What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

What My Daughter Needs to Know About Success

By Liz Henry


Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the ‘right’ answers.


“What would you consider a successful future for this student?” The question comes with checkboxes for college and technical school, high school and a blank space for me to expand upon my thoughts. I skip it and keep going.

It seems odd I’d be asked to whittle down my 12-year-old’s future into one sentence within a packet to be scanned by a computer. But then again, finding a link between not reading so good and prenatal vitamin intake during pregnancy is like turning a hair dryer on and calling it a key factor in global warming. When it comes to the success or failure of our children, it’s always the mothers who face the firing squad of empty bubbles demanding a filled-in answer and other people’s opinions.

As I make my way through the packet of questions from my daughter’s middle school, I can’t locate the answers. What age were her first words? First sentence? First steps? I remember bits and pieces, I didn’t keep a detailed log or scrapbook. I was in college, when she was a newborn. I was twenty-one, forgive me.

I know for sure she was almost walking by her first birthday, but crawling was steady and reliable so she was prone to do that. There were two cakes and almost a hundred guests at her first birthday party, this I remember. The tiny, free cake from the grocery store was for her to sink her hands into and make buttercream gloves. The adults nibbled on massacred Sesame Street characters in primary colors.

I haven’t thought much about what I want for my daughter beyond what she wants for herself. When she was young, her father and I would drive her to the soccer field, softball diamond and basketball court; before that he lifted her high in the air and sang terrible songs with women in paisley bathing suits at the YMCA so she’d know how to swim.

My daughter hated sports. She’s not a fan of competition; we figured this out later, and didn’t push her because what would be the point? She’d be playing to make us happy, and we only had her in sports because that’s what you do in the suburbs when you have children—you make them play even if they aren’t very good and don’t particularly like it.

She does love swimming, we got that right.

I don’t know what the future holds for my daughter, so how could I possibly write it down when she just turned twelve? Right now her favorite heroine is Ripley from “Aliens” and there doesn’t seem to be an end to Build-a-Bear extorting us. A few years ago, she was obsessed with “Titanic” and I read her the books, we watched the movie, bought the Blu-Ray and I took her to the theater to see it in 3-D. And then we went to an exhibit of Titanic artifacts where we were both humbled by the sadness of lost lives and chilled to the core after touching a block of ice the size of a paddle boat.

Yesterday “Titanic” was on TV and she didn’t want to watch it. That’s the thing about watching your child grow up, the last day of once beloved things never comes with a celebration, they end before you know it, and you’re left with the memories.

The question, however, demands an answer and leaving it blank seems neglectful. I check off high school and college, and technical school. I write, “I would like for my daughter to do whatever makes her happy and sustains her lifestyle.” The implication: do what you like, kid, try and fail. Go and live! Don’t send me a bill.

“Today at school we were talking about what color we would be if we could be colors,” she tells me. “Purple, that’s my color. It’s my birthstone and the color of royalty.”

“Ah,” I say.

I know the royalty part isn’t a big deal to her, but it doesn’t hurt to have something aristocratic associated with her birth.

“Mom, what color do you think I am?”

“I think you’re a rainbow,” I say. “I know that’s all the colors, but when someone sees a rainbow they stop and look because it’s unique. A rainbow rarely happens, but when it does, it gives people a lot of joy. That’s you.”

I know as a mother I’m supposed to say these things to encourage my daughter, but my words don’t define her. Or, anyone else.

Fuck it, I want to tell her. Read fast, read slow, read however you’re going to read, but live your life outside the little circles demanding all the “right” answers. The only test my daughter needs to pass is the one she’s written for herself. Have I made myself available to the ones I love? Do I bring them joy? Have I made myself happy, first? If my daughter can do these things, she’ll be successful.

