Giving up Superman

While there may be nothing we want more in the world, no matter what superhuman efforts we put out, we can't make our children's lives disappointment free.

A friend of mine was feeling bad because her daughter wasn't going to be able to go on the weekend trip that she wanted. A parent was needed. Transportation was a problem. She'd been sick, the homework was piled up, and there were a variety of conflicting demands at home. But my friend waited until the very last possible moment to decide that she had to say no, and even as she said it, was still casting desperately around for another possible solution.

Should she give up her commitments? Should she ask her husband to give up his? Should she ask me to look for a larger car and be surrogate parent for the weekend? She was considering stretching way beyond what made sense, wracking her brains to figure out some way to keep her child from feeling so disappointed.

As I listened to her struggling on the phone, I noticed how conflicted I felt. Part of me was trying to figure out whether I should be making more of an effort in their direction, offering to take her child, with all the complications, and assuring them that I could make it all work out well for everyone, despite my doubts and my already-full plate? Part of me was irritated that she was putting me in this position, making me feel responsible, in some way, for the happiness of her family, and guilty at falling short. Part of me was wondering whether, in her position, I would be doing just the same thing. (After all, who can stand by unmoved when their beloved child is not getting something that is good and that she wants so badly?) It was not a comfortable conversation, and I couldn't see how the issue would be resolved.

Then she gave the tip-off: "Maybe I just can't be superman." Clearly this was not through lack of trying. She was trying her level best to be smart enough, creative, flexible, generous, and strong enough that her child would never have to feel disappointed. That was what was wrong with this picture! Here she was feeling that, by not being able to provide everything that her child wanted, she was somehow falling down on the job.

She was taking on a task that was clearly superhuman--to insure another person's happiness--and judging her worth on the basis of how well she did at it. What a set-up for both of them! I imagined the viciousness of the circle. With no reason to question that arrangement, a daughter would be left with a major misconception about her role in her own life. The harder the mom tried to protect her child from disappointment, the more the daughter would count on her in that role The more she counted on her mom to keep her happy, the more she would assume that this was not her own job, and the more unacceptable such disappointment would be to either of them.

Our job as parents is just too hard as it is for us to take on additional roles with our children, particularly ones that we can't possibly succeed at. Of course we will do the things we can to make their lives go better. But we can't guarantee their happiness. They will be disappointed.

There is still a role for us here. In giving up being super-human, we don't have to give up on making a difference in our children's lives. We don't have to cold-heartedly abandon them to the cruelties of life. We get to be with them in their disappointment, providing the reassurance that they are loved, that they will be okay, and that they don't have to do it alone. If we can communicate that fully, and give them the space to feel fully, we can be confident that, even with all the disappointments, their lives will be good.