What Does “Living the Dream” Actually Mean?
A spirited rant about parenthood, parental approval, and my personal observations.
When I was a kid, I knew exactly what living the dream meant—I could feel it in my bones.
It’s not something I could have written down on paper, mind you, but it was a state of being that I can describe to you now: a full tummy, a world ripe with possibility, the excitement of upcoming holidays and events, a loving family, and the approval of my parents…
Oops, did I say that out loud?
It has come to my attention in adulthood that the “approval of my parents” has served as a stumbling block not just for me, but for my siblings, friends, and so many others that I have encountered over time.
It’s our parents’ responsibility to indoctrinate us with the cultural ideal of success, of course, and many parents take this very seriously. I was no exception, although I experienced “indoctrination-lite,” which is along the lines of “you can do anything you want…as long as you do it successfully.” Many other children get “indoctrination-heavy,” which is a shortlist of four career options and constant grade and milestone monitoring.
Of course, this isn’t anyone’s fault, necessarily—this is how our parents were raised, and their parents before them. There has always been a very definite cultural understanding of “living the dream,” or “success,” and each generation builds on the previous generation’s successes and failures to create expectations for the generation to follow.
The problem with this model is that the dream life can only be decided by one person, and one person alone—the child, who later becomes the adult.
Children are busy being indoctrinated by their parents in ways they don’t even realize—conscious and unconscious—and in their eagerness to please, will often feel little conflict around what their parents steer them toward. But what of the child, or the adult, who does feel conflict around their pre-determined path? What about the child who doesn’t fit in, who doesn’t do well in school, who isn’t particularly academic or artistic-minded? How do we honor “living the dream” in a child who disrupts, undermines, or simply doesn’t fit into the social idea of success?
What do we do with the slacker child, the basement boy, the child who never “steps out” or “flourishes” in the ways that parents—the arbiters of society’s approval—deem successful? What then?
Conceding about happiness.
Most parents I’ve known have neither cared about nor understood the concept of “happiness” for their children, and are content to simply boast about their accomplishments to friends and family. If their adult child is unhappy about their marriage or career, that’s really not their business—but hey, did I mention my child is an attorney?
I’ve always found parental boasting callous and superficial, but of course that’s because I’m an overly sensitive millennial who is on a mission to heal generations of my family’s psychological trauma—forgive me if I haven’t had the time to establish a career, purchase a network of rental properties, and pop out a few children while I’m at it.
The way I see it, there are a couple of options—go for parental approval and end up with all the same hang-ups and psychological issues as your parents (usually magnified), or go for the messy, imperfect path that your parents themselves were scared of, and are still scared of.
If it requires that you live in the basement for a few more years, so be it.
There are, however, the parents who concede that “happiness” and self-satisfaction are important aspects of life, and they are willing to tolerate their children’s many “false starts” as they attempt to find “their thing,” whatever that may be.
But I find that even in these parents, there is frustration. I have to believe that this frustration goes deeper than being unable to tell their friends that their child’s salary has bumped yet one notch higher and they are on their sixth minion—there has to be more to the story than that.
What is it that makes parents, even those who acknowledge the importance of finding a meaningful life path, fidgety about their children’s lack of so-called “performance?”
Identifying as our children.
I look at my dog—he’s the closest thing I have to a child—and think, “gee, I love that bag of bones.” He’s 15-years-old, pretty stinky, can hardly walk straight, and yet I look at him and I see a majestic creature. I see my best friend. I see my dog. I’ve never looked at him and yearned for anything else. I’ve never gazed upon him and secretly wished he was a golden retriever or actually liked water. I know exactly where I end, and where he begins. I don’t see him as a reflection of myself, of my abilities, of my health, of my intelligence, of my hygiene, or anything else. I appreciate him for exactly who and what he is, no strings attached. Why is that?
I think a lot of parents look at their children and see versions of themselves. They see their own regrets, their own short-comings, their own failures, and they worry that their children will experience those pains and all of the emotional grief that comes with them.
I think many parents look at their children as a second-chance for themselves, as a person who will be able to do the things they never could, to achieve the social heights and successes that they were never able to achieve.
But by looking at a child that way, we undermine the child. We dehumanize the child and turn them into a mini-me, we get our egos involved, and we create expectations, even small ones, that dishonor our children’s unique path.
Why is it that we can come to know, respect and even love the cashier we regularly interact with at the grocery-store every weekend, but are crestfallen if our children become grocery-store clerks? How is it that we can appreciate and enjoy our neighbor who has lived in the same house their whole life, inheriting it after their parents’ passing, but resent our children if they never leave home? How is it that we have monetized our children into products that have expiration dates, quality requirements, and performance expectations, and then secretly wish we could “return them” when they don’t turn out as expected?
Parenting with expectations.
I don’t think we want children to “live the dream.” I think we want children to “live our dream,” and that’s a damn shame—sort of.
In some ways, it’s a gift. Parents parent with expectations, it’s what they do. Expectations, secret hopes—most of them have skin in the game, and it could be because they’ve invested a lot of money, it could be because their friends and social circle are watching, it could be because they’ve made undesirable sacrifices or feel like they never got their own shot: whatever the reason, it’s what they do.
But that’s okay—there’s a beauty in it. There’s a beauty in realizing that all of society has a certain idea of success, a certain idea of “the dream,” because after pursuing that idea for a few years and finding out it’s pretty damn empty, it forces you to turn around and look back at yourself.
Expectations are a beautiful thing, because you either meet them, or you don’t—and both outcomes give you important emotional feedback that lets you know whether you actually care about that expectation or not.
Why parent at all?
The majority of people I know have been so scarred by their upbringing that they are extremely resistant to having their own children. They feel they are still too busy reconciling some significant, inherited trauma to have additional time, energy, and money to devote to their offspring, which I completely understand—I think this is a common “millennial” sentiment.
In the minority of my circle are those who are having children because “that’s what you do,” because oopsie, accident, or because they’re really hell-bent on having a hand in creating the future generation that will help shape the world.
Any way I slice it, I see having children as a way of outsourcing your ability to heal yourself and help the world—and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Outsourcing can be extremely valuable, and sometimes we simply can’t see the same value in ourselves that we see in a child. Many individuals experience incredible feelings of hope and renewal as a result of parenting, finding that they’re finally able to give the love to a part of themselves that they were never able to give directly to themselves, which facilitates a sort of healing.
I see no issue with this. What I have a problem with is underestimating the responsibility of being a parent and downplaying the impact of parenting.
I see and feel folks projecting their expectations onto their children but never stopping to reassess their own expectations of themselves.
Somewhere along the line, we (as a global culture) forgot that we are our own parents, first and foremost. We are our own guides; it is our expectations for ourselves that matter, it is the nurturing and kindness to ourselves that really impacts and changes the world.
To be the best parent of all—to ensure that our children are capable of “living their dream,” we must ensure that we are living our dream—even if that dream is simply being proud of our choices, aligned with our values, and honoring the inner child that lives within us.
If it’s true that you can only love, connect, and honor others to the same extent that you have learned to love, connect to, and honor yourself—and I believe that it is—then I propose a new cultural norm, a new parental expectation for all:
Parent yourself first, allowing your self-love and respect to overflow onto your child—and then living the dream will be easy, because you’ll already be doing it.