This Is Us

How I’m working to parent beyond ego and expectation

Child holding up a trophy against a sunset.
Photo: Bonita Cooke/Getty Images

“Did you know my Shanna is making straight A’s again this year? And that she made captain of the cross-country team and the speech team? She’s my pride and joy.”

Growing up, my mother never missed an opportunity to brag about my accomplishments to relatives, coworkers, and grocery store clerks. My accomplishments were her accomplishments. She would preen herself on my achievements while I stood by feeling like a show pony.

Sometimes, I let her boasting feed my ego. Other times, I felt awkward and ashamed. “Is this all I am to her?” I’d wonder to myself.

I thought my mom would let go of this habit once I entered adulthood.

Early last year, I went to a mixer at her retirement community, and she introduced me as “the daughter who went to Carnegie Mellon.” I graduated over a decade ago. Obviously, not much has changed. As my sister says, “Mom lives through us.”

My mother is the rebellious daughter of a well-educated and well-respected Mauritian family. Her sisters went to medical school and nursing school, respectively; my mom married an American and left Mauritius to live in the U.S. with only an unaccredited secretarial certificate to her name.

She struggled for many years to find a job in the deeply white, small-town Midwest and worked for 28 years at a hotel that was still only paying her $9.00 an hour by the time she retired. Despite her searing intellect (she has a deep knowledge of European history and English and French literature and speaks several languages fluently and a half-dozen conversationally), she rarely talks about her own achievements.

I try to keep this perspective in mind whenever I feel resentment toward her. Under the pressure of racking up awards and degrees and titles to satisfy her unquenchable thirst for my success, I lost myself for most of my teens and all of my twenties. I pursued flashy careers, like consulting, that I was ill-suited for. In my thirties, I burned out, and my career stalled out. I began finding myself and distancing myself from her. I took a $25,000 pay cut to work in education. I realized I could no longer live a life in service to her ego.

My daughter is two years old, and after two exhausting weeks, she’s mostly potty-trained. My mom stopped by today and hadn’t seen her use the potty before. She looked on in amazement as my daughter pulled down her pants, peed in the potty seat, wiped herself with toilet paper, and pulled up her pants.

My mom exclaimed, “I can’t believe she’s doing this so young! You weren’t potty-trained until you were at least three and a half. You must be so proud of yourself!”

I want to be proud for her, not proud of her. I want to be happy for her, not happy because of her.

My heart raced, and I took a breath. “She’s the one doing it. And, I’m sure she’s proud of herself.”

As parents ourselves, we try to learn from our own parents’ mistakes. Every day, every moment, I work to check my ego and quiet my expectations for my daughter. I see myself providing the soil for her growth. I believe my daughter will grow at her own pace and in her own way.

Whatever her successes or failures, I do not own them. I don’t want my pride and my happiness to be inextricably linked to hers.

Parenting educator Larissa Dann lists three reasons to consider avoiding saying “I’m proud of you” to a child:

  • It implies superiority and can be interpreted as patronizing to the child.
  • It comes off as an external judgment of the child’s achievement.
  • It can feel as though the parent is taking credit for the child’s achievement.

I can’t speak to all parent-child relationships — only what I experienced myself as a child. I thought my mom always knew better than me, that I couldn’t trust myself and had to defer to her opinion. Her judgment reduced me only to my accomplishments, like a walking resume. I understood my achievements as an extension of hers. As an adult, I clamored for external validation and lacked an internal compass. I don’t want that parent-child relationship for my daughter and me. I know the repercussions.

I want my life to continue to be full of activities and pursuits that fill me with pride and happiness beyond my relationship with my daughter. I want to be proud for her, not proud of her. I want to be happy for her, not happy because of her.

I want her to value the love she has for herself above the love I have for her. I want her to know that my love for her is unconditional — it doesn’t depend on certificates or accolades.

I know my daughter is still young, and I’ll make my own mistakes as a parent. But as for my ego? I know it’s not her responsibility.

My Daughter Is Not My Pride and Joy was originally published in Human Parts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.