My daughter Caren has always marched to the beat of her own drummer. Even as a little girl, she had to be different. If all the girls in her class wanted to wear their hair in braids, she wanted to wear her hair loose. If they wanted to wear white sneakers, she had to get black ones. She was never interested in going along with the flow.
As they say, “little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” Caren is now 21 and the ways in which she has decided to be different are huge! It’s not just her clothing and hair anymore, though those choices of hers seem outrageous to me. But in general, my husband and I totally don’t get her or most of the things she relates to.
We’ve been knocking heads for some time now. It’s sad to say that she doesn’t resemble the girl I just naturally thought I would have. Not in any way. I guess we all have some expectations of our children sharing our values and lifestyles, our tastes and choices. But there is nothing about Caren that resembles me at all.
I have to say that I was relieved when she decided to move out of the house when she turned 19. She was earning money and rented an apartment with a few friends. When my friends would ask me whether I was upset about her moving out, I couldn’t share with them that, honestly, I was thrilled. I didn’t have to see the various colors she would dye her hair every few weeks, from pink to purple. I didn’t have to see the new piercings on her ears. I didn’t have to see the outrageous clothing she wore. We kept up by phone, and it was easier for me to not see everything. To some degree, it was out of sight, out of mind.
Shockingly, she decided to come home for Rosh Hashanah. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, she is my daughter whom I love, and we haven’t spent meaningful time together for a long time. On the other hand, I had no idea what kind of costume she would show up in, and I dreaded walking into shul with her and having people stare and feel sorry for me. Sure enough, her outfits were terribly inappropriate for our very frum, conservative shul.
I thought I had put on a brave face when I sat with her both days. Though on the inside my heart was racing and I could hardly concentrate on my davening, I felt that I acted like any other loving mother sitting with her daughter. When yom tov was over, however, I overheard her on the phone telling her friend that nothing has changed; she felt I was embarrassed to be seen with her, and she won’t be coming home for a yom tov anytime soon!
I heard the pain in her voice and felt so awful. I’ve been trying to get in touch with my feelings. Caren is a wonderful person who has chosen a different path from mine, and I wish I could just overlook all of that and be a proud mother. She is extremely compassionate and works with children with special needs. Every so often I get a call from someone telling me how amazing she is. Despite that, I can’t seem to shake this embarrassment I feel being seen with her. Clearly she senses it, even though I stopped saying anything years ago. But she’s right. I am embarrassed. I feel as though people are judging my child and wondering how I could have raised such a young lady.
I can’t seem to shake those thoughts. I used to feel terribly sorry for myself. Now I feel terribly sorry for Caren. And yet, I don’t know what to do about it.
First, I’d like to validate your feelings. You are right. Most women (and men) naturally go to that fantastical place of assuming that they will give birth to and raise clones of themselves. And if their children aren’t their clones, they will be even better versions of themselves. So when children choose paths that not only don’t resemble the paths of their parents, but are in complete contradiction to the ways of their extended families and communities, it feels like a personal blow. It raises all sorts of questions between parents: “Where did I go wrong?” “Why me?” And so on.
All too often, there are no answers to those questions. Sometimes there is a seeming randomness to the genetics children are born with. Let’s not forget Aunt Sophie, who never got married, lived with eight cats, and whom no one could truly understand. Or great-grandfather Joe, who one day decided to up and join the Merchant Marines after marrying and having six children. Or all those relatives who were just “different.”
When it comes to children (and many other situations in our lives), we get what we get and we often spend lifetimes trying to figure out the whys as well as how to make peace with it. So after validating your disappointment in Caren based on your own false beliefs about what you deserve and can expect, I’d like to validate your feelings of embarrassment when you are seen with Caren and are getting “looks.”
There is a problem among some people in our community. I’m so glad you wrote to me because your letter highlights a troublesome situation that exists. Certain individuals feel the need to judge, point fingers, and look down on others. It is a horrible trait, it goes against everything that we as Orthodox Jews believe in, and it causes a tremendous amount of damage. Rather than looking at Caren with chastisement, those women in shul ought to have walked over to Caren and given her a welcoming hug, telling her how nice it is to see her after so long. Besides the basic fact that Caren deserves to feel fully welcome in your shul, certainly not judged, most people fail to realize that “there but for the grace of G-d go I.” No one is beyond having a child who may someday feel the need to march to his or her own beat. Therefore, if people could find it within themselves to be kind, we wouldn’t find ourselves dealing with this mess. My guess is that if you no longer felt self-conscious about the impression Caren might be making on others, you would feel free to love her fully, without a trace of shame.
You’ve raised your daughter. Obviously, you’ve imbued her with some wonderful, caring traits, which enable her to change the world, one person at a time, by working with children with special needs. How she decides to “package” herself, and other choices she is making because she is living her authentic self, should not be your problem — and it certainly shouldn’t be anyone else’s problem. Work on letting go of that baggage and allow yourself to stop worrying about what other people might think or say. No doubt your true-blue friends and loving family are of high enough quality not to judge.
As far as the opinions of others, should they really matter? (We all know the answer to that!) Once you are able to embrace these freeing ideas, the rest will follow. Your relationship with Caren will be repaired and you will no longer have to feel sorry for Caren or for yourself.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.