Outlier versus Outsider

by Chloe Jeffreys · 42 comments

in Adult Kids, Sandwich Generation


That’s the first word that popped into my head when I woke up this morning at 4am.  I went to bed hoping to sleep like the dead until at least 10, but my dog started scratching himself and woke me up, dammit.

I was in the middle of a vivid dream about two friends who have cancer, and then one of them died…My husband and I threw a large party at a restaurant where I showed off my new series of nudes (which I don’t have, by the way)…Our waiter stole my purse and hid it in a parking lot full of semis…While I was searching for my purse, my daughter showed up hugely pregnant (she’s not pregnant at all)…She then gave birth to several large, clear plastic baby bottles…I woke up as my son and I were sliding down Lombard Street on our asses.

I’m sure you’ve had this dream before, too, right?

I’m guessing my unconscious had a lot to work through last night. I wish it would have left me out of it because it was a busy weekend of back-to-back 12-hour shifts, that included—among many other things—three deliveries in four hours, and I’m tired. Let’s just get it out here in the open right now—being a labor and delivery nurse isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, okay?

On top of that, thanks to reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I’ve been revisiting Regretsville.

You know, I could have been—should have been—was supposed to be—an Outlier, but I’ve ended up only being an Outsider. Off and on over the years, I’ve felt bad about this, but, as Gladwell points out so clearly, it never mattered how smart I was because I never had a snowball’s chance.

My teachers were right: I don’t live up to my potential, and I talk too much.


My parents—with the school’s blessing—put me in 1st grade when I was 4 years old. The only thing I remember about the 1st grade was getting rapped once on the knuckles with a ruler for my bad hand-writing.  Physical violence didn’t help. My hand-writing is still indecipherable, even by me.

When I seven years old, I was tested for the gifted program with an eye towards skipping me from the 3rd to the 4th grade. I failed the test. Not only did I fail the test, but my mother was told that I failed it so spectacularly that the teacher wondered if I’d failed it on purpose. I really don’t remember. The only question I recall from the test had to do with the word “ochre”.

Hell, maybe I did fail it on purpose. I have no idea who thought that it would be a good idea to put a seven-year-old in the 4th grade.  Did none of the adults in my life not see that this was a bad idea? Why did I have to do the work for them? Shouldn’t they have been looking out for me?

I’m saddened to think that maybe I did sacrifice myself intellectually to save myself emotionally. I’ll never know. And now I’m too dumb to figure it out.

The Forest through the Trees

One of the things I really like about Gladwell is his sociological approach to understanding human phenomena. He’s a forest-through-the-trees sort of guy, which I appreciate. He realizes that things don’t happen in a vacuum. People, even very successful people, are the way they are for reasons, and if we only understand the reasons then we’ll understand the person and the process. Most of us—including me—are too busy trying to make ourselves feel better about our own smallness to really look to see what other people’s reasons are.

Why are some people Democrats and some people Republicans? Why is one person pro-choice and another pro-life? Does it really just boil down to morality? Are we self-made? Do we make our own choices? Or is something deeper—hidden—going on? Are the people who think differently and act differently than you and me really that different? Are there other forces at play here? I think so, and I like that Gladwell is willing to look in unique places to find those other forces.


In Outliers, Gladwell looks at the forces at work among the exceptionally successful. For instance, your birthday matters in systems that use arbitrary age cut-offs to determine eligibility. He goes into a lot of detail about Canadian ice hockey and why the vast majority of the best players are born in January, February and March.

Reading the 10,000 hour rule, I understand exactly why The Pioneer Woman is The Pioneer Woman. Ree Drummond did exactly what other outliers like Bill Gates and The Beatles did. She spent 10,000 hours perfecting her art in a field that didn’t even exist while no one was looking. If Gladwell were writing his book today, maybe he’d even include her story.

It makes me wonder who is out there right now spending hours and hours doing something obscure that nobody is paying any attention to. What will be the next big thing and who will be its Outlier?

