*beep beep beep*
Hear that beeping? That’s the sound of me backing up. Like a truck.
My natural inclination as a parent is to hover and talk (and talk and talk and talk) and try to fix. It has taken me years and—just being honest—lots of therapy to get me to a place where I can parent from a place of love and presumed competence rather than a place of love and abject terror. I probably would’ve had some fear even if I was raising completely neurotypical kids, but with special needs and a host of crises over the years in the mix, I was just plain scared a lot of the time.
I don’t know if you know this, but fear turns out not to be a great parenting strategy. (I know! I was surprised, too!)
For the longest time, I thought my job was to protect my kids. Protect them from bullying. Protect them from heartbreak. Protect them from being misunderstood. Protect them from pain. Protect them from themselves, sometimes. It’s exhausting. And what I finally learned is that it doesn’t work—if they can’t do this stuff for themselves, all I’ve done is rob them of the chance to grow and learn to adapt. And this is setting aside the reality that no one can protect their kids from everything, which meant every disappointment or defeat in their lives felt like failure in mine. (Did I mention the therapy? The therapy was very helpful.) Here’s the reality: My kids are close to leaving home. We have less than a year left with my oldest, and only an additional year with my youngest. There’s no shortage of articles out there about how college students are all delicate flowers who can’t handle emotional distress because their parents coddled them. I don’t want my kids to be part of that demographic. And so… I’ve been backing up the truck.
I’d love to tell you it’s been a simple, natural process. In my imagination, it goes something like:
My daughter is inexplicably struggling with something unexpected. I try to talk to her about it, but she only becomes more agitated. I give her a big hug and a kiss and tell her I know she can handle it and I’m here if she needs me. She nods, teary but grateful, and we pass the remainder of the evening playing family board games together in quiet camaraderie.
In reality, it’s more like:
My daughter is inexplicably struggling with something unexpected. I try to talk to her about it, but she only becomes more agitated. So I keep trying to talk to her because I’m sure if I just find the right words I can make it all better! And then she really gets mad, and I realize I’m being a dumbass. So I awkwardly tell her I’m confused by her reaction and she disappears upstairs for the rest of the night. I check on her, once, and when I flip the light switch in her dark room she shrieks, “IT BURNS!” and I turn the light back off. I text her four times to remind her of her nighttime meds before she comes downstairs to take them. The following morning I say, “So about last night—” and she immediately tenses and says she doesn’t want to discuss it. “All I want to say is that I know you can handle it and we’re here if you need us,” I blurt, as fast as I can, before she cuts me off again. She rolls her eyes and leaves the room.
Lest you think it’s a mother-daughter thing, there’s also fantasy vs. reality with my son. In my imagination, it was like:
My son is angry at me because I have pointed out that the career path he claims to be his goal may not be well-suited to some of his proclivities. I suggest he think some more about the entire lifestyle involved rather than simply the subject matter. I’m able to calmly point out that if this is what he really wants, I’m sure he will figure out the best way to make it happen. He hugs me and thanks me for my candor.
In reality, it’s more like:
My son is angry at me because I have pointed out that the career path he claims to be his goal may not be well-suited to some of his proclivities. I suggest he think some more about the entire lifestyle involved rather than simply the subject matter. He explodes, accuses me of ruining his only dream for himself, and I ask him if he thinks a better move would be for me to stay silent and wait for him to go through 4 or 8 years of higher education before discovering this may not be a good fit for him. He says I ruin everything; I sigh and tell him that yes, I am the devil himself, he’s found me out. I apologize, but it’s too late. He storms off. I feel like crap. I hug him at bedtime and tell him that nothing would make me happier than if I turned out to be completely wrong. The next day while helping him fill out some paperwork, I type his chosen career in there as his goal, and he looks at me, and I look at him, and I say, “Well, that’s what you want, right? Go for it.” He looks at me like I’ve lost my mind, and we move on to something else and don’t discuss it again.
Much like the rest of life, letting go is a lot prettier in the movies than when it happens in reality. It takes practice and it may always be awkward for me, but I’m getting there. Slowly. BEEEEEEEEEEEEP.