Friday, December 18, 2009
Kids and Holiday and Class and Stress
It's been a tough week in the Huang household. I've been crunched on account of a flurry of end-of-year work. Amy's been crunched on account of holiday-related preparations. The kids have subconsciously picked up on all of the stress, and have amped up their own anxieties: Jada has been inconsolably weepy in the evenings, Aaron has been more oppositional than usual, and both of them together leave us feeling like we are watching an episode of Nanny 911, only the misbehaving children are ours and there is neither TV camera to capture their deeds nor all-knowing nanny to tell us what we're doing wrong.
Their troubles are made all the more jarring by the onslaught of holiday updates from friends and family members whose children are right in line with how children of our socio-economic status ought to be. They are pretty and well-dressed, hitting academic and social milestones way ahead of schedule. They are described as delighting in their siblings, happy and sociable, a joy to watch grow up. If there is even a peep of complaint from the parents, it is over the hecticness of having to shuttle the little ones between soccer practice, piano, and dance rehearsal.
In contrast, the complaining you might hear if you were privy to the private conversations of me and Amy is of the hecticness of having to shuttle our little ones between the battery of special instructors they see, or of having to stay on top of related administrative and insurance paperwork. Our children may be pretty and well-dressed, to, but they are behind on many academic and social milestones. They may be warming significantly to each other as siblings, but we worry over the very real possibilities that they will face major future dysfunction if they continue along the paths they are now on.
If you know us and our kids, you may assuringly protest and counter that our children are delightful, and we shouldn't be so gloomy about them or hard on ourselves. But this is in fact not edifying to us, however well-meaning your sentiment might be, because it undercuts our opinion that our children have very real issues and brands us as being over-reacting and unnecessarily complaining.
In contrast, one of those most supportive interactions I have had over the past couple of years was a chance encounter with a colleague of mine who I know through work, who responded to my brief update on how my kids were doing with a knowing look, and who then proceeded to summarize for me some extra help he had had to secure for one of his own kids. In other words, instead of suggesting to me that everything was going to be alright, he appreciated firsthand how hard it is to fight with and for your kids, and so affirmed the weariness and worry that he detected in my description of how my family was doing.
Now, it is fair for you to call me on the notion that I am making a comparison between my kids and our family situation, and that of what I read in holiday updates from my upper-class friends and family members. I have blogged a lot, especially recently, about the intersection of class and parenting, and I hope those posts have not come across as one who has this all figured out or is above making class distinctions, but rather as one who struggles to not want to give into a socio-economic "keeping up with the Joneses."
Am I embarrassed of my kids because they are not up to par, intellectually and behaviorally, for the class level I aspire to? I probably am. With notable exceptions, like the affirming conversation I described above, people who run in the same socio-economic circles as I are not faced with the kinds of issues Amy and I are faced with in our parenting of Jada and Aaron. And so piled on top of the challenges we work through with our kids, I have piled on my own sense that I am alone among my social circle in dealing with such issues. And, because I am susceptible to class distinctions, I feel exposed and vulnerable as a result.
Don't get me wrong: I love my children. If I didn't, it would hurt less that they struggle so, and it would matter less that they are at higher odds for future trouble. I am rightfully and typically proud of them, delighting in their uniquenesses and genuinely fond of spending time with them. I wouldn't trade them for anything, and will fight with everything I have for them; and I realize that even their dysfunctions are part of who they are and part of what make them precious. But I must confess, even at the risk of coming across as petty and selfish, that this all would be easier if I didn't care so much about my social standing.
They say that being a parent stretches you in ways that can sap you or strengthen you. If you need to work on being more patient, raising kids is certainly a worthy test; or if your marriage has fissures in it, adding kids can be a platform for either mending them or widening them. One way this is true for me, in terms of exposing an area in which I need to improve, is that, as I noted earlier this week, kids are a vivid way for us shallow people to express and concern ourselves with where we are in the societal pecking order.
This, for me, is a somewhat surprising area of stretch, and a personal weakness I need to overcome. Will I go about doing right by my kids, however straining and stressful it is, receiving encouragement and rejuvenation where I can, and not using them as part of how I keep score of my own accomplishments and strivings? Or will I allow myself, however sub-consciously, to make some mental calculation about how what my kids are like slots me into a certain strata of socio-economic class, overly proud if they do me proud and unnecessarily ashamed if they don't measure up in the world? Perhaps, because I know I am ambitious, it shouldn't surprise me that I struggle with this; but I guess I am surprised because I didn't think I would be this vain and insecure, to worry in this way.
As always, the work continues, to be a better husband and parent and person. Thanks for reading this far, and for allowing me this musing, which is certainly not the typical tenor for end-of-year summaries of family life, but which is where I am at this time. Lord, help me and help my children, I pray.