Worse than my own pathetic failures, I read this book and now feel like a totally shitty parent.  Like everybody else, I tried to raise outliers, but I think I’ve only accomplished raising two more outsiders. I feel really bad about that.

I homeschooled my kids to give them different advantages; to give them the opportunity to live outside the box, and to learn to think for themselves. I probably should have spent the time instead ferrying them around to team sports, forcing them to practice the piano (a la Tiger Mother), and teaching them how to get along better with others.  I spent my precious parenting time pointing out the naked emperors all around us, and showing them how to pull back the curtain to see that there aren’t any real Wizards in Oz.

Gladwell says I did this because of my family background of poverty and because I come from the lower class. He says I can’t help but feel adversarial towards authority because that’s what comes from growing up poor.

Little Boxes Made of Ticky Tacky

I apologized to my daughter today. Again. I seem to spend a lot of my time apologizing to my kids these days. I really feel like I’ve fucked it all up. She keeps trying to reassure me, which isn’t right either. Reassuring me is not her job.

I watched all of my friends drag their children around from one activity to the next, and I thought it was bullshit. I didn’t want that life for my kids. I never wanted them to end up being made out of ticky tacky.

What I didn’t realize is that I’d end up with two kids who would reject my emperor. I didn’t realize that I’d end up with two kids who would take such large gambles with their lives. And I sure as hell didn’t realize that I would raise two kids who would both refuse to step into their little boxes, even if this time it would make me a lot happier.


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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

IntheMiddleofIt October 23, 2013 at 6:21 am

Hi Chloe! Sorry I am so late in joining the discussion on this post! I stumbled across your blog the other day googling something, and I am quite hooked. I have read with fascination the stories surrounding your own childhood and your experiences through motherhood. I am a home educating mother of four with one on the way, and over the short years since having our first child I’ve already begun to realise that who and what your children become is far less under your “control”, regardless of what your naive new-mother-self might have dreamt. I was fascinated by your comment that the boy who cried to his mother to have a night off from activities may end up running a corporation because she didn’t give up, but in my mind I wonder just how happy that corporation CEO is with himself and his life? As I’m sure you’ve probably said on your blog already (really enjoyed your post on FTO), surely the relationships in your life are most important, though I acknowledge that no one wants to be poor, per se. Each person’s measure of success is different, without a doubt.

I find myself right in the middle of this situation of raising our children, where my heart says the children need to run around all day building dens out of cushions, but also occasionally be lovingly required to actually learn something. That said, I’m thrilled that my eldest (8 years old) is devouring a children’s novel a day and will read us out of house and home if I don’t get to a bigger library soon… And I agree that as you said, choosing to home educate is hugely going against authority (particularly here in the UK where it is far less common than the US), and we can’t expect our children not to imbibe our rebellious leanings. That said, quite frankly I think we have chosen to home educate in large part because we want our children to think for themselves, not to blithely do as others do. I do hope and pray that they also learn to be caring, respectful and understand the true meaning of “love thy neighbour”, even if they do choose to be a CEO, doctor or grossly overpaid professional athlete. Lol.


Chloe Jeffreys October 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Dear In the Middle of It,

Thanks for your lovely comment. I was out of the country and wasn’t able to reply sooner.

I also wanted children who thought for themselves, but must admit that I thought that meant that they would think like ME. 😉

I think your knowing that in the end the success of your parenting should be judged on the content of your children’s character and not on the color of the money in their bank accounts will serve you well in the long run. Although we really don’t have control over their characters, we can do our best to model that what really matters is what is inside us, and how we behave towards others, than how much we earn.


Lisa September 21, 2012 at 3:25 am

Well, at least it’s not just me.


Negin September 21, 2012 at 3:04 am

Chloe, I’ve read that book twice and I hate it. I regret reading it. I despise it and want to burn it.

Love this blog and can relate to so much of what you say. Thank you. I feel all teary-eyed and emotional now.

By the way, on a different note, how do I get a picture when I post a comment?


BigLittleWolf September 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm

This is a massive (and unending?) discussion, or perhaps, a dozen different but interrelated massive and unending discussions.

We are rarely who or what we imagine ourselves to be, or should I say, become.

What forms us?

All the phenomena you mention – and no doubt – a bit of luck, or lack thereof. How many lives were changed irrevocable in a moment of good or bad fortune?

Perhaps the goal of being (or raising) outliers also dances around our definitions of “success,” and I won’t even stick a toe in the water of the “Happiness Industry” – not here, anyway. (Been there, done that, do that from time to time.)

You homeschooled and chose not to chauffeur here-there-and-everywhere; I relied on public schools but also chose not to chauffeur here-there-and-everywhere, at least – until circumstances made it utterly necessary for one of my sons in high school or he could never have pursued his passion – the arts and architecture. (Ever tried to tell a kid to walk home 3.5 miles with a 10 pound backpack and carrying a massive architectural model – um, without dropping or wrecking the model in the process, in the rain?)

So we twist our routines (careers, personal lives, finances) around what we deem is best, just trying to give our kids chances as well as lessons. Where will that lead them?

One… hopefully, to something that fulfills him and helps him make a living. Another? We hope the same. But do we ever really know until they’re adults and they, in turn are on to raising their own next generation?

An individual’s dreams are often exchanged for a parent’s dreams, and naturally, with no guarantee.

At least, that’s how I see it.

I doubt that makes me an outlier, an inlier, or anything other than a woman who loves her children, but still wishes she could have seen her personal dreams from childhood a bit closer to realized.

Like millions of others?
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Chloe September 19, 2012 at 8:55 am

I agree that Gladwell’s definition of success is too limited, but I imagine he went with the definition used by this culture. Prestige and money are what we’re all supposed to chase, right? But what about contentment? What about healthy interpersonal and intimate relationships? Or is the idea that money can’t buy happiness something the rich just tell the poor to keep them (us) content?

I did the best I could do with what I felt was right at the time, and I still don’t think a Type-A life of go-go-go is desirable. Although there are still things I really want to accomplish before I die, I do feel successful by my own standards of success. It’s just sometimes I must need to wallow in the quagmire of parenting self-recrimination.

I hope my kids turn out all right. I hope they realize I did the best I could. I hope I didn’t handicap them too much by the choices I made for them. I hope in the end they can forgive me for any wrong I did, and love me for all the good I did try to do. I did really try to be a good mother.


Lori Jo Vest September 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Funny, Chloe, that I read Outliers, too, and all I could think of was what I’d want to spend 10,000 hours on so that I could be that good at something.

I was raised poor, too, and have never been able to push my son into anything. I’ll never forget when he didn’t want to practice and do drills when he played soccer because he told me, “I never said I wanted to be a professional soccer player!” He simply refused to go after the first session, not giving a rat’s butt if I had paid $100 for the program. Nope, he wasn’t going to do it.

The upside is that he is an individual with a strong sense of self. He goes to a public “magnet school” that’s all honors and HE wanted it, I didn’t have to push. When you don’t push, they learn to explore on their own. You just have to be there for a bit of guidance and that’s good enough.

I’m sure you’re a perfectly imperfect fantastic parent, just like the rest of us.



Chloe September 19, 2012 at 8:57 am

I wondered that, too. What is the thing that I should be doing right now that I’m not because I’m doing this instead? I wish I knew.


Patti Persia September 18, 2012 at 10:59 am

Hmm. I’m intrigued. I was raised poor and I work my ass off not to be now. I wonder how that colors my parenting? Im the same about my kids enjoying their childhoods and not being scheduled every minute. I see slackers in my future! But I also raise my kids to look beyond the curtain and read their labels. I raise them to be kind and polite but to stand up for themselves. It’s hard to imagine that I’d tell them to stand up to authority since I send them to Christian school. But you know what, I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of kids I’d want. And I have them, 100% they are the exact children I thought I’d have. So I must be doing something right!


