I recently encountered an article about something called “Gender Disappointment,” a label for women who are so traumatized by failing to produce a child of the desired gender that they become deeply depressed, and go to great lengths to produce the “right” flavor on future attempts. One of these Prize Narcissists was so unhappy about the fact that she had not yet given birth to a daughter that she posted the following in an internet forum: “‘I hate my life. My family is complete in reality but not in my heart.'” According to the article, “[s]he is considering giving all three of her boys up for adoption,” because she “‘wants to give them to someone who can actually love them.'”
As the mother of a healthy 12-year-old child, the piece shocked and sickened me. I thought about the women I know who struggle or struggled with infertility, and about the psychological impact on a child whose mother wishes that he or she were something completely different. As I thought, I tried to lower my blood pressure by finding a way to feel compassion towards those women; there had to be an “in,” some way that I could identify with their sorrow based on common bonds of motherhood, womanhood, or even humanity. In the end, I couldn’t do it. I have argued passionately in favor of showing compassion towards everybody from Andrea Yates to Sarah Palin, because in my universe there is no more important concept than the notion that we are all human, and are neither superior nor alien to other humans with failings. These legions of “gender disappointed” women, weeping while fondling pink dresses at Macy’s while their male children look on, are also human, and deserving of compassion. Clearly, I am not sufficiently evolved.
There are other kinds of “disappointment” in one’s children, though, which are entirely sanctioned by society and viewed not only as benign but as commendable. Although I haven’t participated as a parent, it seems to go like this: a child is a fungible commodity, albeit a beloved one, and regardless of the actual nature, inclinations or abilities of that child, it is the role of the parents to shape whatever they got into whatever they really wanted.
The desirable outcome varies, but I grew up a child musician with peers who were being pushed hard to be professional musicians from the time they were three or four years old. In my community, future prodigies were started early in “Suzuki Strings,” based on a program devised by Shin’ichi Suzuki to develop not only technical facility, but “beautiful character” in children. Although the goals of the program are not only admirable but quite lovely, the parents of my compatriots used it as the first step towards World Music Domination in a school district with a first class string program. The competition was so fierce that by the time I was in high school, one mother became so unhinged over her sons’ inability to get and hold “first chair” positions in the orchestra, that she began a campaign of using various poisons placed in cars, lockers, and homes to exact revenge from those who stood in the way of her dream. Since I was often competing for first chair with one of her sons, I can tell you that we had chemicals in the air vents of the family car, and mercury in the air vents in my bedroom, the effects of the latter eventually killing our beloved Airedale.
This perversion of an opportunity for enrichment into a desperate pursuit of success produced only one chemical poisoner (to the best of my knowledge) but it produced many, many parents who glossed over or completely denied the fact that music was not the passion of their respective children, but their own interest.Among my fellow musicians in middle and high school were those who were clearly “born to it,” those who played with heart, and willingly immersed themselves in all things musical because it was a welcome gift. There were also student musicians who played with great technical facility, practiced their daily hours, and generally hit all the right marks, but who were not in love with it. We could all make ourselves do anything; we were tremendously disciplined and competitive, but it was an entirely different process when the pressure came from without rather than within. I often wonder what happened to some of the “unwilling prodigies,” what they might have chosen to do had they been permitted, and whether they were ever able to find their own gifts and facilities after fifteen-plus years of striving to meet an artificial external standard.
In the less rarified parts of the world, this parental pushing is most often seen in the arenas of sports and academic excellence. What starts as kindergarten rec league soccer becomes, by sixth grade, an obsession with making the try-out team, and getting enough time on the field during games. When the child’s interest flags, or changes, there is insidious but heavy pressure not to “give up.” Instead of serving as a beloved form of play, and a way to get regular exercise, sports become a “job” for the budding Pele, with all of the pressure, deadlines and examination of performance that adult work generally entails. There is also a pattern of pushing children to excel in academics, particularly math, with a rush to enroll young students in after school programs, summer programs, and tutoring sessions. What happens to these children who are denied the chance to see play as play, or to be praised for doing good schoolwork at an age-appropriate level of skill? How would we feel, as adults, if we were required to focus vast amounts of time and psychic energy on hobbies in which we had lost interest, or abilities which gave us no real satisfaction?
My own child has facilities and interests completely alien to my own. I honestly expected, to some degree, a child version of myself, or at least some of myself; a young person with a great love of reading, and art, with some musical aptitude. Instead, I have a son who is a technology wizard focused passionately on wires, mother boards and “glitching” XBox games. He hates all things related to English class, from reading to writing, and after a year of playing the cello, decided that he would rather be in choir because “they don’t get yelled at if they don’t practice.” I have caught myself pushing, reading him “The Phantom Tollbooth” in the hopes that it would ignite a torch for literature, or insisting that we listen to classical music in the car despite the siren song of 50 Cent on 96.5. None of it worked; he will read the books required by his English teacher, he will grudgingly tolerate the intoxicating strains of Tchaikovsky long enough to get to Target, but he is just not that kid. He is a person who loves what he loves, just as I am. He might be a better cocktail party companion for me if he developed an interest in Beat poetry or the sonata form, and we could probably force him to learn about those things, but we would then be creating a different person altogether, and not a natural one.
There are things that we probably should “push” our children to do no matter who they are or where their interests lie. They should be taught to be decent, compassionate human beings, to clean up their messes, and to take responsibility for their actions. In my opinion (and my house) they should also be expected to respect their teachers, have nice table manners, say “please” and “thank you,” and try new things from tofu stir-fry to playing soccer or the violin. Beyond that, our children are neither possessions nor craft projects; they come into this world as human beings in their own right, and with whatever gender, talents or aptitudes occur in nature. Although he is not, strictly speaking, what I expected, I could not be more pleased with what I got, and I look forward to finding out who he grows up to be. If we’ve done our job right, he’ll be himself.