Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Push for Success

I’ve only seen Sergio for a few sessions. Originally from Columbia, he and his wife risked all they had to come to the United States, seeking a better life for themselves and especially for their unborn children. They have four children now and it’s because of them he came to see me. 

“My wife says I push them too much. And that it got worse after Mother’s Day. You know, school’s about to get out. I tell them, I don’t want any presents, save your money. What I want is all As on your report cards. I work hard. I carry bedpans, wash people’s butts, put up with not nice people. I smile. I don’t complain. It’s a steady job. I’m lucky to have it. I’ve taken my kids to that nursing home. I show them what their father does all day. Is this what you want, I ask them? And my wife, she’s cleaning people’s houses. All we do is work.”   

“Do you think you might be pressuring them a bit too much?” I ask gingerly.

“No!” he replies emphatically, “My wife and I struggle every day. Every day we work to give them a better life. So why shouldn’t they get all As? That’s their work.” 

I like Sergio. I admire his grit, his determination. Yet conflicting and complex emotions course through me. The immigrant experience, I think warmly to myself, flashing on my beloved grandparents who only wanted “better” for their children and for me. I think of being five and sitting at their kitchen table and my grandmother telling me I was going to be the next Madame Curie. That’s the warm side, the good feelings. But then there was my father. He was contemptuous of his immigrant parents, wanting only to distance himself from them, avidly pushing education and success for both himself and me, his only child. The pressure often felt unbearable. 

“And did all you children bring you straight As?” I ask.

“No!” he says angrily.

“And you were obviously angry. How did you show your anger?”

“I wouldn’t talk with them all Father’s Day.”

Ouch! I think to myself, feeling the press to protect his children, as I wish I too had been protected.

“Sergio, is it possible that not all of your children are capable of getting straight As in every class, every time?”

“Why shouldn’t they be?”

“Well, different children have different strengths. Some are good in math and not good in English or the other way around. And sometimes if you’re too strict with children, they rebel, they try to get back at you by not doing well, even if they’re not aware of it.”

“No!” he exclaims, shaking his head from side to side. “That will not happen!”

This isn’t working. In my eagerness to protect the children, I’ve lost sight of my patient. 

“Sergio, how do you feel when say – what’s the name of your eldest?”


“When Eduardo doesn’t get straight As?”

“Angry. He’s not working hard enough! Too much time on the computer.”

“I understand, but what does it mean for you that he’s not working hard enough. In addition to anger, what do you feel?”

Sergio sits thoughtfully. “I don’t know how to say it. It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel, I don’t know. I can’t find the words.”

“Do you think it makes you feel sad for you, for your life? You’ve made so many sacrifices. You continue to make so many sacrifices – a job you barely tolerate, long hours, no time with your wife – that it’s really, really important that your children make it all worthwhile.”

“Yes, that’s it,” he says smiling.

“I know this may be hard for you to believe, Sergio, but you can’t expect your children to make your life worthwhile. You can make your own life worthwhile. Wait! Wait!” I say, seeing that he’s about to interrupt me. “Of course you want your children to do well. But hopefully you want that for them, not for you. Hopefully you want them to do what will bring them good feelings about themselves and their lives, not necessarily what you want for them. What if Eduardo was really good working with his hands? What if he wanted to be a mechanic or a carpenter?”

“I don’t know,” he says hesitantly.

“I know,” I say. “That was a long speech.” Directed, I think to myself, to both you and to my father. “You can think about it and we’ll talk more next week.”


kitty literate said...

Fortunately, Sergio has you to talk to. I often think of my grandparent, immigrants from Russia and Lithuania, who would never have entertained the thought of confiding in anyone outside the family, much less a therapist. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the only treatments they embraced were Lydia Pinkham and a truss!

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

I can't imagine my grandparents - from Russia and Poland - confiding in anyone either, but it was a different time. The whole idea of revealing oneself, not only to a therapist, but to Oprah or Dr. Phil and the entire TV audience, is far more acceptable than it was during our grandparents' time.

Thanks for your continuing interest and comments.