Life’s work

Emma Wilkins asks: we expect our parents to love us self-sacrificially, but do we want to be their life’s work?

For all the advice out there on being a perfect parent, I’m yet to meet one.

To be fair, it’s not an easy gig. You devote yourself to another’s wellbeing, you place them at the centre of your life, only to have them fly (or flee) the nest, and live a life that—if you’ve done your job right—won’t centre around you.

In her memoir When it Rains, Maggie MacKellar recalls her mother telling a friend that she felt she’d given her kids everything they needed to make their way through life. “Everything, that is, except the ability to cope with her death,” she writes.

“I stood listening to her talking. As always, it irritated me that she’d made this—us—her life’s work; had sacrificed herself so completely for her children.”

MacKellar’s reaction surprised me. I could see how a parent putting some other passion or ambition first might cause resentment; I hadn’t realised that making a child their whole reason for being might be just as fraught.

We expect our parents to love us unconditionally and self-sacrificially, but do we want to be their life’s work? To spend our adult lives weighed down by a debt we can’t repay, expectations we can’t meet, a sacrifice we are not worthy of?

My father died when I was young and my mother was devoted to us kids. But I never felt pressure to be her reason for being. You see, she already had one. It didn’t take her love and attention from me—if anything it made her more loving and attentive. The object of her worship, the centre of her life, was never me. But it wasn’t something lesser, it was someone greater.