I remember Ms. Stephanie, Sean’s kindergarten teacher, telling me “He’s a classic underachiever. I was like that too. He’s incredibly smart but if he doesn’t want it, if he doesn’t reach for it…well…that’s going to be up to Sean.” Ahhhh, Ms. Stephanie. She was a force to be reckoned with, had a booming voice and worked those little munchkins hard. She expected a lot but she gave a lot. Not only did her proud little graduates know how to read and write by the time they went into 1 st grade but they had learned what it meant to be with and around other people. She taught them about being a kind person, a considerate person and thinking about the friend sitting next to you. Ms. Stephanie underlined the invaluable lesson of treating others the way you wanted to be treated.
Years later, I still think about Ms. Stephanie’s words and how much truth was in her assessment of my son. Sean was really smart. As a toddler things came effortlessly to him and in grade school he easily tested into the Gifted and Talented program, an accelerated academic class in the New York City school system. In 2 nd grade he got accepted into Anderson, a top rated school in New York State, geared towards highly gifted students with a capacity to fast-track through above grade level material, typically with ease.
One of Sean’s greatest tools was his memory. Up until 5 th grade he didn’t even need to think about studying. When he got to middle school, things became a bit more challenging but still, his memory got him about 90% of the way to decent grades. 6th grade involved transitioning into the expanded freedom of going class to class, juggling the requirements set forth by each individual teacher and figuring out how to best use his time. His grades were ok but certainly far from what he could truly do. In 7th grade his marks went up quite a bit but you could tell, he just didn’t need to try that hard. He was coasting and, at some point, I feared it was going to catch up to him.
I wasn’t always so patient when Sean came home with a “just ok” grade. Sometimes I was quick to shout, questioning his lackluster performance, insisting he could do so much better. We would have angry exchanges, hurling accusations at each other. He would insist through unshed tears, “You always yell at me when I get bad grades!” And sometimes I did. My fuse was short and he didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the reason why he didn’t get such hot grades, “No I get upset when you get poor grades because you don’t study and prepare yourself,” I would say, “If you got a 70 because that was truly the best you could do, I would celebrate it. But you didn’t study and your grade reflects it. You can do better Sean and that’s what I’m looking for!” I would feel so angry. I would point out how he was more concerned about his video games and playing online with his friends than he was about doing his best. I’d tell him, “If you were inspired to to know your school work the same way you did your video game you would get A’s all the time!”
Why wouldn’t he study?! Why couldn’t he apply himself?! Why wasn’t he doing his best?!
Sean was so smart. He could so easily be at the top of his class. I was agitated and anxious, almost waiting for a hammer to fall. Ugh! This was so frustrating! I’d stew for a while, righteous in my indignation but couldn’t ignore the nagging question that quietly raised its hand from within. Why did his grades get me into such a tizzy? Why was I so reactive and explosive? And then I realized. I felt overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed because I was afraid.
I was afraid of what his getting just ok grades might mean for him and Ms. Stephanie’s words came back to me. Sean was an underachiever and was just going to coast through life and maybe never apply himself. In high school he’d sit back, never stepping out and allowing his abilities to separate him from the pack. He would settle for substandard performance, never realizing his true potential. He’d let opportunity pass him by. If he didn’t get good grades, he might not amount to anything. Oh how horrible! He had the capacity to be excellent and achieve so much. He was exceptional. How come he wasn’t inspired to be the best he could be?! And down I spiraled into the pit of catastrophe, seeing only the demise of my handsome and amazing Little Man.
And then I heard that inner all-knowing truthful voice, questioning me. What? What did you say? Who are you? Who is this person seeing only the failure of her amazing son? Is this your truth? Is this what you really believe?! Who do you choose to be?! Where is the inspired mommy you insist you want to be, focusing on what Sean is doing versus screaming about what you aren’t seeing?
And then I stopped, choking on my tears, feeling the full weight of my fears. Inhaling deeply, I thought to myself, “Oh no. This is not my truth. These are not my values or my idea of parenting.” I then recalled the astute words of a close friend, “If within, so without.” I let the wisdom of this philosophy wash over me. It means that what is going on inside of me always manages to get reflected outside myself in the people or world around you.
As I thought about this perspective my mind went to the way in which I was also struggling with my husband’s job sucking him into the vortex of busy season. He was gone. His hours were long and demanding and often times we didn’t see him from before the sun came up until long after the boys went to bed. I felt abandoned. All of a sudden, from one day to the next, I was a single mom, juggling it all, desperate for another set of hands but knowing that, in the end, it was all on me. I so very much wanted my boys to understand how hard it was to run the show all on my own; feeling like I was barely keeping my head above water most of the day and, at night, collapsing into bed, spent and exhausted, passing out only to start it all over again the following morning. It was like being on a gerbil wheel, feverishly running as fast as I could, never getting anywhere.
And then the epiphany. I realized I needed to be more patient with myself and those around me. I needed to give myself what I needed to be successful in my job as “single mom.” How could I expect Sean to know how to handle this if I didn’t inspire him to know it for himself?
I am “mom” now to a teenager, no longer “mommy” to a little boy. My son was growing, beginning his journey, turning into an exceptional young man. Did he need me to berate him or love and support him as he found his way to being the amazing and inspired young man I knew him to be? He had the kindest heart, was filled with love and laughter, and was so very capable. Instead of screaming my fears I needed to remain calm and model coping. I needed to show him how one navigates the challenges of life. I wanted to inspire him to find his own wisdom and ability to gracefully and skillfully walk his path in his own unique way.
And so I made some changes. I told my husband he can’t leave at the crack of dawn in the middle of morning business. A few days during the week he needed to stay until the boys were off to school so we could manage our hectic routine together. I created a bit of a schedule for myself in order to have time for my career and continued learning. I needed space to be the strong and capable professional that I am. I built rest and nourishment into my day. Forty-five minutes before Sean got home was my time to nap, meditate or simply rest quietly so I was refreshed and ready for the second wave of my day when the boys came back from school. I figured out what I needed and went about putting my supports in place.
This weekend I’m going to share my journey with Sean. I’ve already told him how we are in similar situations, us both needing to cope with our own trying circumstances. I’m hoping he will see the connection between the roads we both travel, parallel yet so very individual. I will help him figure out what he needs to succeed as he moves through his final year of middle school. I will support him in constructing his own plan and be the scaffolding of understanding and stability as he slowly learns to stand on his own.
I will treat Sean the way I want to be treated.