The Third Third

Lessons from My 20-Somethings

Ours is not to approve or disapprove. Not that it ever was, really. I remember that lesson in the child-rearing books, the one that instructed us not to say “I’m so proud of you!” but, rather, to build the child’s self-esteem by declaring instead, “You must be so proud!” Prideful (and occasionally judgmental) Mom that I was, this was a challenge for me, but I worked at it. Diligently. Nevertheless, I reared four kids who spent a lot of their young lifetimes seeking my approval, and a lot of their 20’s in therapists’ offices weaning themselves from it. Mission accomplished. They are currently making their own ways and on their own terms. And I find it fascinating. Also Radical, Creative, Courageous, Principled, Intriguing, Amazing, Instructive, Terrifying sometimes, and more. I’m so proud of them; but I don’t know how to say so, or if I should (though even at my advanced age and given the complex and normally destructive nature of my relationship with my father, I do appreciate the few *bons mots* he gratuitously throws my way). Surely, they wouldn’t mind a sincere compliment or two, would they? To be sure, it was much easier to respond to peers’ questions about our kids when I could bask in the reflected glory of their clearly defined successes, chiefly their admissions to and graduations from some of the country’s most highly esteemed colleges and graduate schools. It felt, at times, like an embarrassment of riches, as indeed it was. The real successes, however, came later, as they acknowledged their educations as privilege and expanded their personal definitions of success to incorporate the entirety of the way they live in the world we’re in the process of passing on to them – not just how they perform or what they accomplish, and definitely not how much money they make. They rapidly outgrew all the measurements that had governed our goals for them; our vision had been far too short-sighted. Limited by my own experiences and choices and, yes, by both my insecurities and successes, I hadn’t even begun to imagine what might be possible for them. Most days, I find I am awed and amazed by the many different ways and the intensity with which they engage with the world. And that’s, finally, what makes me so proud of them. They’re traveling much lighter than we did: fewer parental expectations to contend with; no children as of yet; and only one has a mortgage. At the same time, I think they’re seeking their places in a much meaner world, and because they are still seeking, the impact of our failed economy and prevailing values such as greed is far greater than that which we felt from similar cycles and cultural shifts when we were already consumed by parenthood and career. To them, our lives to date must seem steadfastly linear: school, marriage, children, mortgage, partnership in a major law firm, even a second home, and now, sometime soon, retirement (though it wasn’t that obviously predictable and I remember crushing bouts of angst regarding what we should do). To us, on the other hand, their lives seem buffeted by an uncertainty that would, frankly, paralyze me, but which inspires new creative thoughts and actions in them and teaches me to think in different ways about the next stage of my life, too. We were in pretty much of a hurry to settle down; they won’t settle for anything. We ambitiously pursued careers; they’re insisting upon meaningful work – even as they put food on their tables and roofs over their heads, sometimes any way they can. We made compromises I am only now owning up to; they refuse to rationalize any such decisions. I detect in them no sense of entitlement (of which I am also, secretly, very proud). They don’t need to live in a certain zip code, attain a particular rank or title, or emboss a brand-name firm on their business cards for status. What they are pursuing instead – at the very deepest levels – is what makes them happy, and not in a hedonistic sense, but in a responsible, holistic way. I think it is their goal to embrace that happiness with every ounce of their being, no matter how difficult or unconventional the journey, no matter how many detours caused by, say, a recession or a break-up, no matter what I think. I wish I could say I taught them that. But I can’t; they’re teaching me. And just in time, too. For the third third gives me an opportunity to explore it all -- all over again; it’s a no-excuses, not-too-many-obligations time of life, a chance to start over, in many ways, and it’s up to me to seek – and find – that same peace and happiness for my self. At least that’s what I’ve learned so far. Thanks, kids!
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