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On Packing Too Heavy

What hasty preparations we make for our future. Think of it: it seems almost tragic, the things we’re sure we ought to bring along. We pack too heavy with what we hope we’ll use, and too light of what we must. We thus go forth misladen, ill equipped for the dawn.

— Chang Rae Lee, My Year Abroad

There’s a weird and ill-defined stage of the parenting journey where your influence wanes and you become less of anything resembling an “authority” and more of a cheerleader or casual consultant (or vague irritant!). There’s no precise moment where this happens in your kids’ lives—they could probably be anywhere between 15-30!—but one day you wake up and sense that something has changed. They don’t need you in the same way, don’t want your input in the same way, don’t necessarily choose the things that you would have chosen, do not necessarily turn out to be carbon copies of their parents (go figure!)!. It’s the most natural thing in the world and yet it still somehow manages to come as something of a surprise.

It is at this stage of life where nostalgic middle-aged people (I’m told) begin to gravitate toward articles like with titles like this one in today’s Guardian: ‘Is everyone doing this perfectly but me?’ It’s an even more clickable headline because the author is none other than Michelle Obama, someone who you would generally expect to be hitting it out of the park in parenting as in every other area of life. But, no, it seems that even Michelle Obama was (is?) plagued by a bit self-doubt when it comes to this weird and wonderful business of raising up independent humans.

A few quotes stood out in this piece. The first was a bit of a sobering slap in the face to those of us who are tempted to tie up a bit too much of our own self-worth and identity in our kids. Speaking of her own mother, Michelle Obama writes this:

She sat by and allowed us to struggle and make mistakes—with our chores, our homework, and our relationships with various teachers, coaches and friends. None of it was tied to her own self-worth or ego, or done for bragging rights. It was not about her at all, she would say. She was busy trying to wash her hands of us, after all. This meant that her mood didn’t rise or fall on our victories. Her happiness wasn’t dictated by whether we came home with A’s on our report cards, whether Craig scored a lot of points at his basketball game, or I got elected to student council. When good things happened, she was happy for us. When bad things happened, she’d help us process it before returning to her own chores and challenges. The important thing was that she loved us regardless of whether we succeeded or failed. She lit up with gladness any time we walked through the door.

Probably not a terrible reminder to all the insufferable helicopter parents out there living and dying with their kids’ every move (and those who imagine that we don’t fall into this category but actually kinda do, despite ourselves). And what a thing to have said about you as a parent: “The important thing was that she loved us regardless of whether we succeeded or failed. She lit up with gladness any time we walked through the door.” Quite a charge and a challenge, that one.

The second one that stood out to me was this related reminder that in the end, we really have very, very little control over anything as parents:

What we learned quickly, however, was that raising little kids followed the same basic trajectory we’d experienced with both pregnancy and childbirth: you can spend a lot of time dreaming, preparing and planning for family life to go perfectly, but, in the end, you’re pretty much just left to deal with whatever happens. You can establish systems and routines, anoint your various sleep, feeding and disciplinary gurus from the staggering variety that exist. You can write your family bylaws and declare your religion and your philosophy out loud, but, at some point, sooner rather than later, you will almost surely be brought to your knees, realising that despite your best and most earnest efforts, you are only marginally—and sometimes very marginally—in control.

Well, yes. This is so very true. These aren’t widgets we’re churning out; they’re precious, individual, unique, blessedly, and terrifyingly free human beings.

I read that quote at the top of the post from Chang Rae Lee a few years ago and immediately filed it away for future reflection. It seemed to express something powerfully and poignantly true not just about parenting but about the human experience more generally. We do indeed “pack too heavy with what we hope we’ll use, and too light of what we must.” We load up with techniques and strategies, we obsess over outcomes and consequences. We scramble after status and affirmation in all the wrong places. We desperately cling to an illusory control. We think the future—our own and our kids’—is ours to engineer. We spend too much time on the resume virtues and not enough on the eulogy virtues. We micromanage instead of trusting. We marinate in fear rather than in faith, hope, and love.

And in all this we too often “go forth misladen, ill equipped for the dawn.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kevin K #

    Thanks for this lovely reflection Ryan!

    What treasures we hold in our hands of clay 😊

    November 16, 2022

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