On Letting Your Kids Follow Their Dreams

There we were. A family of six crammed into a trailer making a cross-country trek that was a return trip for all but one: me. I was being dropped off 1,300 miles from home to attend ballet school. The mixture of excitement and fear my 12-year-old self felt about trading in my family for my dream of being a ballerina is still vivid for me more than two decades on. As is the moment I forced a smile on my tear-stained face and waved as they drove off, the first in a seemingly endless string of goodbyes that I still struggle with to this day. Looking back, I’m floored that my parents agreed to let me leave at such a young age, especially now that I’m a mother and couldn’t imagine having the strength to let my daughter go. How did they know everything was going to be okay? How did they feel when they were pulling away? From the opposite side of the world where I now reside (Singapore), I called my parents to ask these questions and more.

THE TURNING POINT

To be honest, I didn’t even like ballet in the beginning. It wasn’t until I performed a solo at my first competition and won a gold medal that I understood what “having potential” felt like. I continued to surprise myself by winning scholarships, and somewhere along the way I fell in love with the art form. I started to thrive on the discipline ballet demanded and I loved being on stage. My parents, at this point, realized this extra-curricular activity had morphed into a growing passion. From there, it all happened quickly: auditions with two professional ballet schools, the offer of a coveted spot at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and then me begging my parents to let me go.

“I remember meeting your dad in the driveway and saying, ‘You’re never going to believe this. She got in.’ His face went white,” my mother recalls. “And when we told you, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation, you wanted to go.” For my dad, the first concern was how he was going to pay for it. “If you can imagine a floundering business I was fighting to keep afloat, four children to raise, and so many debts,” he recounts, “I didn’t know if I could do it. In the end, we had to have faith that it would work out—and put our faith in you. We saw you were determined, and your courage gave us courage.”

Obviously, the emotional repercussions it would have on the family were also an important consideration. As my mom explains, she and I had grown very close since my youngest sister, Molly, was born. I was 10 years old at the time and we had become a team. When I wasn’t dancing, I was helping care for Molly. “I was sad to be losing my oldest. I didn’t know when you were coming back. But that sadness was in contrast to me wanting you to make it, to succeed,” my mother says. “You had a special gift. I wanted it to work out for you. I wanted you to be able to leave our small town and do more.”

IT TAKES (MORE THAN) TWO

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s exactly how it felt in our small town. My extended family lived within five minutes from each other and the community itself knew us well. Unfortunately, not everyone supported the decision my parents made to let two of their children fly the coop early. (My sister, Emily, left home at 11 to join me at ballet school.) My mother recalls difficult conversations and a lot of resistance from some family members.

“Selfishly, I could have had all of my daughters together—not to mention built-in babysitters! But that wouldn’t have been fair to you. You were bright lights and I certainly wasn’t going to be the reason you didn’t shine. But some people couldn’t understand our decision,” she sighs, “and we were surprised by some of the judgment.”

My dad wishes he’d demanded support sooner from some people rather than allowing them to add to the stress by criticizing their decision. That said, he adds, there were people in the community who balanced the negativity, ones who would stop them on the street and say how much they admired what they were doing. “That always meant a lot.”

FOLLOWING MY LEAD

For many reasons, my parents weren’t able to relocate to support me as I followed my dream. They explained that at a certain point they had to just follow my lead.

“It is harder to raise your children when they are away from home. You and your sister made it easy on us. You had good heads on your shoulders,” my mom insists. “We relied on you guys to make good decisions and while we were always in communication with your host families and teachers, we mostly depended on you to parent yourselves to a certain degree.”

There was also an understanding that being at a special school meant that I had to hold up my end of the bargain. There was always the unspoken threat that if I stepped out of line, I could be kicked out. But for the most part, I was too tired from training and studying to get up to much trouble.

NEVER QUIT ON A LOW

The distance meant that I had to deal with all the ups and downs of being a teenager on my own. Homesickness, puberty, falling in (and out) of love, etc. Being away from home is only a small part of it. The hours are long and the training is hard. I wasn’t always strong and determined. There were many days I wanted to quit. At the time, when my parents wouldn’t allow it, I was furious and hurt. It was my dream—why couldn’t I stop when I wanted? Now, as an adult, I couldn’t thank them more for the strength they showed and the life lessons they offered along the way. “Quit on a high, not on a low,” they encouraged.

To their credit, they lived up to their words when my sister, Emily, wanted to quit ballet school at the end of her first year. She had just finished her exams, having passed with flying colors. She told our parents she didn’t love dance like I did and wanted to pursue acting instead. Emily had the drive and ambition, and had done her research before approaching them about it. Again, they followed her lead. She took some acting classes and at 14 years old was taking taxis around town to auditions. She started with a small role in a commercial and eventually landed leading roles on television shows and movies. Her dream came true.

My path, on the other hand, was wrought with obstacles. I suffered nagging knee injuries early into my first year. I pushed through the pain and kept training. Eventually, though, I needed surgery and then endless amounts of physiotherapy. I felt my dream was slipping away from me. That was, perhaps, the hardest part of my experience—and, as it turns out, for my father, too.

“After your knee surgery, I knew there was no chance for you to have a career in ballet, and you had worked so hard…” he tells me. “Yes, it was really sad when the doctor told us you had to stop…” my Mom says, pausing. “I think at that point you had accepted it. You still had school to finish, so you wouldn’t be coming home, but your ballet training was over and we were all going to have to come to terms with that, all while you found another path in life.”

While I had no choice but to quit on this low, I had given it my all. There was deep sadness and great loss, but no regrets. It was out of my hands.

CURTAIN CALL

My dad credits my mom’s strength for letting her children fly. When asked if they would do anything differently, they both reply no. “You weren’t going to be baby chicks in the nest forever,” he says. “At some point babies turn into adults. We raised you the best way we knew how, and you wouldn’t be the adults you are today if we had kept you under our wing.” My mom warns that this life isn’t for everyone. “I can’t recommend this for every child; every family. It’s not easy. But nothing that amounts to anything in life is, and I’m so proud of the four children I’ve raised.”

My dream of becoming a ballerina didn’t materialize, but I learned a lot along the way. Closed doors opened windows, and through them new dreams were on the horizon. I went on to open a ballet school in Shanghai, China, and traveled Asia at just 18 years old. I was a nanny for a high-profile family for five years, fulfilling my dream to work closely with children and to live in New York City. I finished university and pushed myself to explore another passion—writing—publishing two children’s books. Finally, I’m living my dream of being a mother and raising my child overseas, exposing her to many different cultures and life experiences.

As our conversation concluded, my parents ask if I would let my daughter leave home early if she had a dream like mine. I say that I can only hope I will support her the way they supported me—but joke that that may mean only having the one child so that if her dream takes her to Timbucktu, I have the option to go along… if she lets me.