My daughter has Depression. She wrote about it bravely in an essay she published upon her departure from college eighteen months ago. This week, she signs a lease and moves into an apartment with a friend from high school. Two extraordinary not yet twenty-one-year-old women who are adulting on their terms. They aren’t sure if college is right for them, but they support themselves and are learning the life lessons most people their age don’t figure out until after college graduation. To say I am proud of my daughter is inadequate. I am in awe of her courage. She has fought back from the abyss and is figuring out her path, her way. She inspires me daily.
My daughter had a major depressive episode and I had no idea what the fuck to do. Because the breastfeeding and the sleep training and the mommy-and-me and the tutors and the dance classes and the soccer and the softball and the books and the experts and teachers and the tutors and my master’s degree in social work didn’t prepare me for this.
These eighteen months, and the several before she returned home, challenged me like nothing else. I was unmoored. Forcing her into a box (college!) or a recovery time frame (my anxiety!) reflected just how lost I felt. My narcissism lead me to wonder if her struggle was my failure, if I had been a better parent she would not be suffering.
But it’s not about me. And that’s the rub.
Parenting is not an algorithm and our children are not measurable outcomes. They are not extensions of our egos nor reflections of our expertise. They are unique human beings, a cocktail of genetic, hereditary, nature, nurture, and environmental forces. You can read every book and follow every rule and do it THE RIGHT WAY and guess what? Your kid will still be who she is.
Sure, don’t abuse or neglect them, provide as stable a home as you can, meet their basic needs, listen and validate their feelings, have boundaries and aim for consistency, discipline, teach them empathy and kindness, say you’re sorry, build a relationship so that in their darkest hour they know you are their safe place.
And then get the fuck out of the way.
Last Fall, my husband and I made our daughter take a college course. We thought we were supposed to do that, you know, force her back on the horse. It didn’t work. As I listened to her describe her anxiety in the classroom, I understood our mistake. I felt what we were doing wrong. It was visceral.
Our fear was driving our parenting. Fear of judgement, fear for her future, fear of having failed her.
And in that moment, I looked into her eyes and saw our error in her worry.
Maybe your anxiety is unresolved shit from last year, maybe you have work to do in that area. But maybe it’s a little internal tantrum because you don’t really want to be there and you’re only doing it for us. So take that off your plate. If you don’t want to go to school, don’t. You must support yourself, but you will always have a roof over your head and a full fridge. We love you; we are here for you; I know you will figure out what’s best for you. We got you.
And just like that I saw her soften, I watched relief wash over her. And then I witnessed, slowly but surely, my independent, confident, resilient daughter return.
All things grow in time. And with space.
Because don’t we all want to live life on our terms? Autonomy and self-determination are human rights. I think sometimes us parents forget that.
While we have made much of the cliched Helicopter Parent, what of the rest of us Gen X parents of Gen Z kids? The garden variety neurotics who don’t easily fall into categories.
I mean, we are anxious AF, too.
I laugh every time I see a social media post from someone my age celebrating the days of our youth when we rode bikes all day, didn’t see parents until dinner, had the freedom to just be. If that was so great, why did an entire generation of parents do it differently? I mean, it was great, so why the hell did we change course? Why did we get so scared?
Why did we need books and experts and podcasts and TED Talks and new books because now there’s a Better Way To Parent than the old book said? What happened that we bought the snake oil and needed the experts to tell us what to do?
We were anxious before smart phones and social media, before school shootings and September 11th, before terrorism and watch lists. We were already looking for The Best Way To Parent before the world we *white people of privilege* grew up in disappeared.
About eighteen years ago, I sat in a mommy & me circle at my kids’ preschool. The leader, child development professor Marni Roosevelt, shared that she worried about this generation of parents because we approached parenting like we did our careers.
I think of her prescient words often.
If parenting is a career, one looks to be successful at it. For measurable outcomes. For positive feedback. To develop mastery and expertise.
Many years ago, I watched a 60 Minutes segment on the rise of heroin use in America. In it, a mother recounts how she didn’t realize why all the spoons had gone missing from the kitchen. In what might be (is?) my most insane parenting moment, I ran into the den where my sweet not-at-all on heroin kids were watching TV and with tears in my eyes I asked (accused?) them if they were using heroin.
I mean, we did have a lot of missing spoons.
The stunned look on their faces. Wow. I was NUTS. And I’m still embarrassed by it. I watched a story on the news and it triggered deep-seated fear and that fear won and rational thought lost. I’m glad we laugh about it now but it is emblematic of something deeper many of us experience.
A story about something horrible happening to someone else’s kid unleashes our unconscious or conscious fear, so we seek a way to prevent THIS BAD THING from happening to our kids.
If only it worked that way.
If the past twenty years has taught me anything it’s that I don’t know shit and bad things happen no matter your great parenting. It has humbled me to my knees. If the teenage years don’t do that to you, well, maybe you’re lucky, but maybe you’re not. Because if you make it through those years still thinking you know what the fuck you’re doing, you’ve missed the greatest life lesson of parenting.
Humility and The Art of Letting Go.
Good kids will do bad things. Responsible kids will do irresponsible things. Smart kids will do stupid things. More than once.
They are humans, not outcomes of an algorithm.
There was a parenting guru popular in Los Angeles when my kids were little. If you took her class, you had to follow a rigid set of rules for all things child-rearing. I remember my friends had to switch their kids –babies!– to a specific sippy cup at an exact age. Are you fucking kidding? No. I think there’s still a waiting list to take her class. She, and the hundreds of others like her, exploit parental anxiety and sell an illusion. If you do it this way, the right way, your kid will be fine. But that’s not how this works.
Your child might be fine or he might die or he might thrive or he might fail or he might do lots of things you can’t imagine.
Because our children are human beings, not outcomes of an algorithm.
We are all doing the best we can with whom we are and what our circumstances might be and our DNA and our wounds and scars and strengths and our buckets full of love. Forgive your parents so you can more easily forgive yourself. You will need to. Ask for help, seek guidance, stay humble. Find more faith than fear, go to therapy — at least once.
And learn to let go. You deserve it and they deserve it.
I wish I learned how sooner. It’s a beautiful place to be.