By Sangeetha Bhaskaran Sep. 18, 2019
I’ve been an average performer in school, college, and in my career. My parents have never shown a hint of embarrassment. Being allowed to grow in an environment where I could choose my own pace has given me the freedom and confidence to build my own identity.
The year 2000 and there I was, sitting in front of a computer screen, staring at the column that blinked my apparent doom – board exam results. My eyes fixated on the 60 per cent next to “Maths” with a bizarre hope that it could morph into a grade I deserved for the subject I’d worked the hardest on. I was paralysed by a sense of failure. Over the past year, my parents had driven me to and fro, thrice a week, for extra classes with an excellent Math coach and had spent a small fortune. I shut the curtains to my room and curled up in darkness, waiting for them to get home, wondering how I would face them.
The memory of this day is shelved away neatly in my mind with every single detail etched into it. I remember the Mickey Mouse shorts I was wearing when I broke down in front of them, the flickering disappointment in my father’s eyes before it dissolved into a comforting stare, how my mother hugged me and rushed to make my favourite mushroom curry. Their easy acceptance lifted the nausea that accompanies those who feel like they’re peering at the end of the world. It was a turning point in how I perceived their expectations and mine.
I’ve been an average performer in school, college, and in my career; I’m still floundering in the vast space between being a hot mess and sorted for life. I haven’t been a daughter who’s raked up any significant accomplishments worth boasting about; never once made it to the prefect list or won any medals, didn’t master any art forms or sports. Usually at weddings when people tend to parade their offspring’s endeavours by declaring (without being asked, of course) news of promotions or the purchase of brand new homes, my parents get to tell them about how I’m a struggling freelance writer. And they never show a hint of embarrassment.
I didn’t realise it then but now I understand how difficult it must have been for my mother and father to restrain themselves from the tendency to constantly push me to do my best. Being allowed to grow in an environment where I could choose my own pace has given me the freedom and confidence to build my own identity.
Their easy acceptance lifted the nausea that accompanies those who feel like they’re peering at the end of the world.
Yet, now that I’m a mother, I find myself struggling. I panic when I see my six-year old daughter lagging behind in her reading and writing and badger teachers with questions on how to help her out. Even as they reassure me that she will catch up, I concoct worst-case scenarios in my head. For the past two years she has been attending ballet lessons and although there are days when she is exhausted and dreads the discipline and rigour, I drag her to class because I am certain that with practice, she has it in her to be an exceptional dancer.
Am I being selfish? Am I using my daughter as a vehicle to drive somewhere I never thought of going to myself, I often wonder. It isn’t easy to draw that line between letting our children discover what they want to make of themselves and ensuring they don’t become rudderless individuals. I envy my parents for how naturally it came to them.
Perhaps it has to do with the generation I am a part of, an overly proactive one that is struggling with shrinking resources and higher standards of living. My anxiety skyrockets when I am part of conversations with other parents, discussing nutrition, academics, and extracurricular activities. There is an inauthentic atmosphere of camaraderie as we secretly compare our kids based on how much they’re doing in and after school. From kumon to karate, we’re jamming as much as we can into their little schedules, partly to keep them busy but mostly to wring their potential into results.
I hear the word “excellence” a lot. It’s become a beacon that we, both adults and children, are meant to sail toward. Parents want their children to excel because somehow they have started believing that the success of their kids is a reflection of them. When our kids do well, we tomtom about their achievements. My Facebook and Instagram feed are filled with mothers boasting of their children’s latest feat – a son who bagged the first prize in a music concert, a daughter who got selected for Model UN. I’m guilty too of putting up images of my little one, gushing over her accomplishments. It’s one thing to take pride in what your children do and another to equate their success with ours. This behaviour is obviously unhealthy and has a downside.
Perhaps it has to do with the generation I am a part of, an overly proactive one that is struggling with shrinking resources and higher standards of living.
In a Boston Magazine report titled, “In Praise of Mediocre Kids” Dori Hutchinson, director at Centre for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, says “high-performance, high-productivity culture” is contributing to fragile states of mind. There might be nothing wrong in wanting our children to shine, but the report points out that the “pursuit of perfection” leads to anxiety, often depression.
I recall a girl in high school who was a consistent topper, her head perpetually burrowed in textbooks. After graduating, she had an emotional breakdown and took time off to recuperate. She healed by distancing herself from the people she knew and spending time with dogs at an animal shelter as a volunteer. That is what pushing our kids too much can do.
Earlier this year, I read a story about a mother who celebrated her son’s 60 per cent board results with a heartwarming post on social media. She won over the internet with her warm recognition of not just his academic efforts but also other traits like his wisdom, curiosity, and sense of humour. While tens of thousands of people praised her, I wondered how many of them would have the courage to be like her and my parents. I’m not there yet, but I’m going to try.
So the next time my daughter complains about ballet class, I’m going to surprise her. Instead of dragging her to class, I’ll let her bunk. And if I’m in the mood, prepare her favourite curry. Like my mama did. And it’s okay if she is mediocre, just like me.
An accountant turned writer who hoards handmade soaps and notebooks. Author of No time to moisturize, a parenting page & Half Boiled Indian, a collection of stories from the returning NRI perspective. Dogs complete me.