Eighteen years ago, I had a colleague named Bertha at a pretty rough public elementary school where I taught fourth grade. This woman taught first grade with the masterful calm of a Jedi. Her room was an oasis of peace and productivity. I tried to learn as much as I could about teaching from Bertha. She was a goddess of a human being, which she would laugh at me for saying but it’s still true.
One day Bertha was telling me about her grown son who had just started his dream job as a forest ranger. I said, “You must be so proud of him.”
“No, I’m not proud of him,” Bertha said.
She could not be proud of her son, this guru said, because the flip side of pride is shame.
This blew my mind with its truth.
Bertha could never be ashamed of her son, so therefore she could never be proud of him. She had raised him as best she could. Now he was grown, and making his own decisions and doing his own work. She could be happy for him. She could be glad to see him so happy and accomplished. But she could not be proud of him.
This is the best perspective on mothering (and teaching) I’ve ever heard, and since that day I’ve adopted the same outlook with my own daughters and students. I have not achieved quite Bertha’s preternatural calm, but I do know how to get out of the way of the creative process of other people. I know how to avoid making other people’s hard work and experiences about me.
I am happy for my daughters for their qualities of persistence, kindness, and follow-through. I am happy for them when their hard work is enjoyable and also when it isn’t. I’m happy for them when they are proud of themselves, yet their accomplishments and opportunities will always be their own, based on their own efforts. They aren’t mine to be proud of.
I also want to give them the freedom of knowing that I could never be ashamed of them. I offer my assuredness that they have the strength to handle any challenge. I will provide the water and band-aids, but hopefully not the burden of expectations.
On July 1, my novel The Ghost Daughter will be released by Coffeetown Press. The story follows three women as they negotiate a world that is shifting for each of them, both literally and emotionally. The theme of motherhood is a focus of the novel, as the characters find both heartbreak and redemption in the sometimes perilous relationship between mother and child. It’s got me thinking about my own way of being a mom in this world.
To my own daughters and students I say, I am not proud of you.
I can never be proud of you. I haven’t done the work you have. I haven’t taken the risks. I don’t have the right to pride.
But I do have the right to joy. And I am so damn happy for you.