"My son was a perfectly agreeable little boy," the speaker stated.
"He got along well with just about everyone, obeyed our rules, and worked hard in school. He was an "A" student, a pleaser whose teachers really liked him. You can imagine," she laughed, "Just how proud of ourselves we were by the time he got to middle school. We believed that we were pretty great parents.
'Now we've really got it made,' we told ourselves. College went okay... the classes were much larger and he didn't get to know his professors as well.
It was essentially fine though, he still worked hard and made it through with his degree. He had done everything right."
"Except," she confided, "The real world did not work like school. And once our son hit the real world, he didn't understand the rules for how to succeed in life. There was no-one in particular left to please. Many people walked over him, seeing a 'nice guy' that was easy to push around. He married the first girl he'd ever slept with, despite the fact that she didn't treat him very well."
"Our son ended up in his mid-twenties, clinically depressed. His wife asked for a divorce, and he spent many of the coming years going through great personal and professional difficulty. In all, he was clinically depressed for twenty-five years. Despite all we tried to do for him, we couldn't help him walk through it - because we couldn't get into his head and help him become more resilient."
"Today he is doing very well, and all of that is thankfully a thing of the past but it took many long hard years to get there."
"Our other children, especially the third child, were not like that. The third child was very, very, very strong-willed. In hindsight I have come to understand that it is a blessing to have a strong-willed child. When the world pushes in on them, they will PUSH BACK and hold their own. Our third child had a much easier time with life."
* * * *
When I heard this story retold by a lovely woman recently, it gave me great pause for thought. I too am mother to three children, all of whom are still very young and impressionable.
My children share one thing in common however, especially the younger two. They are sweet but exceptionally strong-willed. They are not going to let ANYONE tell them what to do; they conform to our rules out of courtesy and love but NOT thanks to threats or some deeper sense of moral correctness. They are tough little cookies... resilient, and not easily perturbed - unless someone is physically harming them (which does happen in brother-vs-brother conflicts from time to time).
My eldest son is perhaps the most like me; a little more sensitive, a bit more anxious to please. Less likely to make waves, more likely to work hard for his teacher's approval. This is why the speaker's parenting story hit home so closely.
I relate to her oldest son... the pleaser. I too grew up as a pleaser, consistently shocked when people took advantage of my good nature, and terribly hurt when they did cruel things to me on purpose. I had the thinnest skin ever, and not a malicious bone in my body. The world beat the crap out of me more than once as a young adult and I was always, always blindsided by it. Over time I did grow depressed and bewildered that the real world turned out to be less ideal than I'd ever imagined.
Here is a great example. My close childhood friends will remember this one well.
At the age of 20 I moved to New York City for a summer to work for a major magazine publishing house. It was a very difficult paid internship to land, especially (as I soon found out) for someone not originally from the East Coast. Out of the thirty or so summer interns within the corporation, only two of us were from California. Most hailed from the Northeast - Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine, New York State, Washington, D.C.
I shacked up in NYU student housing for the two months of the internship which turned out to be a disaster of its own kind. My first roommates were models - MODELS! trying to make it in the big city. I had never met a more vapid, vain, unintelligent group of women in my life. Their makeup cases weight more than a desktop computer. It was really unbelievable to me, a laid back girl from southern California who liked to hang out in sundresses and flip flops with no makeup and no fuss.
"If I were a guy, I would NEVER want to date a model," I thought to myself.
I wanted to talk about Ernest Hemingway and the meaning of life; my roommates wanted to talk about MAC cosmetics and cocaine. It was pretty clear to all of us that the combination wasn't going to work. They quickly suggested (and I agreed) that perhaps I should find a different room.
I ended up placed with an ambitious southern belle working for Donna Karan. Margot* was beautiful and poised, determined to "make it" in the big world. She had also just initiated an affair with one of her hometown boyfriend's best friends - a stockbroker in the big city. Excited about this torrid summertime fling, Margot became a ghost roommate because she was almost never home. She and her big-city paramour jetted to places like Martha's Vineyard and the Bahamas on weekends.
Thus, I ended up pretty much alone - no friends and essentially no-one to talk to at night - in the most cosmopolitan city of my short life. No money to speak of and no real connections. I spent most of my free time on the telephone with my best friends from home.
I learned the hard way that summer that Manhattan is a great place to be if you have either friends or money, but for a person with neither, it was a pretty tough city. My beloved brothers were there but busy with their own lives, and probably didn't want to impinge too much on what they imagined to be my "hot young thing in the city" lifestyle".
Amid all the loneliness, I threw myself wholeheartedly into work. I had basically nothing else. The two friends I made were work friends, but we rarely saw each other outside of the office... one lived in Brooklyn and commuted. Work became everything to me. I went to the office early and left late. Read magazines voraciously on the side, did a small bit of reporting, learned how to code in HTML and did every single task asked of me by anyone who asked - from grabbing coffee to proofreading and editing other writer's work.
A few of the men in the office, one much-older man in particular, flirted with me but I eschewed all of that. Wanted to make my time in New York City count and leave with the only thing I believed mattered... a future.
At night, I would drag my plastic twin bed mattress out to the small balcony of my 14th Street dorm room apartment and lay on it looking up at the stars. My room was so many floors off the ground, the traffic noise sounded like surf crashing on a beach. If I closed my eyes, I could almost believe that I was back in southern California sleeping on my favorite beach. Many a night I lay there alone, quietly counting the days until I could return home.
