Staying True To Our Dreams Makes Us The Best Parents We Can Be

Dear Debra: Regarding your prior post, life is not, I repeat, not long. At best you have
about 74 years on this planet. Your children, however, will not be young forever. If you want
them to be around you when you
are 74, you may want to invest as much time and energy into
their upbringing as necessary to gain and secure their unconditional love for those years when
you will need them down the stretch. 10 year olds really don't care about your career, or how
much money you make. My wife's mantra,
when I was obsessed with my career was this: your
children are only young once.

Jim, you are buying into a socially-sanctioned, common-but-false assumption that
ambitious people face an either/or choice: either we strive to get the education we need and
devote time to create opportunities that move us toward meaningful, challenging work that
pays us well and allows us to make the contribution we were born to make, or we scale
our dreamsbecause to do otherwise requires shortchanging our children and being
rotten parents.
This is a false choice.

You are  rightbeing obsessed with one's career to the exclusion of other priorities,
including being workaholics who neglect our children, loved ones, our health, our
friendsthat is unhealthy; it makes for a life/lives wasted. But that is not our only choice.
if we buy into that false choice, we sell ourselvesand our childrenshort.

It is the sacrificing of our ambition and dreams that makes us worse parents and
role models than we otherwise would be. 

I believe that we can strike a balance and get it right, even if things in life aren't balanced each
and every moment of each and every day.

And our kids do care about our careers; they observe and take in how we live our
, making sense of it in their own developmental time frame.  Are we  inspired by our
work and by how we spend our days? Do we have interesting stories and experiences to share
with them about how we navigate the world of work?  Do we demonstrate to them that there
are many career paths and options and that we have the courage and determination to make
tough choices and try different options, depending on the changing needs of our and our
families' lives? 

It never occurred to me that my son Devin paid a whole lot of attention to my
career decisions
, but one day when he was fifteen he said, “I don’t want to be one of those
people who get up every day and go to a boring job they hate just to get a paycheck. I think
that’s sad.  I want to be like you, Mom.  You have an interesting life. You work for yourself,
you travel, you decide what you want to do and how you want to work.” It was deeply
validating to realize that however much I might have messed up as a parent, I’d given my
son a powerful role model for prizing ambition and intention, for creating a life based on

Don't get me wrongI'm not pretending that it's all sweetness and light. Point in
case, my favorite present from him was a handmade card saying, "Merry Christmas,
Mom. You're a great mom. I love you, even when I can't stand you."

Now that my son is in college, in business school majoring in entrepreneurship, as it
turns out, he has even more questions and is very curious about the bobs and weaves my
career took, about how I supported us, about how I made it happen at different difficult
junctures. He'll say, "Wow, I never knew that. I wondered how you did that, how you made
your money, how you paid for my piano lessons and tutoring and bikes and books." He even
asks  for career and entrepreneurship advice now and then. And he steals ("borrows") my
business books.

It wasn't easy along the way. I quit the secure job and career trajectory and gave
up the secure paycheck
so that I could work for myself and wrap my schedule around my
young son's schedule, even as I was finishing my graduate degree, going through a divorce,
working low-paying internships required for licensure, plus odd jobs to pay the bills. I wanted
to be there to drive him to and from school every day, cook healthy dinners most nights,
volunteer in his classroom at least once a week, work the snack shack at his little league
games, read Goodnight Moon 5,000 times before bedtimes, raise that Golden Retriever puppy
he and we so badly wantedin between building my business, seeing clients, studying, and
not always getting as much sleep as I wanted or needed.

I constantly reviewed my short-term, intermediate, and long-term plan and options.
There were compromises. I chose to send him to public school; it took six months to find suitable
housing (that included a yard for our Golden) in a great public school district. I could not afford
private schooling back then, given my choice to work for myself and where I was in my career
and earning potential at the time, even if I sometimes badly wanted to be able to provide that
option for him. Still, somehow, it all worked.

It was and is hard. Even now that he's in college, he needs me there for him. And he
needs me when he needs me, usually at unpredictable and even inconvenient times. But I still
have the flexibility to be there when those moments come: I can almost always reschedule client
meetings; or I can work remotely if, say, I need to drive to his school and spend a day there
helping him sort out some housing or other crisis.  He knows I'm always here to cover his back,
and he does count on that. And I feel gratified knowing that he has that security.

So yes, it is complicated and messy and not always picture-perfect balanced. But
I believe that seeing our ambitious dreams as being every bit as precious as our other
sacrosanct, inviolable prioritiesincluding our children, partners, spouses, communityis
what makes us the happiest, most fulfilled, curious, inspired and inspiring parents and role
models. And that is what builds the best parent-child relationships.

I am not talking about greed. I am talking about being ambitious with integrity and
modeling to ourselves and our children that we can develop our talents, be ambitious
without compromising our ethics or integrity, make a meaningful contribution *and* also
be loving, present, attentive parents. There are many options to explore and figure out and
modify as we move along our paths as ambitious people who are also dedicated parents. We
don't have to choose either/or. And neither will our children, when they grow up.

That long life we're talking about (or not so long, depending on how you view it) will
be much
richer if we do stay true to our dreams.  By valuing our dreams and nurturing
ourselves by staying
true to our ambitious goals and talents, we will have more financial,
intellectual, emotional, and psychological resources to draw upon in order to provide
security and opportunities for our children
and to teach them how to make their own
security and opportunities as they grow and develop.

Thank you for your comments, Jim.Do keep the discussion going. And stay tuned.
I'll have more to say about this in my next Metro column and blog, that will run January
26, 2009.

