Parents often push through the days with a sense that our children’s essential beings were tucked inside those tiny bodies and presented to us personally. The magnitude of the work of parenting is daunting, that feeling we have to know best for our children when the second we’ve got it figured out, something shifts to prove us wrong. How do we distill life’s most important lessons, parse them into teachable age-appropriate moments? What is right and wrong, and how does anyone grapple with the world in which we live?

One day, somewhere in the muddle (yes, muddle!) of parenting teens, I read or heard something that more than once has lifted some of that heavy weight. Our children are not given to us because of what we can or must offer them. We get the children who have something to teach us.

When my son was young, his dawdling through tasks or procrastinating against immovable deadlines led to the diagnosis of ADD. We stress-checked all the boxes of ways to support him, yet after encouraging him by telling him how smart he was, coaching him to approach things differently, I often felt like a bad parent. So much focus, no pun, on one tiny part of him by every adult, including us, left him defining himself by that one tiny part. Finally, when one classmate made a snide comment, in our frustration we began to talk up what he did well more consistently, and the things that slid, well, they slid a bit. But ADD became beside the point. It wasn’t HIM.

Drumming? Fine. We became the loudest house on the block. Cameras? Here you go, see what you can do. By high school, the boy who “couldn’t focus” practiced drums for hours. A surprisingly good rock band formed in our basement and played local fundraisers. The boy who skimmed over details obsessed about filming and editing footage of friends longboarding, perfecting videos, then videos for peers’ classroom assignments. Student project groups with kids I hadn’t seen since Little League spent hours hunched over my son at the PC, gifts of food and once a huge tub of mums from grateful mothers filling the kitchen.

How many articles do we all read, nodding as we do, that tell us we need to find our purpose, that we should peel back the layers to find ourselves at our core, to engage in what engages us? We were so proud we had helped our son find that.

And then. Our daughter, ridiculously intelligent and creative, ended middle school suddenly wracked with self-doubt. In high school, she began to hate getting up, forced herself into that building to do what had to be done, yet withdrew. Panic set in, stronger this time. What should she do? What could we do? The search was on for the right book, the right advice.

It took us two years to stumble back on the same lesson with another layer. Nobody can tell you who you are. You have to find it in yourself so you believe it is there. It’s not okay to let your child try a new path, no matter what you think about it, it’s essential. Yes, even in hyper-competitive high school. Especially then, no matter what anyone else says, as long as they learn to move forward. Our daughter tested different ideas, got bored with many of them, veering in and out of her love for the arts. Only in the process did we relearn that our job is to love her unconditionally, to encourage her to explore life on her terms, letting her figure out how solid the foundation is and build on it from there.

It’s a damn hard lesson to learn. It’s scary because you feel you are letting go, letting them drop, but you are not. It is about meeting them where they are, not where they should be, and walking with them, then behind them, as they move toward their own path, their own purpose.

These days the boy is a professional cinematographer paying his own bills from Day One out of college, balancing art and commerce in enervating swings. (“We were having drinks with the producer-boyfriend of — A-List celeb name here – and he got really excited about our project…”) The girl is in college, following dreams in much the same direction, already asked to PA on a small independent short. They are happy, nervous and excited, testing new paths all the time but with the confidence to hone in on what is best at the moment, in the moment. All we ever should have been doing from the start was to love them for them and protect that.

Which brings us back to the point that we get the children who teach us the lessons we need to learn. Never more than in our Second Act do we need to find the courage to strip away the “should” and “could” we hear from others and ourselves. What is engaging and rewarding? What makes you want to work harder and gives back tenfold? If not in our Second Act, then when? I am discarding, in pieces, things with little meaning and finding myself spending more time with people and in activities that add meaning. The work I am finding is more rewarding in every sense of the word, and that then leads to new opportunities and a wider world. I am still learning how to apply this lesson of finding purpose to myself for a change, but can only say that children are indeed incredible teachers.

In addition to writing for various publications over the years, JE Hosom makes her living doing marketing strategy and communications, including writing materials for various companies and speeches for corporate executives to a Presidential candidate. She lives with her husband near Boston, and has two children, one living in New York City and one in college.