying much attention.
The real world doesn’t award you a GPA. Parenting is a long game with endless variables and fluctuations. The closest thing to a promotion as a teacher is having former students turn into fully functioning adults and thinking perhaps you played a microscopic part in the alchemy of it all. You can exercise and eat sensibly and prioritize sleep and still find one day at the doctor’s office that the lingering pain in your back is cancer. Often, even experts don’t have explanations, can’t write a prescription for what you should have done different.
And so, here I am now, as an adult, trying to rediscover a bit of what children seem to know in their bones. That there is beauty in doing something simply because it fills you up. That the most important person to dazzle is yourself.