My parents rained on parades. This was partly because although we had enough money to get by, we did not have more than that. The family would not have the latest model car, a second home, or exotic vacations. There would be a used Oldsmobile (my father’s invariable choice) and a week on a nearby lake if some friend or boss made a cottage available. There would be adequate clothing, but no one would be a fashion plate. And who needs to go to restaurants? This was not a terrible hardship perhaps because things like smartphones and Air shoes and overly expensive dolls and other toys did not exist. On the other hand, I remain frugal today–perhaps excessively so–as a result of my upbringing.
The dampening, however, was not just about material expectations; it was about life in general. Some typical interchanges: “It’s a beautiful day today.” “Yes, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” Or: “We won the ballgame!” “Yes, but you play the (powerhouse) next time.” And: “The Halloween party is going to be great.” “Well, it is probably going to be much like the one last year, and I am sure you remember that.”
The point, I guess, was to avoid disappointment. If you did not expect much, you would not be dashed, crushed, or frustrated by what happened. And if good things did happen, then you could feel good. But, of course, only for a brief time because disappointments were always just around the corner. By spritzing on expectations, my mom and dad no doubt thought they were being good parents by shielding us from disappointment.
My non-binary progeny, like many young children, often had great enthusiasm for some coming event. Often I knew that the occasion would not live up to the NBP’s excitement. My instinct was to act like my parents. I needed to protect that precious little one by referring to my experiences to show the NBP how it was unlikely to meet such high expectations. Then the prog (pronounced as if it were “proj”) would not be disappointed. In the beginning I may have done that, but then I realized that such a speech only deprived the NBP of pre-event excitement. If the event truly were a bust, then there was no enjoyment whatsoever. My NBP taught me what had been drilled out of me in childhood: enjoy the buildup to something. Get that enjoyment no matter what happens later.
This practice was put to a severe test at Orlando’s Universal Studios when the progeny spotted the Back to the Future ride. The prog had loved the movie and was eager to go on the attraction. But I knew some things about the NBP and one of them was that thrill rides were not just undesired, they were to be avoided at all costs. (Another reason to love that kid. If the NBP had liked roller coasters, I might have had to endure them also. But the last time I had been on such a thing, admittedly quite some time ago, I felt sick for hours afterwards.) I have no idea what the prog thought this ride was going to be, but I knew it was going to be awful for both of us. As we endured the long line, the NBP’s excitement grew and grew, and I kept debating with myself whether to abandon ship, or in this case, abandon the DeLorean. The more time I internally waffled, the more excited the prog became.
We did it. It was not a ride that plunges and twists. It was worse. It was one of those virtual reality things where you do not get sick from real motion, but through the trickery of projections. You know it is a trick, but still it makes you scream. You feel scared and stupid.
We came out, and it was clear the progeny had been terrified and was not a happy person. I am sure that it lasted but a few minutes, and the wait for the ride with the building excitement had been much longer—in other words, the period of enjoyment had been much longer than the period of disappointment (and terror)–but this time in not taking away the NBP’s expectations I was not sure that I had done right. I feared that the terror, even if brief, outweighed everything that had come before.
What should a good parent have done?
Recently the now grown-up child and I had dinner, and the Back to the Future ride came up. Although it happened decades ago, the NGC remembers it vividly. I asked if I had been a bad parent not to have announced a warning. The NBP shook the head no. But then again, the progeny was expecting me to pick up the restaurant bill. (If you meet the NBP, ask about the Disney ride, It’s a Small World, and you will be convinced that, at least some of the time, I was one terrific father.)
[And the world needs to invent new pronouns.]