It’s a bittersweet road we parents travel. We start with total commitment to a small,
helpless human being. Over the years we worry, plan, comfort, and try to understand.
We give our love, our labor, our knowledge, and our experience—so that one day
he or she will have the inner strength and confidence to leave us.
Our eldest daughter, Kate, called me at work. She was crying. She had just hung up the phone with the admissions officer from the college she was hoping to attend in the fall.
This small, private school was out of our price range, but she had been invited to apply and interview for a merit-based full scholarship.
A few weeks earlier, she and I had spent the weekend visiting the college, touring the campus, meeting with several of the faculty, and getting an in-depth look at their stellar nursing program. As we strolled through the brick-paved streets of this cute little college town, Kate and I both began to imagine what her college experience there might be like. A full scholarship would be amazing.
We could use the money we had saved for her education to buy her a car, giving her independence and freedom. She already had a lead on a part-time job in the admissions office, and since she would only be about three hours away, she could come home on the weekends whenever she wanted.
Our hopes were high. Kate was not nearly as confident as Bernie and I—we thought for sure she would make it. Of course, we did! We are her parents and we know how extraordinary she is. The wait had been hard, but finally, she got the call.
“Mom, I didn’t get it,” she said through her tears.
Only eight of the one hundred applicants were chosen, and Kate did not make the cut. The admissions counselor told her it had been a very difficult decision and the competition had been fierce. He hoped, of course, she would still enroll in the fall and reminded her she would still receive the highest academic scholarship they offered, short of the full ride. But the reality was that without that scholarship she would not be able to attend the school. Even with the partial scholarship and grants, the tuition was more than we could afford, and we felt that the student loans would be too burdensome.
Now that the door had been closed, Kate did what many of us do. She turned inward. She blamed herself. She wondered what she had done wrong. She asked the same question I’ve asked when I’ve faced rejection and disappointment. Why wasn’t I good enough?
It is painful for me to see my children hurting. I want my children to be happy, and when a problem arises that causes pain or discomfort, I have this overwhelming desire to “fix it.” I want to fast-forward through the process and short-circuit the pain. I long to make the hurt go away.
When I got home from work that afternoon, I went into full fix-it mode. I told Kate’s younger sisters that she didn’t get the scholarship. “Don’t say anything to her or ask her any questions. She needs space—just leave her alone.”
I texted my sister, Kari, and my friend, Margie, and told them she didn’t get it. I asked them to pray for her.
I walked into the kitchen where my husband was washing dishes, and I saw the yellow mug on the counter. Kate had purchased it from a cute little coffee shop the weekend we visited the college for her interview. Everything about that cup represented the hope that she would end up in that quaint little town, in the nursing program at the school that had become her first choice.
“Bernie—quick—wash that mug and I’ll put it away in the cabinet, behind the other mugs. She’ll be upset if she sees it. It will just remind her of what happened.” It was a knee-jerk reaction, and later, when I told Margie about me scrambling to hide the mug, I was surprised she questioned me about it.
Margie knows me well. We’ve been friends for a really long time. She knows my story and understands my tendency to try to control things. And, she has a habit of asking probing, character-revealing questions at precisely the right moment.
“Becky, why did you move the mug?”
At the time, it seemed like a caring, sensitive gesture. I was trying to spare my daughter even more pain.
But as I began to explain my reasons to Margie, it became increasingly clear that my actions were more about me than my daughter, more about managing my own discomfort in seeing her disappointed than truly helping and supporting her through the heartbreak.
Instead of honoring and respecting the process, I was driving the getaway car, yelling to her through the passenger window, “Get in! I know a shortcut—I’ll get you out of here in a jiffy!”
It wasn’t the first time I had tried to minimize pain in my children’s lives. When they were infants, our pediatrician recommended we give them “tummy time” to help strengthen and develop their abdominal muscles. All of my daughters hated it and would cry after only a few seconds, so I’d flip them over on their backs where they were more comfortable.
I couldn’t stand to see them struggle. I hated to hear them cry. I wanted giggles and smiles, and I did not have the vision I needed to appreciate how the struggle would make them stronger, how they would grow through the tears.
As the girls grew and explored new interests and friendships, it broke my heart each time they didn’t make a team or were slighted by a friend. At times, I had to suppress my desire to call a teacher, coach, choir director, or fellow parent to advocate on behalf of my child or challenge a decision that I thought was unfair or unkind.
In addition, over the years I had often been quick to hand out consequences for disrespectful attitudes or disobedience, only to later revoke them because some special circumstance made the punishment too painful or inconvenient.
I’d tell myself I was giving grace, when really I was just giving in, catering to my own discomfort rather than following through on the hard stuff in order to build character.
Kate waited several days before telling anyone about her closed door, but I did not, and this caused a problem between us. I explained my motivation for telling her sisters, Kari, and Margie, and she firmly told me it was her news to share—that I should have waited and let her tell them when she was ready. I tried to explain that I was just trying to help and protect her—that I didn’t want them to say something that would upset her even more—and then she asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.
“Do you really think so little of me that you didn’t think I could handle this? What were you afraid I would do? Were you afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through it?”
In that moment, it became painfully clear to me that instead of sparing my daughter additional pain, I had added to it. I had been so sure she would be awarded the scholarship, but I had not communicated my confidence in her ability to handle the outcome, whatever that turned out to be.
There are, of course, no short-cuts. The only way through is through. And most often, pain is the pathway to growth. Good parenting requires an understanding of the value of the growth process and a conviction that it is often in our difficult circumstances where we grow the most.
Kate did get through it. She grew through it. She developed some muscles and resilience that will serve her well in life. The following fall she began her studies at a fantastic school where God opened wide the door, a school with a superb nursing program within our price range. And, with a little time and perspective, she began to see that this school was a great fit for her. She began to feel a sense of belonging.
Shortly before my mom died, during one of our last conversations in the hospital as I sat by her bedside, she went over some last-minute details with me: some things about her apartment and final arrangements she had made, some paperwork, and loose ends. Then, she looked at me and said with all the confidence in the world, “Becky, you are going to be OK.”
She couldn’t protect me from what was about to happen. She couldn’t minimize the loss and pain I would feel after she was gone. But in that moment, she was telling me she believed in me. She believed that with God’s help, I would get through it. I would be able to handle the outcome, whatever that turned out to be.
Sometimes, what our children need most is time and space to work things out. They need to know we are here for them and we believe in them. Sometimes they need us to leave the yellow mug on the counter, so it can be transformed into an agent for growth and grace.
(Note: This chapter is one of four under the section exploring the myth “The Most Important Thing is that Your Kids Be Happy.”)
Becky Baudouin is an author of two books: Enjoy Every Minute and Other Ridiculous Things We Say to Moms, and Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy. She is also a speaker and former columnist for Chicago’s Daily Herald. Becky loves to weave together personal stories with transformative truths to encourage and equip others who are walking through the ups and downs of everyday life.
Wife to Bernie, and mom to three daughters, the Baudouins have called Chicago home for more than twenty years. Becky is a friendly introvert, a self-described homebody, and if you’re looking for her, she’s probably in the kitchen.
Order her book HERE.