I have often thought that, as a parent, I wear a special type of glasses. Out of one eye, what I see and believe with all my heart is that my children are the most beautiful and wonderful kids in the universe, uniquely gifted in every aspect. However, when I look through the other lens, I know that they're not. It is one of the privileges of parenthood that we get to feel this way -- to experience the wonder and joy of every step they take, but also to recognize that we might just be a little over the top (and hopefully to only share the "aren't they incredible" conversations with grandparents and relatives).
I've been thinking about this a lot, because many parents seem to lack that second lens these days. There are so many examples out there -- the letter from Susan Patton, the infamous Princeton mother who claimed that the universe of women her son could marry is "limitless," or the movie Admission in which Tina Fey's besotted character will do anything to get her putative, and frankly not particularly impressive, son into Princeton. Or even Lou Weiss's interview about his daughter Suzy's controversial Wall Street Journal article about not getting into her top choice colleges, in which he claimed she was the "least entitled person you will ever meet." (I'm going to give Suzy's grandmother a pass for calling her the "Tina Fey of Pittsburgh" -- that's sort of what grandmothers are for.)
So why do these statements and movies concern me? I guess because I see something that reflects a number of unwelcome trends both in my generation and in America. We live in a world where helicopter parenting is rampant, many people believe their children are geniuses and every child seems to get a participation award just for showing up. I don't think we are doing ourselves or our children a particular service by claiming they are all amazing. And the flip side is of course refusing to believe that some children are just average and there's nothing wrong with that. I was shocked, as were many doctors, by a recent article about a CDC report stating that almost 20 percent of high school boys in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD, and almost two-thirds of them are receiving medication. At least part of this number, according to experts, is likely due to parents who simply want their children to do better in school and assume there must be something wrong if they're not superstars.
I seriously doubt that Susan Patton's son has unlimited marital options, but unfortunately this loss of perspective and adulation of our children is all too common. In fact, many of us seem to be living vicariously through our children. If you don't believe me, just sit in the stands at a high school hockey game or talk to a parent about college applications and see how many times he or she starts off a sentence about something their child has done with the word "we" (and I've been guilty of this as well, so I know it's not easy to separate yourself from your child's accomplishments). However, I truly believe that the refusal to be at least minimally objective about our children is bad for them -- potentially leading to the development of human beings who overestimate their abilities, don't want to hear honest criticism and expect someone else to do the grunt work for them. And while helicopter parenting might have some upsides, a recent report in The Journal of Child and Family Studies notes that young adults with over-involved parents are more prone to depression and anxiety.
But perhaps just as importantly, missing that second lens is not just a problem for our children, it's also bad for us, the women of my generation (and probably many of the men as well). If you have lived mainly through your children, what's left for you? What do you do when they leave home, get their own independent lives, don't need you every day? Do you just wait in limbo until you can babysit for your grandchildren? How do you remain a stimulating person, if you've spent your life focusing on your children's achievements and downplayed your own? When I go on Facebook, I am taken aback by how many of my smart, funny and accomplished peers seem to post very little about their own lives (unless you count Candy Crush Saga milestones), but post obsessive updates about their children. In order to get the fullest satisfaction from our lives, we have to applaud ourselves for our own accomplishments, just as much as we praise our children for theirs, and not be ashamed of ourselves for not achieving enough or worried that we have become uninteresting with age.
You know, when I was growing up, my mother Leah would insist on telling everyone about her everyday triumphs, whether it related to her job or her victory over a sour teller at the bank. My siblings and I used to roll our eyes at her antics and at her self-praise exemplified in the words she uttered constantly, "Nobody could believe how amazing I was." But now that I'm older, I think I know where Leah was coming from. If we don't think we're interesting and vital, if we don't take steps to connect with people and the world, if we don't toot our own horns and if we don't think our lives and accomplishments are as worthwhile as those of our children, why should we expect anyone else to?
So, while I'll continue to happily wear my two-lensed parent glasses, I'll also take them off frequently, to see what else is out there -- a new friend, a rediscovered interest or an unexpected point of view -- and then try and share it with others as loudly as I can.
In the same way that volunteering at your child's school makes you part of a community and helps you make friends with fellow parents, volunteering at your local library, homeless shelter, or with a civic group will immerse you in a new community that includes neighbors and empty nesters.
Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't start writing books until her children were grown and with kids of their own? Take advantage of your empty nest and get involved in something that you have wanted to do and previously did not have enough time to do. Take a class, play a sport, or find a hobby.
If you've only ever done poorly paid part-time jobs while the children were at home (or if raising kids for 18 years was enough full time work in itself!), now you've got the chance to have a fresh start. Or you may have an ambition to run your own business -- the 'encore career' movement is rife with fresh faced entrepreneurs over 50. Now is the time to discover what passions live within you and pursue them to the bank!
Now that you're not responsible for getting a kid to school at 8 a.m. five days a week, explore the idea of exploring. Rejoice in the freedom you haven't had in years and see the world. Feel like seeing the pyramids? Versailles? Living in Costa Rica for a <strike> year</strike> week? Step to it amigo!
If an empty nest means anything, it's privacy. Rejoice in your long-deserved break from acting like a parent and act like an adult. Whether you're married or single, take the opportunity to reignite the sputtering spark in your relationship or get out there and carve out for yourself a love life worth living. It's true what they say, sex IS better after 50.