Lessons in Acceptance

July 9, 2024

Those of you who have worked with me are probably familiar with the parenting essay I have referenced a million times called “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley. She’s brilliant. I don’t think I’ve ever read this aloud to a group of parents without seeing someone wipe away tears.

Kingsley reminds us that while we may have held a certain idealized vision of our soon-to-be-born child while we were pregnant, we must learn to parent and accept the child we receive. This gradual, often painful journey of letting go of what we imagined and accepting what is can be very challenging for parents. Those of us who succeed in this test of acceptance have a much smoother parenting experience than those us who hold fast to what we had planned for or envisioned.

Many of my clients arrive in my office because of this exact conflict. The process of letting go of a vision and accepting a reality requires a good deal of soul-searching. Quite often, one parent gets stuck in la-la land while the other is firmly planted in reality. If we choose to accept the unknown, we feel less in control and, therefore, more anxiety. It usually takes us many years to pull our heads out of the sand and realize that the way we are parenting this particular kid is not working, but then we are dumbfounded because we ask ourselves, “What happened? It worked with our other kid?” We are left feeling helpless and even hopeless, but no one ever promised a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting.

My husband and I experienced this overwhelming feeling of helplessness with our brilliant son, John. He didn’t fit the mold we had arranged for him: a traditional, sports-heavy, private boys school affiliated with the school his sisters attended; same spring break schedule, same families, same carpools—it would’ve been so simple. It amazes me when I reflect on how long it took my husband and I to notice and accept reality: this school was a terrible fit for our son. I so regret leaving him in that environment as long as we did, but we didn’t know better at the time. We were sheep.

Learning to truly accept your kid and follow their lead is a humbling, eye-opening experience. Every fiber in my body wanted to fit in, to be like the other families on our block, to belong. It’s only human nature to desire these things. It’s not at all kosher or popular to defer to your kid, to be curious about your kid’s unconventional ways. People question your “control” over your kid. “Can’t you make him do what he’s supposed to do?” One of the teachers at my son’s school actually handed me a book at pick-up one day entitled “Boys Adrift” and suggested I read it because my son was not falling in line at his private, conservative school. He was causing teachers to work harder, to think outside the box. This is highly discouraged in a setting like his private boys school. Imagine if we had told all the innovators in the world to fall in line and that they were “adrift” and needed to be reigned in?

I could write a novel on this topic as it still enrages me. Teaching parents about acceptance is why I do the work that I do. I know this is controversial and unsettling to some people, but having a curious mindset and being open to why you get the kid you get is one of the ways to keep growing and expanding as an adult. Being able to support your kid as he explores and matures is the greatest gift you could ever give a kid. It’s the definition of unconditional love. Are there a million caveats pertaining to this mindset? Of course, but I will forever believe that we are supposed to learn from our kids. They are our greatest teachers. They “fall into” our family to teach us the lessons we have yet to learn. As Pema Chodron reminds us: “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”