« Finding Fulfillment Between a Rock and a Hard Place | Main | How to Start Your Own Business While Working Full-Time For Someone Else »

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debra, thanks for your response, yes, balance is the important thing, and it's going to be different for every family. and there's nothing wrong with "dreams" and "ambition," but let's not overrate them and insult everybody else who could really care less about what you do to make money, or how much money you make, which, to me, is completely superficial and has nothing to do with deep or passionate living.

let's face it, most jobs suck, even the ones we love. most people don't get to thoroughly enjoy what they do for a living. many people, however, do have the imaginative capacity--or have been trained--to create the illusion that what they do for a living is interesting and matters. however, in the world, even more people live in jobless poverty, so having a steady job that pays the bills without killing you is something to be grateful for. that's what i'm telling my children.

as a parent, the only way to inspire children is to be honest and expressive, and to be able to provide them the opportunities to explore their own passions and/or talents. or children can be inspired by the poor, abusive, or indifference you or society may have had for them. your own personal career and ambition has very little to do with inspiring your son. that is an illusion. your son is merely reacting in a positive manner to his biological involvement with his environment.

incidentally, debra, please keep in mind: i think it was bill cosby who said something like... you're not really parenting until you have more than one child--which i do firmly believe--so it's really difficult for me to take any parenting advice from somebody who only has had only one child, despite your wildly successful and proud story.

Oh my G-d, Jim, you are oh so bitter. Go drink some sweet tea and get some sunshine and sweeten up your day. Just because you settled for the routine, doesn't mean we all have to.
I escaped corporate America, the steady paycheck, because I believe in something greater. Yeah there are countries where people live in poverty, but we are in USA a country with countless opportunities and how can you pass up on that.
There are those that settle for less and there are those that seek greatness. And inspire their children to seek greatness.
I am already telling my five year old son that he will build a company and work for himself. I immigrated to this country from former Soviet Union and my parents brought me here to give me the endless opportunities this country offers, so take advantage and be happy.

Go watch the movie Revolutionary Road, it really points out how one just settles in their comfort zone and never dares to face their fears. To me that's no fun.

And this thing about one child, please, you become a parent once you have a child. I know my parents say the same thing, and certainly it's harder to manage two or three kids then one kid, but it's not fair to say that having one kids does not count.

vera, revolutionary road is one of my favorite novels of all time. if i remember correctly, it doesn't wind up too well for any of them.

i'd also recommend richard yates's short stories. yates does authentic child characterizations better than anyone, and there are many children that populate his short stories. from yates, i'd move on back to john cheever, or go on ahead to michael chabon.

as for your 5 year old, i suggest you let him work out what he wants to do in his own good time, with your guidance and support of course. he may turn out to be a better surfer than a business builder. would that be a disappointment to you?

vera, i would not characterize myself as bitter at all. i prefer to think i'm quite real. about as real as it gets.

i haven't settled for less; i just don't prefer that much more than i already have. frankly, i love the routine of my cubicle life, and find your disdain for it typically romantic.

to me, dreams are what i sometimes have while i'm sleeping, and my inspiration is sometimes filled with carcinogenic smoke, especially on the weekends. in other words, i'm pretty much inspired whenever i'm conscious. the rest is simply work, the practice of living, and the pleasure of my relationships.

we can argue about this forever. the fact is we have very different points of view. I see something greater and want that something greater then a life of a cubicle. so if that's what makes you happy, that's fine. just please don't come on try to make us see things through your eyes, we don't want to.

Debra, great response. I agree with everything you said. My boyfriend and I cannot agree on money vs. living. He believes that making a decent living requires giving up living a good life. I see it differently: who paid for the vacation to see his parents on the other side of the country? Who has been supporting him while he suffers from this economy? Who paid for the bed and breakfast weekend-getaway last year? Not his paycheck. But he chose an industry that he loves, that involves fewer hours, however pays less than mine. Yet - my salary is consistent, and, although I do not love my job, I love that I am able to rely on its security, consistency and salary increases...and stability during difficult economic times.

My next questions to him, and anyone who attacks those of us who have chosen to sacrifice "free time" to build a career, are: Who will pay for private school if we have a child? Better yet, who will pay for the diapers? The copays for the delivery? The babysitter? The dance lessons? Ballet slippers and tap shoes? The school projects requiring construction paper, clay and other art supplies? Who will pay for it all: LOVE of the job?

In exchange for mommy doing what she has to do to make a good salary, we all get to go to museums, and plays, and we get to participate in recitals, and be on soccer teams, and buy costumes for the school play, and go away on school trips. Is mommy a bad mommy because she took a job that required a lot of effort, started her own part-time business, and showed the kids how to manage their time effectively because time is precious? During their "down time", my children won't learn to lay around on the sofa watching commercials in between reruns of anything on tv that doesn't require thought.

I will buy your book, tomorrow, as a matter of fact. I am thankful for having found you since I have felt conflicted for a long time about society-imposed rules on what I must do in order to "have it all" (which was pretty much: pick one or the other, you can't have both). Even balance is not the key. Peace and happiness are the keys. And my definition of success is different from anyone else's. To have my children look at me and be inspired to be all they can be through their careers and in their lives would be a great achievement. As a parent, I will strive to give my children the tools they need to be effective, positive members of this society: tools to help them overcome obstacles, deal with disappointment, to be compassionate, to make sensible decisions, to have integrity, to be self-sufficient, etc.

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