In the 1998 film The Truman Show (by director Peter Weir), actor Jim Carrey stars as Truman Burbank, a man who unbeknownst to him has lived his whole life being secretly filmed as a part of an elaborate “reality” television show. In one scene Truman as a highschooler, finally talks to a girl named Sylvia whom he has admired from across campus. He comments on the pin she is wearing on her sweater which reads “how’s it going to end?”.
He says teasingly, “I like your pin. I’ve been wondering that myself”. He thinks that she is sporting the pin as some sort of existentialist statement, but the truth is that she is only posing as a high school student and is in fact a member of the Free Truman movement out in the larger world who believe it is unconscionable to imprison a man in a t.v show for the entertainment of millions. In posing as an actress she sneaks onto the ‘set’ of Truman’s life to try and warn him of the reality of his situation. The question on her pin is not philosophical but rather urgently pragmatic – how is this thing going to turn out?? How many ways can a t.v show centered on a man’s life end?
So, not to be too heavy or anything but I bring this up this week because this question, how’s it going to end, reverberates with regularity in my own life especially when I think about raising my own children. In fact if there is one question, one worry, which I have seen parents get caught up in most (myself included, over many a sleepless night), it is this one.
We wonder how is going to be when our kids are grown up? What will become of my child and all their weird and wonderful behaviors? If he keeps picking his nose in public will he turn out to be some unreformable nose-pickin’ social outcast? After many conversations – from coffee talk with other moms to spontaneous confessions from unknown parents at the park – I can confidently state that all of us struggle with the unknown future when it comes to our children. And while we yearn for the best, our imaginations can take even the simplest childhood stage and spin it into a dramatic condition or a least a diagnosible disorder. Have a toddler who bites? She’s bound to end up a friendless recluse with a oral fixation, right? Got a chronic tantrum-er on your hands? How can we break him of his habit lest he grows up to be an inflexible demanding diva?
You get the picture.
Once in a therapeutic walk/rant with a favorite friend, I revealed to her my secret fear that one of my sons was the one who would ultimately end up living a living a life of such notoriety – more of the ‘famous sociopath’ kind than the ‘noble peace prize’ kind – that I’d end up being interviewed for 60 Minutes. Barbara Walters would lean forward with great concern and ask, “When did you first know that your son was on the path to the dark side?”. Then I, stifling sobs, would reply “Babs, I knew the day that he claimed responsibility for the missing hamster by saying he had shoved JoJo up the dryer vent. He was two.”
(ed. note: the hamster was found safe and sound and the two year old was in no way responsible, although credit where credit is due for creativity in thinking)
So here I am, confessing these crazy thoughts to my dear friend who listened, nodding sympathetically and then shared that she had her own dark thoughts when her son was a toddler. “Oh yeah”, she said “I used to picture him at the top of some tower with a rifle, you know, that guy”. The funny part about this story is that this boy, now 13, is just the best kid! Neither of our sons have come anything close to our distressed imaginings. The are both sweet boys; insightful, smart and funny and not the least bit sociopathic. The fact is it’s laughable that we even thought any of those things, but there you have it. Deep in the trenches of raising young children irrationality takes over.
I think I am reflecting on this question especially since this time of year brings the opportunity to give thanks. I am thankful to have survived all those parenting days when I thought the wheels were coming off. My oldest son will officially be a teenager on his next birthday and has high school in his sights; my middle son just turned seven and is entering a new phase in his life, the grade school years. The little one is still putting me through it but I see the changes a little at a time, sense his maturity coming. How did we get here?? They are growing up into their own individuals.
Every day reveals some new aspect about my children to me. Their likes and dislikes, foils or habits. One is particular about how his eggs are cooked, one has a quick and sophisticated sense of humor The oldest is a natural born athlete, the youngest has the tendencies of a kleptomaniac. In all those restless, pregnant nights I spent planning for “the baby” I never could have guessed how any of this would have turned out. And in all the days I spent predicting where their inexplicable toddler behaviors would lead them, not much of it has come to pass.
In the movie The Truman Show the director of Truman’s fictionalized world, Christof (played by Ed Harris) tries to explain why Truman has never uncovered the truth of his life on camera, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented” he proclaims. With that in mind I am in the mood to make a personal vow. I’m going to opt for a positive outlook as my reality of the world. I promise to remember that every stage my boys have gone through has eventually passed and that far more has worked out for the good than for the catastrophic. I am going to save my worries of “how is it going to end?” for more pressing matters like the fiscal cliff debacle or Justin Beiber’s career, and leave my children’s futures out of it.
Like Truman, it is difficult for most of us to think outside of the confines of our daily lives. And as parents it is often hard to zoom out from the immediate chaos that living with children brings and remember the big picture that they are growing up into their own people. We aren’t writing them scripts, there isn’t a over-arching plotline that we are beholden to. It’s about giving them the freedom to become who they are, while also trusting that the story will reveal itself as you go along. Sometimes the thing to do is just to sit back and enjoy the show.