Parental Disappointment On Display

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Parental overshare essays can subdivided into various subgenres. One of those is the very successful parent of an academically-mediocre child. The essay may be about the parent coming to terms with the fact that Junior will not get into to a college William Deresiewicz has strong feelings about. The author inevitably becomes a better person, and parent, in the process, and should be congratulated.

Another subgenre is the child with a difficulty of some kind. Not a problem so severe as to prevent the child from ever having the capacity to read the article. (Those parents suffer enough, and should feel free to share as they see fit. As should parents of adult children who are merely responding to the children’s complaints about them.) But something that’s either medical or just highly personal, that taps into whichever cultural concerns, and where the parent-writer can tell him or herself that they’re really doing a service, as if awareness-raising somehow cancels out the potential destruction of their child’s reputation. While the parents who write such pieces surely do so in part out of concern for their children and others in the same situation – it’s not just professional aspiration and a desire to write what the market plainly demands – these pieces make it so that a child will grow up with his or her identity already being associated with some biographical detail he or she might have preferred not to share, or at least not to lead with.

Rachel Simmons merged these two subgenres into a personal essay about being an academic superstar with an underachieving child. Except that the underachieving has a medical component – her child, she explains, is developmentally delayed, if still quite young. It’s ambiguous from the article whether this is a condition that will long affect her kid, or whether the tragedy is that her daughter may turn out to be of average intelligence. But one almost has to guess it’s the latter, given how much of the piece is devoted to the author’s own brilliance:

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.

And:

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.

There’s more, but there’s also the title (and subtitle) that presumably someone at Slate chose to frame the piece: “The Achievement Gap: I excel at everything I do. I assumed my daughter would too.” This is being presented more as a story about a parent who fears a kid’s mediocrity than of one struggling with a child’s disability. Nothing in the piece suggests the daughter in question won’t one day read her mother’s article. And it’s that, and not the humblebragging, that I find objectionable.

It seems cruel to write, of your own kid, “It never occurred to me that my newborn daughter would be anything but extraordinary.” It’s saying that you think your child is ordinary. So not only will this kid have to grow up knowing that her late acquisition of verbal skills is public knowledge, but she’ll also have to contend with a public account of exactly how disappointed that made her mother.