My son Eli and I were playing catch. Eli had just joined a baseball team, and he was intent on practicing. He'd been throwing and catching with my husband, Paul, for weeks—on the weekend, after dinner, in the park, on the street. Now, I insisted, it was my turn. I didn't want to be the lame mother who bowed out of her children's athletic endeavors. As we started tossing the ball, I was feeling pleased with myself. I'd borrowed Paul's baseball glove, and I'd caught most of the balls that had come my way.
But after several dozen throws back and forth, Eli stopped. "Why are you catching with your hand?" he asked. He pointed to my right hand, the one without the baseball glove on it. It was true: When the ball headed to my right, I'd been catching it with my bare hand. I'd been priding myself on not dropping it, even though Eli was trying to zing the ball. But he was far more exacting. "You catch it like this," he said, crossing his body with his left hand and snapping his glove shut down low and on the right.
Was there a name for this move? I couldn't remember. I'd seen baseball players do it, for sure. But I'd never learned how to do it myself. "OK, OK," I told my frowning and scowling son. He threw a ball low and to my right. I caught it with my bare hand.
"Not like that, Mom!" Eli was now really exasperated. "Catch it with your glove!"
"OK, OK," I said again. I sounded like I was whining. Also cowering. Cowering? Because of my 9-year-old son? I straightened my shoulders. Eli threw another pitch to my right, and I caught this one, across my body, with the glove. It clapped shut over the ball with a satisfyingly loud snap. I remembered the word I was looking for. "Backhanding!" I told Eli. "That's what this is called. Backhanding."
"Yeah, I know that," he said, deadpan.
"I did it!" I called back.
"Yeah, I know," he said again. I tried to stop grinning foolishly. "Now can you throw the ball back?"
How are you supposed to feel as a parent when your child surpasses you? I know the answer: You are not supposed to feel outdone at all. That's even the wrong way to frame it. You're supposed to feel pride and joy. You are supposed to brag and boast, maybe not too obnoxiously. You are not supposed to think for one moment about how you are being left behind. Because what matters is your child's great progress. He is becoming a whiz at something he's working hard to master. You cheer him along.
And yet I have moments, as my children grow a little older, when I feel something else entirely: competitiveness tinged with envy. Surely, this is unnecessary and unworthy. Who cares whether I can catch a baseball backhanded? But part of me does. Maybe because the natural order of things is being upended: Mothers are supposed to teach; children are supposed to learn. Except now suddenly Eli is the master and I am the novice. That reversal of roles is beautiful and discomfiting at the same time.
And I'll confess that sometimes I just don't like to be bested. Even by my own kid, embarrassing as that is. I've had to face up to this with Scrabble, which Eli now beats me at. He's patient about waiting for the right place to put down his high-scoring letters—Zen on a double word score—and he's better than I am about adding letters to make new words out of the ones on the board.
Baseball, Scrabble—what's next? That's the anxiety at the root of this parental envy, I think: Our sense of mortality, fading glory, heights unscaled in a sport or skill or realm of knowledge. By doing something well, our children force us to see that we are doing that thing poorly. And they make us let go of the illusion that we'll ever do it masterfully.
Mythology and fairy tales offer examples of parents who turn pathological when faced with their children's surpassing achievements. For fathers and sons, the best or rather worst example I can think of is Cronus, who overcomes his own father, Uranus, and then actually eats his son, Zeus, after he is told that Zeus' destiny is to overpower him. In this myth, the mother is her son's defender: She fools Cronus into swallowing a stone instead of her baby and then hides Zeus so he can grow up away from his father's wrath. And then, of course, Zeus fulfills his destiny.
So Cronus was right to worry. Just like the wicked stepmothers in Cinderella and Snow White were right to worry about the threats posed by the stepdaughters they tried to squash. I think the step relationship here is fairy-tale cover for resentments that could just as well be about plain old mothers and daughters. In Snow White, the Wicked Queen is too vain to bring herself to cede the stage to the loveliness of youth. It's all very transparent: She tries to have her stepdaughter killed so that she, the older woman, can remain the fairest in all the land. I don't have daughters, but I imagine that a lot of women feel a twinge of this when their daughters turn into swanlike teenagers.
A couple of modern examples: The father (played by Robert Duvall) in The Great Santini who loses it when his son surpasses him in basketball, and starts whaling on his kid, in a riveting scene. The mother (Anne Bancroft) in The Graduate who seduces the confused Dustin Hoffman before he shows up to take her daughter on a date. I'm having a harder time coming up with examples of mothers who envy their sons in distressing or interesting ways or fathers who envy their daughters. (Ideas? Send me an e-mail.) Maybe that is because the most typical trope is about fathers trying to cling to their superior physical prowess and mothers trying to cling to their sexual powers.
But if the patterns of envy are less visible across gender lines, from mother to son and father to daughter, that doesn't mean they aren't there, beneath the surface. Novelist Zadie Smith, in an essay written after her father Harvey's death, writes about her father watching from below as she climbed the ladder of British class and education, through the lens of her father's affection for the sitcoms Fawlty Towers and Hancock's Half Hour. * She says of the latter show's bumbling male foil, "Hancock's heartbreaking inability to pass as a middle-class beatnik or otherwise pull himself out of the hole he was born in was a source of great mirth to Harvey, despite the fact that this was precisely his own situation." She continues:
And Hancock and his descendants served as a constant source of conversation between my father and me, a vital link between us when, class-wise, and in every other wise, each year placed us farther apart. As in many British families, it was university wot dunnit. When I returned home from my first term at Cambridge, we couldn't discuss the things I'd learned, about Anna Karenina, or G. E. Moore, or Gawain and his staggeringly boring Green Knight, because Harvey had never learned them. … When meditating on the sitcom, you extrapolate from the details, which in Britain are almost always signifiers of social class: Hancock's battered homburg, Fawlty's cravat, Partridge's driving gloves, Brent's fake Italian suits. It's a relief to be able to laugh at these things. In British comedy, the painful class dividers of real life are neutralized and exposed. In my family, at least, it was a way of talking about things we didn't want to talk about.
That is profound, whereas my grudging feelings when my kids outstrip me are merely mundane. Maybe I'll be spared the more wrenching kind of discomfort. But, of course, at the same time, I should hope for it. Harvey Smith may have felt bittersweet about his daughter's learning and success as it took her away from him. But the rest of us get to read her books.
This article also appears in Double X.
Correction, July 10, 2009: The original sentence left out the show Hancock's Half Hour, the reference for the quote in the next sentence. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)