Well it finally happened, my daughter has now experienced a stressful events while being a world away from me. And as a ‘mama-bear’ kind of parent, it was maddening to pick up the phone and hear my child hysterically crying on the other end and know that there is nothing that I can do about it.
Some might accuse me of being a helicopter parent—hovering around my kids, trying to make their lives better, but that really doesn’t describe my mothering style. There have been times when I stepped in to help and other times that I sat back to watch them navigate their way through life’s challenges and opportunities. Sometimes I have received criticism for my timing of each, but it really isn’t up to others to decide.
Now, my protective instinct kicks in when my children are threatened. Oh how I related to the movie The Blind Side: I could watch it over and over again, much to my family’s chagrin. Threaten my kids and you will have to face me front and center. Once when I was 8 months pregnant with our daughter, a relative slapped our son when he wasn’t listening to this man’s directions. Note to anyone reading this: Never slap someone else’s kid unless you are saving them from hurting themselves or others. Certainly don’t hit a child for playing with a plastic knife and a cheap plastic throw-away table cloth. My relationship with that relative has never been the same since even though this happened over 18 years ago.
So with a strong protective instinct, what I call the mama-bear hormone, you might think that I constantly step in and rescue my kids when they go through difficult times. But you would be wrong. During my parenting tenure, I have consciously chosen when to step in and when to step back.
One example from 2008: our family moved back to northern California after living in St. Louis for 9 years. Our daughter was entering the 8th grade and we chose our new home based on which highschool we wanted her to attend. I figured that the feeder junior highschool would also be top-notch, but that was not the case.
I was prepared for the move to be hard for her, even under the best of circumstances 8th grade can be stressful, but I wasn’t prepared for the major source of the problems to be the principal and guidance counselor at her school.
After one semester, it was apparent that she was not flourishing in her new school. The principal told me that I was responsible because I had made the mistake of moving her between her 7th and 8th grade years—not helpful feedback at all. By the time the principal made that comment to me, our daughter had been in that school for four months and the principal still wouldn’t pronounce her name correctly.
After consulting with the principal at her previous school and much soul searching, we decided to move her to the other junior highschool in town. This was not an easy decision, nor was it made lightly, but it was a great choice for our daughter.
I was surprised by the variety of reactions from other parents in the community. Many came out of the woodwork to tell me how much they admired us for moving our daughter and that they had had similar problems with the same principal too. But others thought we were ‘rescuing’ out daughter in ways that were damaging. We were accused of being helicopter parents with all the negative connotations.
Their line of reasoning was that when she was older she would have to cope with bad bosses and difficult colleagues. But the fact is I want my daughter to know that she can change her circumstances when she is unhappy. I never want her stuck in a bad job, with a bad boss or in a bad marriage or in a dead-end life. I want her to know that she always has options. And rather than leaving her in an environment that was slowly pulling her down and tearing her apart, I wanted her to learn how to take charge of her life. I figured this situation was ripe for me to teach her how.
My philosophy is that life is too short to settle. Maybe this comes from having had cancer and being the wife of cancer survivor, or maybe it is even deeper than that. Regardless of the source, I knew that at 13 she was too young to take control of her life, but as her mother I could model it. So I stepped in and had her change schools in the middle of the year, teaching her that she can change her circumstances, change her life and ultimately change herself.
Now fast forward five years later to her first year at university. So many things are different from her 8th grade experience. She is in an environment in which she is thriving after having chosen a school with a program that she loves. She is making friends and learning how to create a life for herself on the other side of the country. But last November we got the call.
The phone rang at 11 pm at night and on the other end of the call was our daughter very upset. Tears, frustration, helplessness all pouring through the phone lines across the country. It turns out that she had lost her keys while in New York for Thanksgiving and had just arrived back at school, during the holiday weekend with no keys to get into her building, her room, the cafeteria and the practice rooms to get ready for exams—one of the reasons for going back to school early.
And really there was nothing we could do about it. Of course we tried to list options for her, but these were mostly for us as she is a level headed young woman who can figure herself out of most jams. She didn’t need or want to hear ideas from us, she just wanted to vent. I am pretty sure that we didn’t let her rant and rave the way she wanted, but I know that we didn’t step in and try to rescue her. Any rescuing had to be done by and for herself. And that is exactly what she did.
Now I can’t take full credit for knowing to step back. I was warned that this call would happen someday and I was warned that women like me, with the mama-bear hormone, would want to rescue their child. Or at least be unglued with them during the call. So when it happened I am proud to say that I didn’t freak out with or for her; I didn’t become unglued thinking of my baby locked out of her dorm, or room or the cafeteria. After we hung up, my husband and I talked and then we went back to the movie we were watching.
So here is your warning, when the call comes to you (and know that it will come someday), my advice is to let your kids rant and rave. Let them vent and share their upset and frustration. Be a great listening ear. And then hang up and let them solve it for themselves. Don’t get unglued with or for them. It won’t help them and it certainly won’t help you.
How did I get prepared for this call? Well I learned what to expect from watching this funny and yet poignant video on YouTube that comes from the 2012 “Listen to Your Mother” event in San Francisco:.
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