Apart from the everyday joys and stresses of raising two kids, today’s post is inspired by two things. One is reading Emily Rapp’s searing memoir about caring for a dying child, The Still Point of the Turning World. The second is a chance encounter with the mother of two of my former students. Both her sons finished high school with us, and it’s pretty much a given that if kids end up finishing high school in the adult-ed program where I teach, they’ve experienced some significant difficulties along the way to a high school diploma. Those difficulties might not be academic or learning-related — both this woman’s sons were brilliant — but it turns out there are a hundred things that can derail a kid from getting through high school, and parents are often taken completely by surprise.
Chatting with this woman, I was struck by how much as parents (I’m no different!) we expect our children’s lives to be an orderly progression from one stage to the next. I’m not even talking about some kind of helicopter super-parenting here, where parents are stressing out about getting their kids into the right preschool so they can make it into the right college (to be honest I’ve only encountered those kind of parents in magazine articles, blog posts, and fiction, never in real life). I’m just talking about the expectation most of us have that our kids will enter kindergarten and progress through to high school graduation and post-secondary without any hiccups more significant than the occasional poor mark on a report card. Socially, we expect them to progress from first crushes to high-school dates to a healthy, long-term (usually heterosexual) relationship. And the end result of all this should be a healthy, happy adult with a productive career and a thriving marriage, who produces similarly “normal” grandchildren. It doesn’t seem so much to ask, does it?
As I asked my former students’ mom how her sons were doing now, she happily reported that one was “back on track” (i.e., in university). The other was still “living the dream,” she told me with an ironic eyeroll (in fact, I knew a little bit about this young man’s current adventures from Facebook and friends, and while he seems to be doing fine, it’s obvious the dream he’s living is his own and not the one his parents had for him). She talked about how this whole circle of boys who had gone to school and been friends together for years had ended up having trouble completing school, and how blindsided the parents were. (“The girls from the same group were all fine!” she told me. “They’re all convocating now!”) I knew this, of course, because I’d taught several of these young men. In her bewilderment I heard the echo of every parent who has never expected anything more than “a normal life” for his or her child.
That obsession with “normal” started early, as most of us pored over “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” followed by “What to Expect the First Year” and “What to Expect in the Toddler Years.” Was I the only parent who felt lost and devastated when those books simply stopped at age 3? How am I supposed to know what to expect next???? I remember wondering with a sense of panic. Although by that time, I think I already guessed that there were no guidebooks and maps for the rest of the journey, and many parents had already jettisoned the books long before that, recognizing that no-one can ever really tell you what to expect.
But the seductive lure of those books was that you could go to them with the persistent “Is this normal?” question and find at least an overview of what was normal-ish. Baby not crawling at ten months? Not talking by fifteen months? Am I seeing normal variation in meeting developmental milestones, or something I should be concerned about?
Emily Rapp discovered when her son was nine months old that he had Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and always fatal condition that meant he would not live past the age of three. As I read her brutally honest memoir, I thought about how much of our parenting is (necessarily) oriented toward the future. Even if I feel like in the whirl of everyday life I’m just surviving from moment to moment, the truth is that I’m nagging my kids about homework while trying to cook a relatively healthy meal and referreeing their sibling quarrels because I believe all this education, nutrition and discipline will do them some good later in life. In a hopefully “normal” life. You can’t avoid this future orientation as a parent, yet reading Rapp’s book made me think about what it’s like for parents who don’t have that future orientation, who can do nothing but love and care for their children in the here and now.
As kids get older, our questions about “what’s normal” don’t end; they just change. Is my teen’s rebellious attitude normal, or does he have Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Are her mood swings normal, or could she be suffering from clinical depression? Is her horrible boyfriend just a phase she’s going through or is she going to end up as an abused teen mom living on social assistance? Is his lack of interest in schoolwork normal or will he be living in a big-city apartment in his 20s, working minimum-wage jobs while trying to line up gigs for his band? And if he is … will that be such a bad thing? (Admittedly this last one is a bit inspired by the mom I chatted with last week, but as I am also the mom of a budding rockstar who’s not overly enthused about school, it’s not entirely irrelevant to my own concerns).
So far, in 15 years of parenting, 25 years of teaching and youth work, and 47 years of being a human, I’ve never met one parent who has raised a normal child. Normal is an illusion, and if you see someone who appears to be living a normal life, I can assure you there’s been some speedbump along their path that you may not have seen. Not that it’s wrong to question whether our and our children’s problems are typical or whether they require interventions. Not that it’s wrong to have dreams and aspirations, for ourselves and for our children. But for goodness’ sake, let’s go a little easy on ourselves and on our children in the ceaseless quest for normal. Because we’re chasing something that doesn’t really exist.