Chloe September 19, 2012 at 8:59 am

I know! Did I raise slackers, or people capable of stopping to smell the roses? I guess I won’t know for many more years to come.

I really objected to his hypothesis that you can’t be polite and successful. I just think that’s bullshit. Rude people are rude. They may get what they want, but getting what you want isn’t all there is to living a good, successful life.

And I’m still unclear on how you can be both adversarial to authority and overly polite at the same time. Those two things seem at odds with each other to me.


magpie September 18, 2012 at 7:57 am

i love that you ended with little boxes – i too don’t want my kid to grow up to be ticky tacky in a box.
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Magnolia September 18, 2012 at 6:55 am

As I usually do, when I saw all of those words, I had a slight panic attack and commenced to skimming the post looking for the topic sentence in each paragraph. So, if I missed something significant in your over-all point, forgive me.

That said. Here’s my question: Free will?

Are we just not able to actively participate in who we become and where we want to go?

Because I tend to believe that nothing matters except what you believe. Now, actually GETTING to what you believe and why is a process.

But, “keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” is my mantra.
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Chris September 18, 2012 at 6:08 am

Then there are all the books on how horrible push-parenting is and how it makes your kid not able to think for themselves and stresses everyone out and steals their childhood….
Whatever one does as a parent, whatever choices one makes, someone is going to throw bricks at it. Some will even have pretty charts to demonstrate why brick throwing is appropriate.
Lovely Chloe, don’t let another person’s idea of how things should be make you miserable. You have wonderful children. You did a good job with them. They will invite you to spend Christmas at their houses.


Jack September 18, 2012 at 1:36 am

I loved Outliers and I think it is filled with smart crap and contradictions. It was just fun. If you spend 10,000 hours practicing you will get to be pretty damn good at whatever it is.

But luck always plays a role in life. Sometimes it roles our way and sometimes it doesn’t.

Parenting is one of those things that can make you crazy if you let it.There are a million different places where you can look back and think about things you could have done better or differently.

The thing is that you won’t ever know because you can’t go back in time. So we have to just accept we did our best and that sometimes our kids will make mistakes regardless of how well we prepared them.
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Sharon September 17, 2012 at 9:42 pm

And this would be why I don’t read non-fiction. Reading 50 Shades makes me feel like a damn fine parent!


Chloe September 17, 2012 at 9:45 pm

LOL! That’s truth. I don’t feel bad about my parenting at all reading that.


Shorty September 17, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I could have wrote this- (if I was you.) Ha! really, many similarities. And who would have thought what a dangerous game we are playing? Homeschooling is putting it all on the line and then having the leftovers of a lifetime to inspect the errors. (Given my personality I suppose that’s what I’ll do. ) I am happy I have you to show me the pitfalls of the next 5 years…. preparing rubber room.

Truly, I have terrific kids- and I know you do too. Having them be the independant thinkers and risk takers- well that’s not so much what I planned for. Adjusting my expectations daily. And praying- lots of that. And I do trust it will be ok. More than ok. As it is with your wonderful children- you know it is.


Chloe September 17, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Please leave room in your rubber room for me. I need it!!

Luckily I don’t stay in this place much anymore. The first year they were out was terrible, but each year has gotten easier. I really was thrown for a loop at how hard this book hit me. I think it was a trigger that needed pulling though. It is easier to work through things if you are aware of them.
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Angela Parson Myers September 17, 2012 at 6:40 pm

I raised my kids to be individuals, and they are. My older daughter was the straight A student and Phi Beta Kappa who is now a writer who has had an Amazon best seller. My younger daughter hated high school, wanted to be a dancer/choreographer, didn’t start college till after she started a family, and wound up a professor teaching nursing in a state university. I did a lot of things wrong, but I like both my kids–and all four of my grandkids. I think Gladwell was right when he attributes extreme success not only to intelligence and hard work, but a large proportion of good luck in being born at the right time to the right family in the right place.