My immediate manager was a fantastic woman, someone earthy and grounded and friendly who worked hard but also made time to be kind. She was 'done' with New York - sick of it - and unbeknownst to me had already applied for a great new job opportunity in Seattle. Throughout that summer she was my personal and professional mentor, and I looked up to her greatly.
We shared our office with another woman, someone who put the G in Grumpy. Lindie* was actually a native Californian, and possibly one of the least happy and witchiest people I have met to this day. She was overweight, brassy, loud, unsympathetic and made snide remarks about nearly every person that floated into our office area.
I'll never forget, when TWA Flight 800 went down over Jones Beach that summer while I was working in New York, the first thing Lindie did was to get on the telephone and book tickets to Paris on that exact same flight. "This is going to be the safest flight in the world now," she grinned, while everyone around her was hugging and weeping over the bodies washing up on the beach.
I wasn't fond of Lindie but my mentor, Diana*, encouraged me not to let her negativity bring me down. "This city can do that to you," Diana would say. "She's just a miserable, lonely, cynical woman who has nothing but her work. Just take care that you don't turn out that way."
Three weeks before the end of my internship, Diana left the company on short notice for the much better salaried position in Seattle. Her last days with the company were a whirlwind. I helped her pack boxes, and thanked her for being one of the only warm and friendly people I had encountered in my brief time in Manhattan.
Then she was gone.
I stuck out the internship for a few more weeks, packed my books and belongings back into boxes, breathed a huge sigh of relief when at last it was time to say goodbye and head back to California.
"This has been the worst summer of my life," I told my mother over the telephone. "But through it all, I'm so proud that I stayed here and stuck it out. At least I'll have that recommendation to take with me into my senior year of college, and it will help set me up for my future as a writer or editor."
Happily, I flew home.
About a month later, when back at college, a letter arrived to my university post office box.
"Oh great!" I grinned happily. "At last, my performance review!" Visions of future magazine jobs danced in my head.
Swiftly I opened the envelope and pulled out the thick company paper with its impressive masthead. Scanning the lines, my jaw dropped and my knees grew weak, like cotton wool.
"...Her performance was subpar at best," I read. "She was neither punctual nor polite. She dressed inappropriately and flirted with the male office staff. Frankly," the letter went on, "This candidate was unprofessional and not a good match for the internship position and seemed ill-prepared to make the transition from West Coast to New York. I cannot in good faith recommend her for any magazine post that might arise in our company in the future."
The letter was dated and signed two weeks after the end of my internship, by (you guessed it!) Lindie... the misanthrope who had grumped next to me all summer long. My own professional mentor, now in Seattle, did not have any say in my review since she no longer worked for the company.
Devastated, I went home and threw up.
"I wasted an entire Summer," I mourned. "And for what? For nothing. How will I ever get a job now? Who will ever hire me as an editor with a review like that? She has singlehandedly sabotaged my dreams."
A few days later I pulled myself together and managed to call my mentor in Seattle. Tearfully, I read her the performance review, line by line.
"What a b*$#&!" she responded. "That is a total crock of s&*# and I cannot believe Lindie got away with it. She is just a horrible excuse for a human being and I'm sure she did it because she felt threatened by you. Look, I am going to put in a call to (the managing editor of our department) and try to get the record set straight. For now," she consoled, "Please feel free to put me down on every job application you fill out as your top reference, I promise to sing your praises until the cows come home. You did a damn great job working for me this summer. What you've got in front of you in that letter is a pile of sour grapes."
Despite her consolation I stayed depressed. It took a while for me to get over that letter and the sheer meanness behind it. Just having it physically in my dorm room made me feel ill, so finally one day I took it out to the beach and burned it. I've never regretted burning that letter, not even once. Somehow the act of setting it on fire released all of the negative energy I had stored around the entire experience. I was able to take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the next, and move on.
Luckily I'd worked my way through college as an editor and writer so there were in fact plenty of excellent references for me to offer to potential employers in the future. Diana did kindly provide me with excellent references for all positions I applied for, and I was offered several great jobs.
Thanks to this experience though, I chose to move home after graduation from college and happily accept a really fun, low-key job as a waitress at a local Italian restaurant where a lot of my high school friends had worked. In a way, I gave myself the "junior year Summer" that I felt I'd missed out on when I was trapped in New York. I found a great roommate and apartment by the beach, built fantastic friendships, dated and exhilarated in doing all of the things that college co-eds are supposed to do.
When my education loans finally came due six months after graduation, I did go ahead and get my first career positions... editing and then teaching... and the rest is history. My career has been outstanding, and I have been blessed.
That said, I will never forget my first brush with the "real" world and just how hard it knocked me on my rear. Some people have the capacity to smile while stabbing you in the back. This was a rough lesson to learn, but in the end, the experience toughened me up and made me stronger.
* * * * *
I know too well then, what that mother meant recently when she confided, "The 'rules of succeeding in school' do not apply to the real world..." and that her adult son had become terribly depressed by the way in which many people took advantage of the fact that he was a good, hard-working, fairly naive person.
I'm glad then, that my children are so strong willed and tough already. If they're this much of a handful for me, they're likely to be a handful for anyone! Good for you, little ones! You have qualities of spark, self-reliance and an incredible instinct for self-preservation that I lacked as a young woman. May they serve you well...
...and if anyone ever tries to knock you down in this world, you get right back up.
Don't allow curmudgeons or connivers in this world grind down your self-confidence or joy. For every *one* of them there are A HUNDRED other people with true hearts and excellent intentions that will stand by your side and reinforce your belief in the innate goodness of mankind.
Stay strong and thrive.
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the person in question