By Ann marie Houghtailing
My youngest son, Austin, is like me. He doesn’t bend to authority very easily, doesn’t care what others think of his choices, and he can be quick tempered.
In other ways he is not like me at all. When he was four, I found him reclined in the dirt using our dog’s belly as a pillow, looking at the sky.
“What are you doing, my love?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.
I asked if he wanted a snack or to read a book or dig for dinosaurs.
“No. I just want to do this,” he said.
“This” is something I have never known how to do. Austin had mastered stillness before he could write his name.
When Austin was 17-years-old, he announced that college was not in his future. He had no interest in high school and was dropping out at the beginning of his senior year, choosing to get his GED instead. He had very little taste for performing or producing anything for anyone. My son is smart, but school for him had always been a pointless enterprise. Now, within striking distance of graduation, even those few more months were too many for him. He didn’t have the attention, commitment or minimum level of desire to stay in school any longer. He was painfully bored and permanently checked out.
Panicked by his decision, I did everything to help Austin find his way. I lectured him. I cried for him. I worried I had failed him as a mother. It was as if I had forgotten that before I found my way to a graduate degree, I too dropped out of high school.
Finally, I surrendered. Although my children were born in the era of Baby Einstein, I was never the sort of mom who was attached to my children’s achievements. The only thing I truly wanted for them was to be fulfilled and live a life of purpose. So, remembering both that little boy staring at the clouds and my own roundabout path through young adulthood, I realized that my son needed space—space to be still.
After months of fretting and nagging, I forced myself to stop asking Austin about his plan. I stopped suggesting pathways and careers to him, as if I were a marketing director of adulthood, selling possible futures he might pursue. The only thing missing were brochures and a PowerPoint presentation. I let him stargaze and navel gaze without the noise of my anxiety.
One shining day months into my new zen-like approach, Austin said, “I’ve decided to pursue stand-up comedy.”
Elated that he was finally pursuing a path, I rushed towards his dream with the energy and singular focus of a charging rhinoceros. I paid for a stand-up class and a writing class. Both of which he barely attended before dropping out. I was heartbroken. It was another failure—for us both. He was failing himself, and I was failing him, and somehow I didn’t know what to say or how to love him in a way that could help him save himself.
When Austin dropped out of the comedy classes, we had a hard talk, the kind that had us both breathing in just the right way so we didn’t fall apart and cry. “You have to bet on yourself,” I said, explaining that my well-intended meddling was coming to an end. “Choose yourself, and then I will be able to bet on you too.”
I had learned that the hardest thing to do as a parent is nothing at all. But “nothing” was my pledge to my son. No more nagging, no more mapping out potential courses for his future.
So now, today, I wait. I am that warm belly of that long-gone family dog, providing my boy quiet support—a safe place to rest his head as he stares at the limitless sky of his future and explores without the glare of my judgement.
These days our time is filled talking about books and comedy podcasts, with discussions about timing, and punching up, and putting an audience at ease.
Now I work less at worrying about what he might do and focus more on who he is and who we are together. He is smart, funny, loving and maddening, and I’m very proud to call him my son.
Last week he called me to get a little feedback on some of his material. One of the jokes was about a condom. I got off the phone and then called him back ten minutes later and told him the joke needed another layer to really work. He agreed.
“Most people probably don’t call their mom to discuss the nuances of a condom joke,” he laughed.
In that moment, that I realized I was loving him in just the right way. And I finally felt like maybe I’ve become the parent he needs and not the one I thought I was supposed to be.
Ann marie Houghtailing is a corporate storytelling expert who lives in Southern California and speaks all over the world about storytelling and influence. Her one woman show, Raising Humans, is filled with stories about raising her two favorite humans in the world, Jackson and Austin.
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