By Dana Gornall
I have often said that being a parent is one of the hardest things I do.
My kids are 15, 17 and 21, and it sill holds true. For some reason you think it gets easier as they get older and in some ways it does. You don’t need to take them to the potty anymore. You don’t need to wipe noses and change diapers and you can leave them home alone. The part of parenting that makes it so hard is the attachment.
One of the main focuses of Buddhism is non-attachment. Attachment causes suffering and if we let go of our preferred outcomes, we suffer less. It’s not so easy. On one hand we can say, I will let go of my need for praise or I will let go of my desire to be promoted at work. Those things alone are things we have to really work on sometimes, since changing the way we think can be an almost insurmountable task. But, let go of how you think your kids should act, what they should do, how they should treat you—that is a whole other mountain to climb.
Because for most of us parents, we are of course attached to our kids. Attachment is actually an understatement. I read a quote once about how when you become a mother it’s like having your heart walking around outside of your body and I’m not sure I have ever related more to a quote.
You may have heard some of how the Buddha became the Buddha and how he was actually a rebel.
It’s often talked about how when little Siddhartha was born, his father had a seer tell him that he would either grow up to be a king or a holy man. Apparently Sid’s dad wasn’t too keen on the holy man version of the story and began devising a plan to pave a pathway for his son so that he would have no other choice other than to be a king. He sheltered him. He kept him inside the castle and surrounded him with everything he would ever want or need.
But as it turns out, Sid had other plans.
Even though he married, had a child and was doing all of the things a young prince was supposed to do, Siddhartha’s curiosity got to him and he found his way out of the castle, inevitably encountering people who were suffering. He saw a poor man, a sick man and a corpse. It was then that Sid realized life was imperfect and there was more out there than he had ever seen in his young life.
If you are familiar at all with the Buddha’s life story, you know how this ends. He eventually left his home of wealth and riches, his wife, child and family, his segregation from the common folk, and became the holy man his father did not want him to become. I have never seen anything about how his family reacted, but I imagine they weren’t happy with his choice.
I can empathize with the dad in this story. Yes, it’s easy to say, “Parents should let their children be whomever they want to be!” But, as parents, don’t we all do this to some extent? Maybe we don’t confine our kids to our homes and bar them from leaving, but we definitely try to encourage them to pick one way or the other. It’s human nature, I think.
My son is a Senior in high school this year. It’s a big year. He has so many choices and so many decisions to make. Will he go to college? If so, what college? What will he study? Will he go to a local school, or farther away? How will we pay for school? Will he stay home if he goes to a local college? These questions seem to be constantly at the forefront of my mind, and when I talk to him about it, he seems to be pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
As for me, I am feeling a bit of panic.
ACT and SAT tests need to be taken again. College visits need to happen. Applications need to be sought out. Profiles need to be made. As I keep adding to the to-do list, I have to sit back at times and wonder how it all will end. Will he go to college and will he find a major he likes? And when he finds that major will he be happy with it and find a career in that field? Will he earn enough money to be content, and what sum of yearly income does it take to be content anyway, these days?
Which is what led me to think about Sid and his parents and how they really wanted him to be King, and not a holy man. In the end, Sid chose the way that really sparked his interest and look what came of that. We have The Four Noble Truths. We have The Eightfold Path, We have the Dhammapada and the Pali Canon and droves and droves of people following words that can lead to a better way of life. We have the Dalai Lama and Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. We have Shambhala and Lion’s Roar and Wisdom Publications, and we even have The Tattooed Buddha.
What would have happened if Sid would have followed the path his parents tried desperately to make for him?
As I write the upcoming test dates down on my calendar, I look over at my son and notice how much wider his shoulders have become over the last couple years—how much taller he has grown. I marvel at the strength he shows on days when he is troubled and at the humor he spits out at the most unexpected times.
I try not to push, but maybe nudge slightly, because after all, I am his mom—I am supposed to be a guide and a safe place to land. But I know that he needs to find his own path, too. I try to find a balance between giving encouragement and freedom at the same time. I have told him often that I really don’t know what I am doing and that I am just trying my best to be a good mom and figuring it all out along the way (and maybe he and I can figure it out together?).
With an ever-growing appreciation for Sid’s parents, along with every other parent who faces this crossroads of in-between, I wait to see which direction my son will turn on the path. I try to let go of the outcomes I want and give him some space to find his own. And, I stand by with bated breath, hoping that everything I have done so far will help carry him along and relinquish the reins to him.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak