My son’s cello teacher is dying. This is the third time she’s had cancer, so this week is my son’s last lesson with her. He has grown to love her. He cried during a lesson a few weeks ago and she said, “It’s okay. Everyone dies. Now let’s work on Saint-Saens. You need it for the master class.”
So my son cries now only at home. And we talk about how so many people are sad that she’s dying and what if everyone wanted to cry and tell her how much they will miss her during their lessons? She’d be listening to people cry all day long, but she just wants to keep teaching.
Before you become thrilled with my newfound empathy, let me admit that while she is trying to stop his crying, I am worrying about what will happen to my son when he does not have a cello teacher.
A therapist once told me that therapy is successful when you internalize the therapist’s voice and just do the whole therapy session in your head without going to therapy.
So, for example, I want to tell my husband he is a moron for saying he has done the dishes even when he has not washed pots or pans or glasses—only the plates.
Then I hear the therapist say, “What do you want to accomplish by telling him he’s a moron?”
And I’ll say, “I want to make him feel as bad as I feel.”
“Will that make you feel better?”
“No. It’ll just make him feel bad.”
“Would you like him to do the pots and pans and glasses when he does the dishes?”
I can do that conversation in my head to stop myself from throwing a glass at him.
So I do the same thing here: I want to tell you that my son had the very best cello teacher for young kids.
And you will say, “Oh, I’m sure there are other good ones.”
Then I will get frustrated that you are arguing with me about cello teachers. Of course I know more than you because I spend my life steeped in statistics and qualitative analysis about ten-year-olds learning Tarantella.
You will ask why I think I have to control everything.
I will say I want the best for him.
You will say the best would be me not being so uptight.
So the teacher told us to go to a cello teacher at a university for the summer who is great at getting kids into Julliard. And look, I’m taking a risk here, telling you what I worry about, okay? So don’t jump all over me. Getting into Juilliard is not something I worry about. All the kids in my son’s program got in this year who wanted to get in.
What I worry about is if my son is going to be a soloist, he has to be so great that he won’t even need to go to Juilliard. He has to have won international contests or something by that age.
It’s embarrassing to admit I think like that. Why am I so wrapped up in his life? I’ve become insanely competitive and strategic and I’m second-guessing everything.
So we go to this new teacher, and the teacher says he is not going to do competitions with my son. Which makes no sense to me because my son loves the pressure. He loves performing. He loves winning. But the teacher says cello is not about winning. “Cello is about making beautiful music,” he says.
I say nothing.
He says, “Preparing for competitions is like teaching to the test. Do you know what I mean by that?”
I want to tell him cello is different. You have to win competitions in order to win soloist invitations. And my son wants the terrible life of a soloist: always competing, always traveling, living in a series of hotels, eating canapés at meet-and-greets.
Another person tells me, “That’s such a terrible life. It’s not even about the music anymore. It’s about performing.”
But that’s what my son wants. To perform. If he didn’t have cello he’d do something else that was still performing.
I can hear the therapist telling me to let my kid live his life.
I’ve coached a lot of you—a gajillion of you—and the root of every coaching session is feeling some sort of competition. Looking at what someone else got for themselves and wanting it. Thinking you should be doing something that you are not doing. Feeling like you are not doing enough. Wanting to do what you have not done. Yet.
I have never coached someone who is non-competitive and I don’t believe that person exists. Even a yoga teacher–she wants to give speeches because influencing one class at a time isn’t big enough for her. Or the coach who wants to tell people not to give up because he’s scared he gave up already and he wants to feel important. The woman who is just with the kids when everyone around her seems to have a part-time job, and the twenty-three year old who is hotter than everyone else, or the twenty-five-year-old making more money than everyone else.
We compete over what we value. And everyone values something.
Which brings me to myself and cello. I want to be a parent who navigates the cello world impeccably. But at the top of the cello world is a small group of parents (mothers) who are untouchable when it comes to getting their kids what they need. These moms make the Tiger Mom look like a bunny. And I don’t know if I can keep up.
Which is how I know that no matter how much you pull out of the rat race, no matter how much you lean out or lean in —you can’t get away from that feeling like you wish you had more. I think it’s only natural. And the people who say they don’t feel it are the people who are most out of touch with what they value.
If I were dying, I think I would keep going just like the cello teacher keeps going. Cello teachers compete by getting students to play the best they can. I would compete by steering my kids as carefully as possible so that when I am gone, they are on track to get what they want. Because that’s what I want.
And that’s what the teacher did when she sent us to the next teacher. She sent us in the right direction. But I’m not sure the teacher is right for my son. And I think the truth is that I can’t compete through someone else’s life.
That’s what you would tell me if you were my therapist. You’d say I can’t control my son’s life and there’s not really much I can do that will determine whether he goes on to have a career as a soloist.
We can only control what happens in our own life. I am focusing so much energy on the world of competitive musicians. But I can’t compete there. I am in the world of mothers. That’s where I have to compete. And competitive mothering is so humiliating because mothering should not be about competing.