In my life, I have borne witness to the news of mass fatalities: the fallen soldiers in the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War and from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the people we lost due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic; those killed on 9/11; the massacres of kids in schools; and the slow and steady roll call of the dead as white people have woken up to the reality of police shootings in Black and brown communities.
Yet until COVID-19, I have not been updated hourly on the rising death tolls in my suburb, in my county, in my state, in this nation and in the world.
Mortality feels imminent and pressing.
As a cancer survivor 14 years out, each year I fear a recurrence. As more and more of my friends and colleagues deliver their own news of cancer, of COVID-19 diagnoses and of other illnesses, that fear grows in me like I imagine the cancer once did. Perhaps it is my age, or my history, the pandemic or the seemingly unrelenting news of unjust killings at the hands of the police, but I think about dying often right now.
With the drumbeat of my own mortality — and that of so many other people's — beating incessantly around me, I have begun to fear that I will never be enough, that I have not done enough, that I have wasted my opportunities and ambition.
I think, mostly, about my children.
I raised my three sons in the '90s, also known as the era of life-size participation trophies. The privileged parents I knew from their school and college years approached parenting with heaps of praise and opportunities — as well as rewards, gift cards and, later, cars and trips.
I did the praising; I mastered the, “When you pick up your pants off the floor, then you can have a treat,” mantra of infused consequence. But I was more wary — and, as a single working mother, less financially able — to heap an endless conveyor belt of treasures upon them. Something about inculcating the expectation of a relentless cycle of shiny trinkets and dollar bills, as advocated by my contemporaries, struck me as off. So I didn’t applaud for every bite of broccoli; I didn’t give quarters for every flushed toilet. (Perhaps the latter is why toilet training proceeded more sporadically and in a less timely fashion than I would have liked.)
I was less about forever applauding each baby step than about attempting to mold accountable boys into good men. But that applause — those rewards — were all in the name of building our children's self-esteem. Somehow, my generation had determined the key to success for our own offspring was to convince them to believe they were worthy.
We were then surrounded by parents, teachers and the authors of popular parenting books who advocated for the fervent belief system that you could best shape your children's future with positivity. We would be different, we said, to our children than our parents were to us. We would not pass on the indifference we believed we had endured. We could manifest their happiness — as well as good report cards, positive friendships, successful athletic pursuits and fantastic destinies — through intentioned and well-timed treats.
Still, in 1999, during an afternoon visit to my mother's with my young boys, she finally had endured enough unbridled little boy confidence. “That child has too much self-esteem,” she said, referring to my youngest, Colin, who was then 5. He had been racing through the first floor of her ranch house, screaming that he was the Green Power Ranger while his two older brothers, Brendan, 8, and Weldon, 10, ignored him.
Her clipped remark reminded me that her approach to parenting — stern words and a neck pinch — made it unthinkable that my five brothers or I would have ever dared run through our home untamed. (We all turned out fine.)
“I am not sure that too much self-esteem is a thing, Mom,” I responded.
My mother was a daughter of the Great Depression: Born in 1922 and the oldest of eight children, she was raised in both frugality and faith — which included not thinking too much of yourself, while thinking often of others.
She and my father raised the six of us much the same: “To whom much is given, much is required.” Self-esteem was not the goal of parenting when I was a kid, but rather the byproduct of a productive life. We knew we were lucky, privileged, blessed; we understood that much was required of us.
The pendulum, I realize now, had swung. Perhaps my generation, feeling bereft of productivity or purpose, or not quite up to the task of meeting that which was required of us, deliberately chose to decouple our children's sense of accomplishment from accomplishments, to try to allow them to find happiness in being themselves for themselves rather than simply in service to others.
So we instead committed the crime of trying too hard, despite knowing how awkward and insincere it looks. Yes, it worked out fine for many, but it also reduced parenting to an aphorism — follow your bliss — while assuming that there was a kind purity in the constant enhancement of self-esteem rather than that it potentially ignored teaching them basic decency.
I heard other parents — from the time my oldest son was born until my youngest son graduated from college — constantly say, “I just want my child to be happy.” But that never felt like my primary mission as a single mother who was trying to be all things to all sons — as well as the driving force of my own career.
I saw up close as a single working mom that what made one family member happy could ruin the entire family’s existence in one ill-conceived event. I had to avoid that perspective and its potential for hedonism and instead rally my boys behind the idea, taken from my parents, of being responsible, grateful and generous with others — as well as being themselves.
Then and now, I want my grown children to be good people, as my mom wanted her children to be good people, as I want to be a good person, and I want us all to be happy with the people we are, too.
Real happiness, like self-esteem — as opposed to self-regard — feels inextricable from purpose. And just as I wish it for my children, what I seek is not just to be happy, but to be purposeful and to have that deliberate intention translated into meaning beyond this day, beyond this life, into something lasting.
I still wonder if anyone can have too much self-esteem. But what I seek in this moment — for myself, for my children, for others — is adequate self-esteem, or to know that we are enough.
Now in my early 60s — with more life behind me than ahead — my focus has reverted to my own considerations, and I've begun a closer scrutiny of myself, which was a luxury that felt simply inaccessible for many years.
The realities of COVID-19 — as well as the inevitable illnesses and deaths of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers and role models — infuses urgency into that self-examination. I feel compelled to immerse myself in an honest accountability of my privilege, purpose and effort not just in what I do every day, but in what I have done every day as a parent, a person, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a mentor.
Have I been enough? Have I done enough? Did I give enough? To whom much is given, much is required. Did I give at least the required amount?