Once upon a time, I was someone’s hero.
In fact, I was a hero to two people. I comforted them when they were sick or hurt; I led them on adventures to the zoo, Legoland, and Mt. Rushmore; I camped in a backyard tent with them and the dog, and we built blanket forts in the family room; I welcomed them home from school with warm cookies; I held their hands at doctors’ offices. As they got older, my heroic deeds turned to acting as a confidante, encourager, and dream-supporter, in the events when they shared those dreams with me. I attended every game, recital, and school event. They confided in me about disappointments, challenges, and triumphs. I juggled budgets behind the scenes so they could travel to special summer dance and basketball camps, travel across the country, and even across the world. I changed jobs to help them pay for college. To be fair, I didn’t do any of this alone – their dad wore a hero cape too, and we made a good team, giving the job of parenting everything we had to give.
Parents want to be heroes…it feels good to lavish all of our adoration and attention on someone and to be revered in return. We want to believe that everything we do in love unfolds accordingly and that our efforts and sacrifices will be invaluable to the recipients of that love. We want to be forever respected and admired. And for the lucky ones, this is exactly what happens.
For me, though, and I suspect many like me, we realize we are imperfectly human and have been all along. We look back and see where our best intentions fell short, sometimes even having caused harm. We didn’t listen well enough, our expectations were unrealistic, we controlled, we lost perspective and we yelled, we weren’t always good models of character or healthy balance.
It’s not easy to accept the truth. Plain and simple, I’m not a hero at all. I did what all loving parents do, and I did it to the best of my ability in every single moment with what I knew at that time. There was never a decision made out of anything except the purest of intent and devotion. But there was nothing heroic about it. Parents make sacrifices, both ordinary and extraordinary, every single day because of infinite love for their children.
As our kids grew up and moved away from home, I began to analyze past choices and where they had led me. The dissatisfaction of acknowledged mistakes, paired with staring at an empty nest and being at an uncomfortable midlife crossroads, was the catalyst to a series of misguided attempts at trying to impress those young adult “kids.” My feelings of loss needed to be relieved, and I wanted to gain their approval. I enrolled in a second bachelor’s degree program to display my intelligence. I attempted various side-gigs to model having a successful career, only to abandon them in confusion and frustration. I wanted to prove my altruism and also to pay restitution for my parental faults, so I mentored a high school student. While those pursuits emerged in part from my authentic character, the underlying motive eclipsed any satisfaction or honest value.
It took a number of years of work peeling away the layers of fear, perfectionism, and low self-esteem for me to come to terms with some important epiphanies:
I had to let go of past regrets.
These misdirected attempts were reflections of my own loss of self.
My kids were too busy living their own lives to pay any attention to my pursuits, and even when they did notice, they surely questioned my motives.
The truth is, the only opinion that should have mattered about what I was doing with my life was my own. It’s not now, nor has it ever been, my children’s responsibility to build my self-esteem or make me feel worthy. Had I come to this important realization during the years when there was actually a chance to positively influence my kids, we all would have benefitted. But what’s in the past cannot be changed – it can only provide lessons.
While I’ll always desire respect and admiration from the most important people in my life, I no longer need their approval. So now I’m completing a master’s degree – for me. I volunteer weekly – for me. I expand my spirituality, my mission and my purpose – for me. And I give them the freedom to do their own growing and evolving in whatever ways they choose, whether I agree with those choices or not. I think this is how it was always meant to be.