A letter to my younger self about a challenging child

This letter was co-created for a Letters To My Younger Self Seminar at Executive Women’s Day at The John Deere Classic in July of 2013

Marie Z. Ziegler is Vice President and Deputy Financial Officer for Deere & Company, a position she’s held since January of 2013. Marie is responsible for the company’s investor relations, treasury and pension fund and investment operations.

Marie’s current position caps a 35-year career at Deere. She joined the company in 1978 as a consolidation accountant and has pretty much covered the waterfront in finance since then–holding management positions in finance, treasury operations, strategic planning and investor and banking relations. She became Vice President and Treasurer for the company, her job prior to this one, in November 2010.

One of the most important roles Marie took on was at age 28. She and her husband, Dale, had tried to start a family but Marie could not get pregnant. They ultimately adopted two girls. Their oldest, Ana, is Filipino. A tiny girl, Ana had an outsized sense of determination from the very beginning. “She was the kind of child who didn’t want to snuggle with you. She wanted the back of her head against your chest so that she could see what was going on around her,” recalls Marie.

As she grew, Ana always knew her own mind and stubbornly stuck to it, whether it meant refusing to play Barbies (even though she wanted the company of other little girls) or insisting upon joining the football team as a 4’10” seventh grader.

Always a distinctive character trait, Ana’s willfulness particularly tested Marie one Sunday afternoon, when Ana was ten years old. They were at home in Marie’s office because Marie and her husband had insisted that Ana write a paper that was due the next day.

The homework became an escalating battle. Seeing that Ana’s work was sloppy and that she wasn’t following directions, Marie tried to suggest corrections and improvements. Ana didn’t want Marie’s help and grew cantankerous about it, yelling at her mother, “I can do it myself!!”

Livid that Ana was lashing out at her, Marie remembers thinking, “If I stay in this room I will say or do something I will regret.” So she left the office and went into the family room. With a terrible sense of despair she looked at her husband, Dale, and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it through the teenage years.”

Now 55, Marie chose to write to her younger self at this moment, when she was 38 years old.

Dear Marie,

You are truly shaken right now. Your child was yelling at you. She is vehemently rejecting you and your help. Her belligerence is scary. And your own capacity for anger is frightening, too. Ana isn’t even 13 yet. If she’s like this now, what will she be like as a teenager?

You thought parenting would be so much easier than this. If it’s this stormy between the two of you now, how will you possibly have the loving, affectionate relationship with your daughter that you’d always imagined?

Underneath these worries is another deep and urgent fear: You’re afraid that you’re doing something really wrong. You, the one who works so hard at everything, the one who tries to do it all perfectly. It feels like all of this is on your shoulders.

And despite your best efforts, you seem to be failing.

Conflict with Ana is making you doubt yourself in the deepest way. You feel incompetent and wonder if you should stop working. Would it make you a better parent? You are not sure if you could live with yourself if, down the road, you realized you could have been a better mother by being at home full-time.

Marie, there are things you could be doing better—and you will find them. First, and maybe most important, understand that you are not alone. You’re the oldest of your siblings, so you haven’t seen any of them raise their kids yet. As you’ll learn, many, many kids have issues of one kind or another.

Next, get help. When you decide to confide in a few people, you’ll discover a psychologist who will help you find some key tools. You’ll learn to pick your battles…to stay mum about the state of Ana’s room and about her clothing—as long as she’s adequately covered. You’ll learn to soften your bossy tendencies by explaining why a task has to be done a certain way, rather than simply barking out an order.

All of this won’t turn your stubborn Ana into sweetness and light. Sorry, no. But these are the first steps toward giving Ana some space to be Ana, rather than who you might like her to be.

There will still be plenty of battles. But I can tell you some things that will sound like miracles. You aren’t cursed. You both will survive and thrive. Ana will grow up to become a responsible citizen. She will pay all her own bills. She will graduate from college. She will have a powerful dream about becoming a film director.

The two of you will have a wonderful relationship. Which in turn will allow you and your husband to have a wonderful relationship with her family.

Hang in there, my friend.