Liz Henry’s writing has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post and she’s a contributor to The Good Mother Myth from Seal Press. Follow her on Facebook.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Cleaning Thoughts On All The Stuff—Where Past Meets Present Meets Future

Cleaning Thoughts On All The Stuff—Where Past Meets Present Meets Future

10302745_10152280145048387_2901251374802006728_nI’m guessing that the birthday party Saskia attended in the fall, a trip to the local Build-a-Bear workshop, was a once in a lifetime experience for her. A small group of her pal’s besties got to go there, and they had a fantastic time (I stand in awe of his moms for both idea and follow through, by the way). I had never taken her to the mall. In fact, I had no idea Build-a-Bear existed around here. Her big white bear is sweet and loved. The house-slash-cardboard box her big white bear travelled “home” in and spent two days in the dining room, a few more in the playroom and the winter in the front hallway. I sent the box-slash-house to the recycling, because it’s spring, and because there was another empty box in the front hallway, and because I have declared this goal: a less cluttered house.

Saskia ended up in the barn before the day the recycling and trash get picked up. The box has returned into the house, just as far as the mudroom. While she’s in school today—recycling and trash pickup day—the box will disappear.

Odds are, she won’t ask about the house. Odds are, if she does ask, and I can’t “find” it she will cry. Odds are if I kept the box, er, bear’s house, she’d never actually play with it again. Sometimes, in the name of a clearer house, darlings have to go—and not only hers.

We hosted a graduation party for two beloved friends and babysitters over the weekend, and because we live in a little city that boasts just about the best ice cream on the planet, we served ice cream. I pulled our two ice cream scoops from the kitchen drawer. One of the moms brought a couple more ice cream scoops along. My husband sought a particular ice cream scoop. He asked after it. It was one of the two ice cream scoops I’d tossed during operation-make-the-kitchen-drawers-shut.

I used my mom gesture, the shrug. He used his annoyed-gesture, the hands on hips. We stood there, deadlocked.

“I can get another of that particular scoop,” I told him. “That’s a holiday gift waiting to happen.” While I’d saved a couple of baby bibs for visitors, the last remaining pile of them disappeared. “I also tossed extraneous cheese graters, including a broken one, big spoons no one uses, and frayed dishtowels,” I reported.

“Did you throw out any favorite dishtowels?” he asked, anxiously.

“I threw out the ones that are so holey as to be non-functional,” I replied. I pulled the drawer open. “You’ll see we still have dishtowels.”

He lowered his hands from his hips and scooped ice cream with the inferior scoops. The party was lovely. We had plenty of dishtowels for post-party cleanup. The big white bear watched over everything (okay, it didn’t; it’s somewhere, but you get the idea here; it could have watched over everything because I didn’t toss it out).

Additionally, last week I went through a few large boxes of kids’ art. I tossed old homework sheets scattered in the pile and most of the art. I took not very good photographs of some—and made a good-sized pile for the flat files in my husband’s office at his behest. I was glad not to toss absolutely everything. It is nice to know the “darlings” are safe.

For the box to go, though, was the most helpful. I want to free up enough space in the house to reinvent rooms. I imagine the playroom’s eventual shift from play space to homework and hangout space and possibly guest room, too. I hope to leave fewer dust traps about, especially given that three out of six family members have asthma.

But there’s longer term thinking at work, too. Eventually, we might leave this house—and I don’t want every piece of kids’ art or every book read or unread during their childhoods to wait for me to sort through then. I won’t necessarily remember the important ones. This won’t happen for a long time; the kids are 18, 16, 11 and 6.

If we head to a smaller dwelling someday, I certainly won’t be able to keep everything in this big house. I don’t want my kids to have to upend themselves from whatever they are doing to sort through all that childhood stuff (assuming they’d be willing to do so). I remember how much work it took for my mother’s parents to leave the house where they resided for four decades (and how much of my aunt’s time went into that move).

I can’t know what we’ll do or even whether we will move someday in a future I can’t imagine yet. I don’t know whether any of our three sets of parents will move—or how we’ll deal with all of their stuff, the precious and the excess, a word for which you can exchange to mean Build-a-Bear box. All I do know is that I’ve spent many hours and days (with great help I’ve paid for and key spousal assists) to get stuff out of our house, the precious and the metaphoric Build-a-Bear boxes, the good and bad ice cream scoops. My reward is a house that’s begun to breathe again. I hope there’s a reward for the someday grown kids, too.

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