Thursday, June 24, 2010

Great Expectations?

A conversation at a party the other night really got under my skin. A woman casually mentioned her son, so I asked how old he was. She said he was 22. I mentioned my own 21 year old and how proud I was of him. Before I knew it, I was blasted with the accomplishments of her 22 year old and at that tender age he had accomplished much more than me at 42 and probably most of the 300 people at the party...combined. She rattled off each college degree, scholarship and award with such a degree of smugness that she really just came off as a shrew. With a mother like that I would have worked my ass off to get as many scholarships get my ass out of the house as soon as possible. Not feeling the desire to try to match up my son's or my own accomplishments with that of her 22 year old prodigy, I excused myself. She stood there by herself with a very satisfied look on her face.

That conversation and the fact that Father's Day was last Sunday made me think about expectations, my own and as a father and as son. Unlike my adversary at the party, my parents were very vague about expectations. There was a lot of "as long as you're happy" comments about careers, colleges and life expectations. The only time expectations were clear when we clearly failed them: failing grades, wrecking new cars, arrests.... By the time I was a teenager my brothers and I had earned a whole new set of expectations from our parents.

So as I sit back and try to remember what my parents wanted from me I have some concrete ideas, as in things they wanted me to have...but not much in the way on how I was to get those "things." I remember I was supposed to be a "good person" and not "kill anyone." We went to church regularly. If I met a police officer I was supposed to say "yes sir" (this came in really handy having talked my way out several traffic tickets and arrests). My mother wanted me to have a "beautiful wife and live in the suburbs and own a Volvo". She said this to me tearfully after I told her I was gay. I managed the suburbs and a Swedish station wagon, although not the brand she wanted. My father wasn't so specific, he just wanted me to graduate college (check.) and consider "delayed gratification." which meant to him "save all your money and plan for a great retirement." It sounded okay, but my own personal circumstances indicated a more live for now approach.

When I look back what did I want? It was probably close to what my Mom wanted for me, which was stability. Of course my natural tendencies tended engender chaos, so my hope was to find an anchor and keep me in one place. I wanted a full life, with lots of friends and lots of things to keep me busy. I wanted to be taken seriously and to have fun. I never wanted to be bored. I didn't want to be fat. I think I've achieved most of my expectations.

My therapist once told me that my son had not met my expectations for a long shot. I think of all the unmet expectations in my life, mine, my parents; those of your kids are the hardest to let go of. At the time, on some level that therapist was right, but he was 17 and had a lot of growing up to do. At 17 he hadn't killed anyone, he always said "yes sir" to the police and he hadn't been arrested so on some level he had met some expectations. Yet the dreams you have for your children far exceed any you had for yourself. Dreams that go far beyond a pretty wife and a SAAB station wagon. Your son is your chance to get it right, to play sports or be the bad boy rebel that you never could or would. I always taught him to be different, to be an individual and find his passion. I wanted him to question authority and fight the norms. On so many levels he has achieved this. He's proud, he's truly independent, he works harder that I ever have or ever will. He's a good person. He's only 21, he can still go to college, get a degree and earn his Nobel Prize. In the areas that count he has met and exceeded many of my expectations.