I'm done with competitive parenting

My kids have never been overachievers, and I'm starting to be glad

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 25, 2017 7:30PM (EST)

 (Getty/Montage by Salon)
(Getty/Montage by Salon)

You were right all along, sanctimommies. I didn't breastfeed long enough, didn't Ferberize soon enough. I parked the kids in front of the TV instead of playing enriching imagination games. I caved when they wanted to quit the free tennis program at our local park. And now that both of my daughters are teenagers and one is preparing to graduate high school, I fold. They are not geniuses. They are not going to Stanford or to Wimbledon. Never gonna be president now. So can we stop competing with each other?

Sometimes it seems so hard to remember how we all managed so much one-upmanship in the early years of the century, when we didn't even have Instagram to boast on. Yet I still vividly recall my early encounters with face-to-face concern trolling from other moms — is she sleeping through the night yet? Crawling yet? I would sheepishly respond, then accept their gentle reassurances that someday, my child too might actually figure out how to hold a spoon. (The jury is still out.)

Sure, in those exhausted days of baby boot camp, there were parents who distinguished themselves as comrades in arms, the ones whose children, like mine, never seemed to earn appreciative coos for being so "good" and "quiet." My kids — like theirs — were loud, wakeful and clearly thought walking was a sucker's game, remaining determined to be carried on their mother's hips for as long as they possibly could. But other families seemed to be perpetually crushing it, marveling at their babies' advanced reading aptitudes or can-do-it approach to toilet training.

I don't know why, but back then I somehow thought once our children were fully bipedal and off to school, the "Is my kid better than yours?" subtext of parental interactions would abate. After all, so many of those early interactions could be chalked up to nervous new parenting — a need for reassurance that if you just wore the baby sling enough hours a day, the rewards will later reveal themselves in SAT scores.

Instead, school only ramped up the opportunities for quantifying our children's merits and checking how they stacked up against those of other kids. Before long, I saw families eagerly applying for gifted and talented programs, signing on for immersive experiences in exotic lands, and humblebragging about crushing loads of homework. I once had a mom tell me, at a party, "You get what you pay for," when I said my daughters were in public school. I had another tell me to my face her son had been "bored" by the academics at the school my children attended, so she had to find someplace "more challenging." I've been grilled on why my kids didn't play sports. Because I want to ruin their opportunities, I guess.

My kids have experienced this Type A attitude from adults as well. When my elder daughter interviewed for a well-regarded local middle school a few years ago, the administrator asked her what she believed she could bring to the institution. "Like, in my backpack?" she asked, puzzled, before revealing, "Well, I have a lucky koala bear." I still wonder, what would the right answer have been? What's the best way for a 10-year-old to sell you on how she will elevate your sixth grade class? She didn't get in.

So here we are now. My daughters, by the way, are awesome. They are smart, kind young women who have faced serious mental and physical health issues, who get good grades and who still can't play tennis. They're strong and brave and I am proud of them. And they did eventually learn to walk, too, so there's that. My older daughter has a part-time job to save money for school. She will, I hope, soon land at a perfectly fine college we can afford to pay for, all but certainly one with a name that does not guarantee Instagram bragging rights. It'll be, I hope, okay anyway.

I've got my baggage. I worry that I've failed my kids by not pushing them enough, by not being affluent enough, by not being like the dad I recall from a long-ago preschool event who once drily observed, "What's wrong with putting a child on a track if the track leads to Harvard?" Fifteen years later, his kid really is on that prestige track. And I confess I feel envy for families whose tracks seem so much shinier than ours — tracks not paved with discouraging financial aid officers and undone laundry.

But what I know in my heart is going on in my darkest moments of social media scab-picking is the dumb insecurity that if we're not all brilliant, we're all boring. What if it turned out you and your kids were not . . . exceptional? What if you were neither gifted nor talented? Could you still be all right, somehow? Could you remember every moment your child came to you in tears, when all you wanted in the world for her was not that she be fluent in Mandarin but that she just be happy? Could you remember every emergency room visit, when her GPA was meaningless and you just wanted her to be healthy?

I'm trying, truly, to get better. I've worked so hard their whole lives to just let my kids bloom at their own pace, to avoid the noxious world of high stakes childhood. The result is that they are nice girls who are just not, by any outside assessment, superstars. You know, most people aren't. What I so often lose sight of is that there have been a lot of iffy moments for our family over the years. There have been diseases and disasters. We're not unique in that. Simply being alive, being able to get out of bed in the morning, having family and friends who offer love and support and having somehow just enough to pay the bills — these are huge deals for a great many of us. These are our finest achievements. And if I could get a bumper sticker that said "PROUD MOTHER OF DECENT, SOMETIMES FUNCTIONING HUMAN BEINGS," I have no doubt I would. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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