Recently, I was invited to a party by my future mother-in-law. She was throwing the little afternoon soiree for nearly all of her closest friends who have known her for decades and my fiancé literally, since he was in diapers. They’ve seen him go through just about everything including his first steps, his first marriage (which took place promptly upon high school graduation – of course – and ended promptly upon college graduation) and other complicated life drama that may or may not have been a result of some poor decision making on his part. I realized this had the potential to make them a pretty skeptical bunch. In short, I was nervous.
I went over to MIL’s house to prep the cocktail bar I’d be manning that afternoon (at least they’d have to love me for the booze, right??). I finished up, cleaned my house and had planned to catch up on some work in the hour before I had to get ready. However….insecurity reared her ugly head and I suddenly found myself torn between being productive (e.g. editing the cookbook I promised would be ready by Monday) and using the time to get all dolled up so the BFFs would be impressed by their friend’s amazing, beautiful-yet-not-too-made-up, down-to-earth, cocktail-concocting future daughter-in-law. Basically, I wanted to make her look good – I wanted her to be proud of the woman her one-and-only-child had chosen (as an actual adult) to be his wife.
This spurred another thought: Why….even though I’m a relatively successful, independent adult (I use that term loosely) and technically, a parent, do I still want to make my parents proud? Why do I still seek approval from the other adults in my life? Why does any adult?
Honestly, I haven’t a clue.
I think we’ve all found ourselves in this situation from time-to-time. Maybe it’s because it’s the original metric. The first unit of measure; the first determinant of success we experience as humans. Maybe the “Good girl!” praise we first heard as toddlers turned itself into an intrinsic need for approval from those we love. And, if your parents were anything like mine, you didn’t get praise just for making it out of bed and through the front doors of school every day. Praise was earned. Compliments were a gift. You did not get congratulations for doing your due diligence. I still remember the first time my mom told me she was proud of me. I was 18. It was the day I graduated from high school. I was super excited and getting ready to head to the ceremony. I stood in my mom’s room in front of her mirrored closet doors jittery with excitement. I asked her if I looked ok and then I said something along the lines of “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I’m graduating! Aren’t you so proud?!?” And she just started to cry. And she nodded her head yes and said that she was extraordinarily proud. It’s been 14 years almost to the day since that happened and I still remember it like it was yesterday. Maybe that’s why it’s the most valuable measure of success for me. It’s the one and only thing I’ve truly had to work hard to earn.
But maybe that’s not ok.
Maybe a child shouldn’t have to graduate high school with a full ride scholarship to college to finally get the “ok” from her parents. Maybe a child shouldn’t have to ask if her parents are proud. And even if you’re like me when I was a teenager (read: ASSHOLE) maybe your parents should just ignore it and tell you they’re proud anyway. Because maybe a little extra fluff will lighten you up. Maybe it will make you a better future parent. Maybe it will make you understand that you don’t have to be perfect for others to accept you.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this desire for approval, whether it be something big or something miniscule, affects me as a parent. Approval equals acceptance in my mind. It equals love. And in my house, to get open, verbal approval, you had to be near perfect. I hold my almost-step kids to this standard. It’s not realistic and it’s not fair – especially for kids who’ve had a less-than-orthodox upbringing with a dad who split weeks between Reno and San Francisco for the first years of their lives and a mom whose values differ greatly from those of my fiancé and his family. It’s a recipe for confused kids who really aren’t sure how to behave a lot of the time.
So, even though we’ve been in this for almost five years already (and the kids have finally experienced some routine and regularity which has benefitted them immensely), it’s my intention to make great strides over the next three-and-a-half months before we get married. A mission to become more accepting, more patient, and less critical. Because in the end, I don’t want to be remembered as the horrible step mom who never showed love, who never expressed her pride. I want to be the step mom who’s more than just “my dad’s wife.” I want the kids to know how proud I am of them; how accepting I am of them. I need to remember what it was like to be in their shoes. I need to remember that even though they’re not my kids, I can still love them; I can still tell them I’m proud.
I also need to remember that lots of people are seeking acceptance and maybe I should be the first one to give it.