You are Not Me: Parenting & the American Dream

by Danielle Veith

 Happiest baby ever.

Happiest baby ever.

Articles with titles like, “Parental Anxiety? 5 Ways to Relieve the Worry” are a dime a dozen, but I recently read one with just that trite title that was really and truly helpful. 

Especially this little nugget that has been a skipping record ever since, “It’s normal to want our kids to do better than we did and not fall into the same holes. But it can be hard to see that perhaps that’s not where they’re headed.” Hmm.

A while back, my daughter uttered the sentence, “I wish I was dead,” twice in the span of a week or so. I. Freaked. Out.

I’ve been there. I’ve felt that. I have friends, multiple friends, who’ve ended up hospitalized from suicide attempts. I feel lucky never to have lost anyone that way, but I don’t feel far removed from it either.

So, I was terrified. Listening with my adult ears, filtering her words through the life I’ve lead, it was pretty much the worst thing I could imagine hearing from my child.

But then there was this nagging doubt, She doesn’t seem unhappy. There are no other warning signs. Maybe she had no idea what she was saying?

After talking with the school counselor, an administrator, and my therapist, I finally talked to a brilliant teacher. One who speaks fluent kid and can translate well for adults. She asked what my daughter was doing when she said it. “Laying down on the couch,” I answered.

At the time, I had been working an almost full-time job and both kids were in aftercare for the first time. In a short span of time, their days had gone from preschool and stay-at-home in their own space comfort to the length of an adult workday. She was tired. That’s what the teacher told me.

We have so many different ways of saying we’re tired—exhausted, weary, worn-out, fatigued, sleepy, drained… dead tired. She just had “tired” and what she felt wasn’t covered by that small word. Once I saw that and asked her about it and did something about it, there was no more talk of death. She really was just tired.

But, oh boy, did I totally go right there. And she was only 5 or 6 at the time. Imagine when she’s a teenager.

 Happy babies!

Happy babies!

All we really want is for our kids to have it better than we did. To be happier, healthier, stronger, braver… I think of it as “American Dream” parenting. A version of the American Dream for those of us who have struggled with such things. A hope that our children won’t share that legacy.

My particular legacy has definite roots in the family tree.

Time for a story. One I feel I can tell now that my grandfather has died. My mom told me about a time when my grandfather was so poor and so hungry that he went to visit a friend hoping to be fed. He didn’t ask for anything. That family was poor, too. He just hoped they would offer something. They didn’t. But he is asked to spend the night, which he agreed to do. When they went to sleep, he was so hungry, he ate their dog’s food. My grandfather was so hungry that he ate dog food. That’s the story.

I was never close to my grandfather. He scared me a little, even though he tried to be playful with me and my siblings. He was an alcoholic. He died of it, end stage dementia and all, sitting all day and cutting the newspaper into thin strips.

The one other thing that stands out, when I think of my grandfather and any relationship I had with him, is their basement. There was a room in their basement that looked like a grocery store. It was stocked with non-perishable food. When I was in college, they would always send me back to school with a grocery bag full of canned green beans and cake mix. Come to think of it, he was always cooking, too, a big pot of something German on the stove every time we visited.

The Depression hit him hard and he suffered for it. His life may have been hard, but his children were always fed. American Dream parenting. He did what he could.

And my mom, coming from this world, and all of it’s suffering and imperfect parenting, absolutely did the best she could do not to pass along to her four children the kind of suffering that she endured. American Dream parenting.

He did his best. She did hers. I do mine.

It makes me think of the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote about the social justice movement, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

That may seem too lofty, maybe it is. But for me and my family, living without depression and anxiety, without alcoholism, that is a “promised land.” And I really hope my children get there, even if I may not get there with them. And you know what? Right this minute, I really think they will.

Happiness is our birthright. It’s taken me nearly 40 years to be able to say that. I hope it seems like nothing to my kids. I hope they just are.

One of my biggest surprises as a parent has been how marvelously happy my kids are. I was shocked at first to see them just absolutely brimming with joy. I thought I’d have a mellow, maybe even melancholy, little one, but the happy just bubbled out of my babies.

It has tempered a little, of course, as they’ve gotten older. They no longer burst open with giggles over absolutely nothing. But they are still really happy kids. All I need to do is not ruin it. And not let the world ruin it. No biggie, right? 


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