Saturday, December 31, 2011

Confessions of a Helicopter Mom

Someone mentioned a book recently that I want to read: "50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)." I checked it out on Amazon and felt a little smug as I read some of the items on the list. Let your kids walk a tightrope. Sleep in the wild. Throw a spear. Play with fire. Ha! I thought. I could do this! I have sometimes prided myself (key word here: pride) in not being one of "those" moms who only feed their kids free-range, organic whatever and who wouldn't dream of, say, letting their kids make mudpies or climb trees or watch TV for a good amount of time while mom gets something done.

Then I thought about this more closely. No, I don't "hover" over my kids, waiting to swoop in and make sure they don't fall off the slide or digest a candy with yellow #5. But when it comes to their hearts, their feelings, their emotions, I most certainly am the Protector-in-Chief.

This sounds so good, in theory. Of course as a parent and in particular a mom I am called to protect their feelings. What kind of mom would want her child's heart broken?

I remember when Anna was about two, maybe less. We were at the rinky-dink play area in the Enfield mall when a boy who was about four and built SOLID marched up to her and for no discernible reason took both arms and shoved her to the ground. Anna looked up at him, stunned. I felt the Mamma Bear instinct rev up in a way I'd never experienced.

"You can't do that," I said sternly, not caring if his parents were nearby. I think I nearly growled at him.

This kind of protectiveness is a good thing, in small doses. Of course we stand up for our kids. Of course we don't want to see them hurt or treated unfairly. But then of course the reality is that they will be hurt and treated unfairly.

I never had this idea I was going to be a perfect mom or make up for any way I might have felt slighted, when I was a kid. But I am naturally one of those sensitive types, always wondering if I may have offended this person when I made a certain comment or that person when I didn't say or do something. In time, and particularly after Ethan got his diagnosis, this ramped up big time. My intentions were good. Aren't they always? The pressure was huge.

I've got to give Ethan as much individual attention as possible. This is how to draw him out of his shell. But Anna can't feel left out. So I've got to make sure I include her. Extra time for him means extra time for her. If I buy him extra toys to inspire him to play of course I can't leave her out. I've got to make special "girl time" for her to make up for the extra attention he gets from therapists. I've got to respond to Ethan immediately when he says something or he'll get discouraged about communicating and regress.

And, in public:
What if Ethan does something and embarrasses Anna? What if he can't handle an event and we have to leave and she's disappointed? What if I just let him go play and he acts weird and a child makes fun of him and both kids get upset? I better stand right in the middle of the play area and try to make Ethan interact and not just look at the elevator. I better make sure I'm around to explain, to apologize, to intervene, to encourage, to make things better.

The truth is, the thought of either of my kids hurting, of feeling neglected or rejected, stabs a knife into my heart.

But, they will.

I was talking to a very wise woman awhile ago who said quite bluntly, "The point of being a parent is not just enabling your kids to be happy. They have to go through difficult things. That's how they form they learn compassion and unselfishness."

And Dan, when I was sharing my worries about Ethan and school as he gets older, as his teachers continue to talk about him needing to be with the typical kids: "Deb, he's going to be made fun of sometimes. It's just going to happen."

Not that we should allow bullying in the name of "making him stronger." But: our kids don't live in bubbles. What kind of disservice am I doing by not showing them how to deal with the painful and uncomfortable, and move beyond it, to forgive and overcome? What kind of message am I sending if they never push themselves, never hurt but still love, never miss out on something but choose to still be thankful?

I watch other parents sometimes. Even Dan, or the grandparents. I watch the free and easy way they let the kids play, or not play. Not hovering making sure everyone gets along. Not being a second playmate all the time. Loving but not always intervening. Not freaking out if Ethan wants to play with a light switch for a moment. I don't blame myself. I just wanted to do the right thing. But I can't always be a play therapist. And I can't always be a supermom.

About six months ago the kids were in a McDonalds play area, clamoring through the tunnels. The place was jammed with children and many of them happened to be screeching. From my spot down below I had no idea where the kids actually were at any given moment. Anna came down the slide and walked up to me, looking indignant.

"This big boy in there kept standing in front of the slide and wouldn't let anyone go by unless they told him how old they were," she reported. "He kept asking Ethan and Ethan wouldn't answer him. So he called him dumb."

Ouch. And there it was, my fears realized. Anna kept going.

"I yelled at him and told him he wasn't dumb. He knew how to answer. And that he is my brother!"

There are moments that hurt but then slowly meld into something else.

"Anna," I told her as we walked to the car. "I'm so proud of you."

Sometimes you have to let them go. You have to trust. You have to accept what is. You have to know they aren't really yours, that Someone else is looking after them. And when you can believe that, you don't have to be quite as perfect anymore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sure is hard to find that line between protecting and teaching and letting them figure out some things on their own!

I love the story at the end- what a good sister!