Seeking Parental Approval

As an adult, it’s strange to still want to please our parents. For many of us, there comes a time, perhaps after the rebelliousness of our youth, when we want to make our parents proud. This desire to have the approval of our mother or father doesn’t magically disappear as we get older. There is something about that first bond in our lives that keeps us seeking love and acceptance.

When I had a fancy corporate job and was making a good salary, I actually got to hear those words: “I’m proud of you.” However, when my company got sold and my position was eliminated, my decision to follow a nebulous dream of being a writer and speaker was not met with support. In my mother’s eyes, happiness isn’t as important as security.

I’ve lived most my life with her message that I’m not okay just the way I am. I actually heard my mother say something like that when we were on a group excursion in Costa Rica. I had made a joke on the tour bus in response to something our guide had said. While the majority of people around us were laughing, my mother turned to me with complete disapproval and sharply said: “You’re too much.”

I’m too much and I’m not enough. In the past I’ve tried to change to be more of who she wants me to be. I’ve changed the way I dressed, put on make up, gotten a new hair style and moved up the corporate ladder.

I was once accused by a previous partner of acting differently in her presence. I do. I’m more conservative and less outgoing. I pay a little more attention to how I look on the outside. I do my best to remember what’s most important to her is what other people think.

It took a lot of years to find a place of peace with my mom. I don’t like to rock the boat. After years of fighting, I’ve found the balance needed for us to have some semblance of closeness.

In spite all of our differences, I love and respect her. I think she is great and admire her ability to maintain an active social life at 84. She’s smart and funny. I’m proud to introduce her to my friends. I think she’s pretty cool.

I’ve kept my light hidden under a bushel because to fully shine means I stop paying attention to what’s important to her and begin to find my own way. Being fully “me” has required letting go of pretense. I risk her disapproval each time I write a new article and every time I recommit to be more authentic in the world.

Reclaiming the parts of myself that I had abandoned goes deeper than how I dress or wear my hair. The playful, laugh-out-loud kid in me has been locked away so long it isn’t always easy to find the key to free her. And the closer I get to setting her free, the more afraid I am of straining my relationship with my mother.

To her credit, she’s gotten better about not being as overt with her displeasure. She once told me she observed all of her friends alienating their children and she decided that wasn’t going to be her. She learned to bite her tongue and not say anything instead of being overtly critical. But she still communicates her feelings through a simple look or through her silence.

In spite of all my trying not to care what she thinks, I still do. When I tried to talk to her about this about a year ago, I was driving with her in the car. I had tears in my eyes as I expressed my desire for her to approve of the path I was choosing. I wanted her to understand how I didn’t want to be on my deathbed and look back with regrets.

Her response was simple and direct: “You should be at an age now where you don’t need your mother’s approval.”

I guess of all the self-improvement books I’ve read, I missed the one that said there was an age limit on wanting mother’s validation of my life choices. If only it was so easy.

I’ve had friends who have terrible relationships with their mom or dad. I know plenty of people who don’t give a darn what their parents would say or think. I’m just not one of them.

For years I alternated between modifying my behavior or acting out rebelliously as a result. Such extremes kept me stuck in an illusion of freedom and a pattern of immaturity. Even when I stopped being rebellious, I still wasn’t really free.

Maybe I’ll never be free, even after she is dead and gone. Since she’s signed up to donate her body to science, I’ll imagine her rolling over on the lab table instead of in the grave. But who knows, maybe from the other side she won’t care anymore what people say or think.

In the meantime, I’m becoming more comfortable doing my thing and knowing she isn’t on board with my decisions. I know my mother loves me. I know her concerns are because she wants the best for me. The only problem is I don’t always agree with what she thinks is best.

I suppose it’s a parents job to worry about their children, even when they are grown. In retrospect, when my mother told me I should be at an age I shouldn’t need her approval, I wish I had quipped back something about being at an age where she shouldn’t worry about me. Apparently, she can’t change that any more than I can stop caring what she thinks.

I am thankful to have a mother who cares, and I am grateful she raised me to care as well. My wanting her approval is my issue. Because if I really think about it, I already have her love and acceptance. She might never fully understand me, but then that’s my job too.

Our job as children is to learn to find our own path and discover who we are separate from our past. When our parents have done a good job raising us, we will make our own choices. Some of them they will like, and some of them they will not. When they love us anyway … well, that’s all that really matters.