I know I’m not the only mom who bursts into tears every time I watch the “Surface Pressure” scene in Encanto. It’s all too relatable, right? Luisa sings, “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service,” and I sob. The stress of carrying all the weight is something many of us can sympathize with. But now as I am officially the mom of a high school senior, I understand how Luisa’s family carried their own burden to apply that pressure to their daughter. Perhaps like me, they feel beset to ensure that their strong daughter (or in my case, smart son) took on heavy loads to live up to their “potential.” Maybe, like me, they thought they were supposed to apply stress so they could live up to some arbitrary ideal of adulthood success. Let’s hear that song in Encanto 2, and I’ll grab a box of tissues.
I thought by the time my firstborn reached his senior year of high school, I would’ve gotten the hang of being a mom. But this year, more than ever, I feel like I have no idea what the hell I am doing.
I would like to take this opportunity to openly apologize to every parent or former high school senior whom I have ever asked “What are you planning to do after graduation?” I thought it was an innocent, friendly question, but truthfully, it is perhaps the most invasive and emotionally-charged question someone could ask either of us right now.
Despite his being highly intelligent, a decent student, and a master at every standardized test from the FCAT to the ASVAB, my son hasn’t expressed any desire to go to college. He was a freshman when the schools closed in 2020, and he’s a high school student in the era of school shootings — I felt like applying pressure to meet the ever-moving target that is “getting into a good school” was the least of our worries.
I’ve always said, “I just want my kids to lead happy and healthy lives,” all the while stashing away money in college accounts and talking about “when you go to college” — never really acknowledging that there were other choices. And here we are: We have arrived at the last year of high school when decisions must be made and applications must be submitted, and I am finally asking him, “What is it that you want to do?” as if that’s even a question that most of us have the answer to as adults.
But somehow, it feels like everyone expects him to have an answer. And not just any answer, but a specific answer: “I’m applying to [insert respectable universities here] to study [insert major here] because I want to [insert mainstream secure job here].” So, when he says, “I don’t know, probably have some adventures,” I feel like I have made some grave sin as a mom by not applying enough pressure so he can “live up to his potential”. Certainly, he has enough potential to earn a degree in a subject he realizes he doesn’t care about and work in a job he probably could’ve gotten without the degree while still searching to find what brings him fulfillment.
The real reason it makes me feel like I’ve let my kid down is because I’ve believed for so long that this is what you’re “supposed” to do — prepare a kid for college followed by the workforce. And by him not choosing college, I haven’t done my job as his mom. But when I set aside my own ego and desire to follow some set of mothering standards that I never got a copy of, I’m called to put my money where my mouth is. Is my goal as his mom truly that I want him happy and healthy? Because doesn’t “having some adventures” sound like a pretty solid plan for leading a fulfilled life? Eighteen-year-old me wishes she knew this was an option. As Luisa sings, “But wait, if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy?” Maybe, but there’s only one way to find out.
Love this essay. I bristle even when my kids are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because it suggests that a child’s value is the sum of their adult contributions and professional or academic accomplishments. Why can’t we just embrace what our children (and young adults) are now, in this moment: artists, Lego architects, dancers, adventurers?
Thank you for your bravery in being vulnerable. Any many happy trails.
At 18, all I wanted to do was sleep lol I am 50 now and am just winging life because I still have no clue what I want to be when(if I ever) grow up!
This is my amazing cousin! I am so proud of the Non Adult she has become! Being a mom of a recently graduated senior that decided to take a year off I feel Theresa’s pain in thinking that I should have done more to put her on a “path” but the fact is I have an amazing daughter that is well adjusted and trustworthy and really what more can I ask for?! Maybe their generation has it right,my 18 year old self also screams “why didn’t I think of that!”