It just so happens that I met my love on a train leaving Grand Central Station. Because that train ride was so significant, I don’t think very often of the train ride into the city on that same morning.
I was, as I usually am when I go to Manhattan, heading to an audition. I had my dress and nice coat, an off-white coat I cleverly referred to as my Coat d’Ivoire. My dress shoes were in a pink bag along with my audition binder, and my hair was curled and fixed with a sparkly barrette.
When I got on the train I sat in the corner of a set of four seats, two facing forward and two facing back. Not long after, a mother and daughter occupied the two facing seats on the aisle and the train pulled out of the station.
This girl too was going into the city for an audition. I was probably twice her age. She had her music neatly in a binder and a professional headshot visible in the binders front pocket. Her mother was talking to another mother about the daughters shows, classes and auditions.
Though I love my mother beyond describing, from time to time I am wistful when I see a stage mother. What if I had parents who pushed me to dance and perform, who knew how to get me a headshot and how to arrange my music in binders? I wouldn’t have had to learn all of those things in my twenties, and I might feel ahead of the game now.
We live in a purported meritocracy, but it’s clear that much of life’s success and failure comes from who your parents are.
Last night I went to an audition at a professional theater at which there were a number of young girls called back. It was a long night, and I marveled at the collection of parents patiently waiting in the house while their daughters danced, read, and sang. I can’t imagine anything like that in my childhood, not because my parents’ weren’t devoted, but because we simply didn’t know about anything like that. There was no internet, and we lived in the country.
I often joke that if the worst complaint I have against my parents is that they didn’t get me piano lessons, I’m not doing too bad.
So we never got around to piano lessons. But they listened to me practice the clarinet after dinner for twenty minutes and urged me to chart my practicing in the grid prepared in the front of the music book. When I wanted to learn flute too, they found one of those used and bought it for me. When I wanted to learn saxophone my jazz-loving father’s bliss was so extreme he bought me a shiny new tenor sax for Christmas.
When I wanted to take dance, starting late in my youth and joining a class which was collectively pissed to be the-class-that-a-12-year-old-beginner-could-join, they drove me once a week. When I was fifteen, my mother finally took to heart a pre-school teachers suggestion that I should have voice lessons and found me a teacher at the University of Hartford.
Fifteen is a suitable age to start voice lessons, but no one had told the other kids there that. As we became more familiar with the programs at Hartt, I joined weekend programs and summer camps. It was the first of many experiences of feeling behind. Other students were polished, with resumes and audition packages. They knew what to do. So I followed along and tried not to feel like a bumpkin.
When I think back on my childhood I often imagine it as a rotation of sitting in front of the piano which I never quite learned to play properly, sitting on the couch with a book, or meandering the large pasture behind our house that we refer to as a “backyard”. It could have been more regimented. I could have become better at tap. I could have worn lip gloss to auditions when I was ten. My life could be different now.
Unlike many of the people I studied with at conservatory, I got an undergraduate liberal arts degree. I studied theology and great books and Italian and music theory, and arrived for my master’s degree feeling once again behind. Still not much of a resume. No young artist programs to my name. Still nothing that resembled an audition package. I had a headshot, finally, taken at the photographer’s around the corner from the school where I did Americorps for a year after graduation.
Sitting on the train hours before my life would change forever, next to a pre-teen whose headshot was nicer than mine, I felt like a failure again. I felt like I should have been shuttled from audition to workshop to gig while I was a teen so I could have ended up an opera star. I felt like I should have sucked it up and lost the 40 pounds I would have needed to in order to perform on Broadway. I felt like a failure.
I don’t really blame my parents for anything, I just sometimes marvel at the road not taken. When I look at the road that was taken, it’s a road through libraries and museums and sports and travel. It’s a road of companionship, on which I never doubted for a second that my parents delighted in me and wanted to spend time with me.
I am not a failure.
It’s clear that much of life’s success comes from who your parents are.
Tell me your conclusion is that you don’t feel like a failure now and you wouldn’t change your childhood… I live amongst the competitive parent world…and I have not signed my son up for U8 club soccer at the urging of others because he has talent an he could play against other better “talent” He is not quite 7! I have done compeitions for Irish Dance but I have not pushed my daughter to attend more classes to improve her skills etc. She is 8 I have just let them play after school, try to mix in some activities and let it all play out. Yet sometimes I look around me and see other parents and wonder do I need to be more focused? More the driven type? Or are parents living through their kids? I work with kids all the time who are grateful for the push their parents gave them and I work with kids who hate a sport that they have been pushed to play all their lives. Which parent is right? I would not have followed the advice of the preschool suggesting voice lessons either. But you are an extremely talented woman…would you change the course lie has Taken? What is the parenting lesson?
I definitely do not feel like a failure one bit, and I don’t begrudge a moment of my childhood. At the same time, I’m not necessarily ready to condemn parents who had or have a different ethos than mine did. There are lots of paths to success and lots of ways to be successful. I’m relieved that my family didn’t’ see achievement in one particular area – be it sports or art or whatever – as the be all and end all, and focused instead on all of us enjoying our lives together. Though I’m totally unqualified to give parenting advice, my inclination is to say do what feels right for you an your family, and block out the voices who disagree. Your kids are going to be fine – nay, better than fine 🙂
Oh goodness, this is what scares me the most out of parenting. These seemingly little decisions that I make as a mother now will shape my children’s future. If I think about it too much, I panic a little. I often think back to the decisions my parents made when I was little; if they had bought a different house when we first moved to the suburbs, I would have met different friends, leading to different after school jobs, and thus not meeting the man who would become my husband….thinking about how the decisions we make now will impact my children in the future is so daunting! Something as simple as the next house we buy, or how many activities & lessons can all have a big impact on their future.
Best not to worry about it too much I guess.
I think your final conclusion is a wise one. If we obsess over the ways each decision shapes the future we can quite easily go bonkers. Better to just enjoy the ride!
This topic is often a topic of conversation in our house. My husband & I are musicians who gave our kids lessons so they would be good at math. They all turned out to be gifted in music in various ways, and have chosen to concentrate on music, while still pursuing liberal arts, reading, marathon running, environmental activism, and other interests too many to list. But we have often experienced that feeling of being behind the ones who are pushed, the ones who have the stage parents. I do wonder if I had pushed more and sooner if things would be easier now. But in my heart I know we wanted to set this particular example of seeing the whole of life, with music as a part of it, as the way for our children to see the world, at least while they were children and now as they are starting out. Thank you for this beautifully written essay.
Thank you for your comments! I’m delighted to hear that your children have found a love of music amid many other interests and accomplishments. It sounds like you’ve done all the right things.
Janet Dubac says
Thank you for this very good read! I enjoyed reading it and the message in the article is very good. It is our parents who shaped us and turned us to be who we are today. I am forever grateful to them for raising me well and I am going to try my best to raise my kids like or even surpass my parents’ awesomeness. 😀
thanks! I’m sure there would be no greater tribute to your parents than for you to surpass their awesomeness.