The Dangers of Being an Overachieving Mother

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Aug. 19 2014 1:20 PM

The Achievement Gap

I excel at everything I do. I assumed my daughter would too. 

Toddler girl with crayon and paper.
Parenting a child with developmental delays means not obsessing about achievement.

Photo by B-C-Designs/iStock/Thinkstock

It never occurred to me that my newborn daughter would be anything but extraordinary. It’s not just that I’d curated a killer registry, availed myself of the best experts, and moved to a precious town just this side of Mayberry. It’s that secretly, deep down, I knew I was extraordinary. I had treated my life like a test I could ace with the right mix of hard work and moxie; naturally, my daughter would do the same.

I was a single mom by choice at 37, and if my love life hadn’t quite panned out, most everything else had. I was a classic “amazing girl”—driven, social, and relentlessly well-rounded—reveling in the fruits of post-Title IX America: an all-metro athlete in high school, Rhodes Scholar at 24, best-selling author by 27. My anonymous sperm donor is an (allegedly) gifted musician.

When my daughter was born, I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. Breast-feeding.  Baby carrier. Wooden toys. But one day, when she was just over a year old, her nanny wouldn’t make eye contact with me.  “I’m worried she’s not making enough sounds,” she finally blurted out. And suddenly I heard the silence, the way you one day notice a tree or a house on a street you’ve driven down a hundred times before. My daughter did not babble, or engage in a back-and-forth gurgle with me. Her voice did not inflect.

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I went online. I called speech therapists, then state-funded early intervention. I pressed them with anxious questions, hoping I was wrong about what I was seeing, and not hearing, from my daughter. Standing in line at a café, and playing at the parents center in town, I craned my neck to eavesdrop on the emerging voices of other babies. Jealous and embarrassed, I avoided mommy friends whose young toddlers could talk.

“Don’t worry,” my friends said. “Lots of babies favor motor development over speech.” This felt like code for, “Don’t worry, she’s probably gifted in another way.” But my daughter wasn’t walking, either.

A team of early intervention therapists appeared at my front door on a humid July morning to conduct an evaluation. At 14 months, my girl had just learned to walk, and she careened around the living room like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters: reckless and destructive, smiling maniacally, drunk on her new upright power.

The therapists cajoled and waited patiently, but my daughter could not be bothered to complete many of the evaluative tasks. If she could have spoken, I’m sure she would have said, “Whatever, you guys.” I felt myself grow impatient, then angry with her. What was wrong with my daughter? Why couldn’t she do this? When I asked if she might be a little young to take such a long test, a therapist said gently, “Most children her age can complete the evaluation.”

The paperwork arrived soon after: multiple developmental delays, mild to moderate, in every category: cognitive, spatial, social-emotional.

The therapists came every Thursday. They taught my daughter to ask for help so she could avoid the frustration of not being able to communicate, but their presence only amplified my anxiety. Was she making progress, and quickly enough? Against their wishes, I began urging my daughter to repeat words I said. “Car.” “Ball.” “Moo.” One morning, sitting on the playroom floor, she refused. I shouted at her, and she began to wail.

How I wish I could erase that horrible moment. I’ve spent years in therapy excavating my endless, often fruitless drive to overachieve. I have learned that being successful hasn’t made me happy. It’s just made me successful. I even call myself a recovering overachiever. But, as a parent, I had relapsed.

From that day forward, I resolved to make a change. I unsubscribed from paranoia-inducing BabyCenter emails (Ball, dog, and bye may be your child's favorite words at 14 months, but not mine), and tried to refocus my obsession with my daughter’s progress. I began observing her other qualities, which I am embarrassed to admit I either hadn’t noticed or valued before: her curiosity, her kindness, her fearless sense of adventure, and her playfulness. My daughter loved animals, jumping off a pile of pillows, and FaceTime with her grandmother.

I also noticed, and valued, a change in me. The rewards that come with celebrating my girl’s rich character have given me permission to see the fullness of my own. Even though she couldn’t speak, draw, or write, my toddler daughter communicated to me what years of therapy still hadn’t drummed into my thick skull. I notice now that I’m an adventurous cook, a risk-taker, and a forgiving friend.

About six months ago, my daughter, then 22 months, began scaling play structures meant for preschoolers. She sprinted down the sidewalk at a bewildering speed. A few weeks ago came the first somersault. “She’s so advanced,” murmured one of the other parents. Warmth spread through my chest. “Really?” I asked, as if I didn’t care or notice. The seduction of parenting the exceptional child creeps back so easily. Or it never fully goes away.

When people ask about my kid, I almost always mention the speech delay. I’d like to stop doing that. The decision not to define my daughter by her achievements does not mean it’s fair to label her by what she has yet to accomplish. I hope she’ll forgive me. Her mom has a lot to learn.

Rachel Simmons is the author of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence and co-founder of Girls Leadership Institute. Follow her on Twitter.