Living Mom’s Life

The other night, I was poking around the music section of Amazon. Since getting my cute little Kindle Fire HD, I have started to listen to music again. It’s been a while and I wasn’t aware how much I missed it, especially classical music. I often hear the melodies in my head, distant echoes of my younger self. I played the piano for a long time and was a music major in college, completing all the requirements except for 1 credit of chorus, at which point I changed majors. I didn’t want to graduate with a degree in music, already knowing it wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go professionally. I loved music and I was a pretty good pianist, but that’s not a career. It’s a hobby.

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I was particularly good at Bach. The music fit my hands, something which could not be said of  my hands in context of Chopin, Grieg, or Beethoven. My hands are tiny. Child-sized hands on a full-grown body. It’s especially odd because I’m not petite. Short, yes, but not petite. I have big feet, broad shoulders. Solid peasant stock. So what’s with the tiny hands? Don’t say anything. It’s all been said before.

Anyone who tells you the size of hands doesn’t matter to a musician doesn’t play piano. Once you get past kiddy music, you need hands that can span at least a 10th, more if possible. You need full-size grown up hands and a good deal of physical strength. To put it simply, the piano was the wrong instrument for me. I needed an instrument for which the size of my hands would be irrelevant.

I wanted to play the drums.

“Girls don’t play drums,” my mother said.

“Why the hell not?”

“Watch your language.”

“Who says girls don’t play drums? Is there a rule written somewhere?”

I dragged in my high school band teacher into the argument. Still no go. GIRLS, said my mother, don’t play drums. There was nothing for it. I was a girl so no drums. It was a bit strange because my mother usually was a pretty strong feminist and frequently reminded me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t need to be a nurse: I could be a doctor — except I wanted to be a nurse. Had Life not crashed into me when I had just started my MS in Nursing, I would have been, though I wonder if I would have wound up writing anyhow. I wanted to run public health clinics. It was my reformer persona taking charge. Life had other ideas.

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Meanwhile, on the music front, I suggested voice lessons. I had a decent enough voice and I was pretty sure girls were allowed to sing, but Mom always wanted to play the piano. It was too late for her, but her daughter was going to be a pianist. I was living my mom’s dream. It’s a pity her dreams and my hands were so incompatible. I had some talent, but I was studying the wrong instrument. After a great deal of effort, I achieved a high level of mediocrity as a pianist. If I’d been more dedicated, I could have achieved “almost good enough for concert work,” a special Hell exclusively for aspiring but unsuccessful classical musicians.

Getting stuck in your parents’ dreams happens in all kinds of families. It is not exclusive to any ethnic group, class, color, religion or even nationality. Wealthy parents want their kids to do what they weren’t able to do as much as poor parents. We all try to give our kids what we wanted, even when it’s not what they want. It’s almost a reflex.

I needed freedom as a child; even more as a teenager. I was self-disciplined. I merely wanted to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do without being watched all the time. Since that was not going to happen, I became highly successful at sneaking around. I went where I wanted to go, with or without permission and I just didn’t tell my mother. It was one of the important lessons I learned about parenting: You can’t stop a determined kid, so you might as well help him or her do what they want to do safely.

I was never interested in hanging out at the mall or a movie. I snuck off to museums and libraries. My nerdy idea of adventure was a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a world-class museum and if you are ever in New York, it’s worth a day of your time. It isn’t just one museum, either. My favorite part of it is the medieval section, The Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.

“Too dangerous,” said Mom. When I pointed out that she was going on ski trips to Bear Mountain when she was 14, she said she had been more mature than I was. I believe I chipped my first tooth during that conversation. I got to say classic lines like “How will you know I’m responsible until you let me have some responsibility?” and she got to give me the “As long as you live under my roof … ” line. Stalemate. I was going to live my mother’s dreams and be beholden to my mother’s fears.

If I were easily bullied, I’d have done the rest of my mother’s life for her and become a teacher. I have nothing against teaching as a career and believe it’s as important a job as you can do in this world. I simply didn’t want to be one.

My Geekscape

Despite sporadic side trips, deep down I knew I was going to be a writer. I toyed with other things: nursing, music, photography. But when I dreamed, I dreamed of being an author, seeing my name on book jackets, the smell of printer’s ink and the soft crack of the spine when you open a new book. A writer I became and remain, but my mother was always sure I would never be able to earn a living as a writer. I did well, but she never believed it was a “real” career. It was not substantial, like teaching.

It is hard to resist giving in to the pressure and doing what mom or dad always wanted to do because it makes them happy. Pressure to do their thing rather than your own can be very intense yet subtle. In the end, it doesn’t work, unless your dream happens to be the same as theirs. Everyone needs to do what he or she was born to do.

As a parent, it can be tricky to teaze apart the strands of what you want from what your kids want. It can be painful watching them fail and failure is always possible. You have to let them sink or swim on their own. It’s not a choice. Kids grow up to be who they need to be. The best we can offer is support, to help them find and follow their own paths.

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