Chloe September 17, 2012 at 8:45 pm

I think he’s right about that, too. Bill Gates was a smart kid, there’s no doubt about that. But he also attended a junior high school that had a computer lab that was more sophisticated than most large corporations had at the time. In fact, when I was in the 8th grade we didn’t have a computer lab at all. I took a typing class on a manual typewriter!

And if we did, then it was certainly not anything a girl could have done. Girls were still relegated to home economics while boys took auto shop and wood working.
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Maddie Kertay September 17, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I read Outliers on a flight back from Utah about 2 years ago and my take went in a totally different direction since in the end I decided that it just did not matter. That while I could will and bend things as much as possible in my desired direction I really had no idea the outcome of these choices so could only make my best choice in any one moment and then had to emotionally move on knowing that I did the best that I could do.

So yes maybe had I forced son #2 to play the bassoon in homeschool band he would not have picked up the guitar and become a hard rock hero who has a deep and abiding love of weed.. but who knows and I have given myself permission to let that go, his choices are in fact his own since I am not sure that predestination trumps a solid personal choice. .. and I give you the same permission.
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Chloe September 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm

I felt pretty good up to a point and then I just started to beat the hell out of myself.

One of the things that has always struck me is the irony of homeschooling and homeschooling moms. So many really are rebels, but then somehow expect that they are going to raise conformists who submit to authority. Where in the world would a homeschool mother get such a nutty idea. Homeschooling is non-conformity. Kids do what you do, not what you say. That’s an adage as old as the hills.

I’m not surprised at how things turned out (okay, the weed part has me thrown), but I’m surprised at my reaction to it and how stressed it’s made me. I wonder if getting older has affected me by making me less able to tolerate risk?
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mindy trotta September 17, 2012 at 6:10 pm

I can’t even count to 10,000, let alone do the same thing 10,000 times. (It’s the ADD, you know.) I too tried to raise Outliers. The thing is I didn’t know it at the time, and neither did they. P.S.: They aren’t. They think outside the box, but not a big box. We’re all just treading water. I apologize to them for things like yelling at them for wetting the bed, and they look at me as if I am crazy…and I guess I am. It’s very hard to live up to your idea of what the epitome of a parent should be. It’s time to stop beating ourselves up for not reaching the apex. Someday…


Chloe September 17, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I can’t wait for that Someday. I had no idea I still had so many buttons about this to push. This book pushed them all. Outliers by their very nature must be rare. We can’t all be one or raise one.
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Jo Heroux September 17, 2012 at 5:48 pm

I will not be reading that book. I have enough ill feelings about the scars I put on my poor adorable children. I do not need some emperor loving creative writer telling me I really ruined them with my choices.

I will say this…I know that there was never a day in my children’s lives that they wondered if their Momma loved them. Not a day when they wondered if they had disappointed me. Not a day, even now, that they wonder if I am proud of who they have become. And not a day that their Momma hasn’t wondered if she couldn’t have done more and better.

I believe that is parenting 101. Seriously. Whatever you do or did, you will always feel it wasn’t enough or wasn’t right.
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Chloe September 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm

I do know my children know I loved them and I gave them the best i had to give. They know that my mistakes were unintentional and that if I’d known better or had more I would have done it or given it.

I learned from that to give my parents some grace too. I write here about some of the painful aspects of growing up, but honestly my parents did the bet they could with what they had. I think that’s all that we can do.

But every now and then I must beat myself up. The periods of time between these episodes of self-recrimination get farther apart and the episodes themselves lessen in severity, but they are still happening.
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Susan in the Boonies September 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm

I think you should go read some of the scathing reviews of Outliers that I read last night on Amazon, when I was trying to decipher why you would tell me, while I was in the midst of a “Vanity, Vanity, All My Parenting Is Vanity” crying jag, not to go read Outliers.
They pretty well raked his book over the coals in the reader’s reviews section, calling it well written BS. Saying that he had dressed his emperor up nicely, but all in all, his emperor really WAS nekkid. Based on that, and your advice, I’ll be avoiding it.
I sure do relate to the feelings that I read that underlie this post. And for that, I send you an empathetic hug.
And down with Germy Shepherds (or any breed) who wake us up in the AM, unbidden.
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Chloe September 17, 2012 at 6:26 pm

There are big, gaping holes all over this book and his conclusions. Personally I don’t think your kid is an Outlier just because ended up a doctor, lawyer or Indian Chief. I know some very mediocre doctors and some brilliant nurses.

Rachel, my daughter, made a very good point that just like we all can’t win the soccer trophy (and have the trophy have any meaning) we can’t raise an Outlier. And Gladwell does do a magnificent job in showing that Outliers are made by a village and not just by the parents who raise them.
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Ginger September 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm

I had a similar reaction when I read Outliers a few months ago. Where he talks about the affluent teaching their children to assert themselves towards those with authority from a young age, whereas the working class teaches their children to be polite: yeah, I had polite kids who did not get driven all over town for activities. I never pushed them to stick with something they didn’t like. I didn’t want them to be those over-scheduled, over-tired children whose parents run their lives. I wanted them to enjoy goofing off and being kids and exploring options. I let them make their own decisions. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, I feel like I have handicapped them for life. Probably my future grandchildren, too.
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Anne (@notasupermom) September 17, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Same here, Ginge. I thought I was giving my kids a relaxed childhood, but now I feel like I just raised slackers.
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Ginger September 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm

At least we can be slacker moms together.
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Robin September 21, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Oh Anne,

That is exactly how I feel, lately – and I haven’t read the derned book yet.


I did the same thing regarding lots of activities. *sigh* I think my niggling worries about how I educated and raised my oldest (who is 6 years older than youngest) have affected my decision to put my daughter in the local charter school (which she loves, btw).
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Chloe September 22, 2012 at 9:20 am

I think it would have been a blessing had there been a larger age gap between my first and my second. Unfortunately, I made all the same mistakes twice.


Chloe September 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Doesn’t it just suck? I have not had this level of self-doubt in a year. I thought imaginative play and freedom to pursue individual interests was important. And now I’m just not so sure.

I do remember a good friend confiding in me that one of her children would cry about being so tired and wanting just one night at home where they didn’t have to go do something. I thought it was sad. He’ll probably run a corporation someday because his mother didn’t give in though.
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Ginger September 17, 2012 at 8:18 pm

It does suck, especially since this feeling of being totally responsible is as ridiculous as it is inescapable. I end up chastising myself for chastising myself.
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Chloe September 17, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Isn’t that the truth? I do that too. You just win the mom game. The dice are loaded, the cards are marked, and the fix is in.
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Sharon Greenthal September 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

First of all, I believe we have the same dog.

Second, my teachers said the same things about me. AND I started 1st grade when I was 4 too. So we are soul sisters.

It doesn’t matter how hard we try to steer our children in a direction we think will work – they will find what they want in life and do it no matter what we think. To be an Outlier is to be beyond the norm in so many profound ways – not easy for mere mortals.
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Chloe September 17, 2012 at 7:09 pm

This phase of parenting is so much harder than any before it. All the doubts and worries about their futures are so palpable to me. And it doesn’t help that our economy sucks and there’s so much competition . I can’t help but worry. And wonder if I’ve failed them by preparing them for individuality instead of conformity.
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Ang September 18, 2012 at 8:24 am

I know. We’ve got five ranging from age 6-17 and it just seems to keep getting harder.


Chloe September 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

I find this stage of parenting–parenting young adults–to be the most difficult so far. Everything up until now was a breeze. It is much harder to have to stand back and watch and wait. I really don’t like it much.


Anne @notasupermom September 17, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Maybe it’s time to switch back to smut?
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Chloe September 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm

LOL! Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty of smut to pull me out of this.
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