Looking back on my childhood, I had it easy. And good. And easy. I wasn’t spoiled. I was protected. I think that’s an important distinction. In light of today’s climate of hyper-parenting, I’m able to look back on my own childhood and see where generational seeds for the helicopter flowers were planted.
On the surface, I had a lot of freedom. For example, I had the latest curfew of all my friends. But in many other ways, I was watched like a hawk. There was, however, a stretch of time in my childhood when my parent’s attention was directed toward my brother, who needed them. I was the easy kid. I was fine.
Growing up, I spent a fair amount of time in the basement of my childhood home , lounging around in a beanbag chair watching old episodes of Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island. As I said, their attention was needed elsewhere. I harbor no resentment for that time spent alone. They were not neglectful at all. I was simply trusted to handle things. It has been my saving grace time and time again.
However, as I got older, and my parents watched more and more of the 24 hour cable news cycle, they became more frightened. As an adult, my parents have offered to pay for plane tickets to semi-nearby places so I wouldn’t have to drive. My mother has bought me safety devices like a personal alarm and pepper spray and door alarms and….(you get the idea.) My mother has warned me about running through my neighborhood park in the middle of the afternoon because I’m alone. She’s cautioned that I shouldn’t run on the street because I might get hit by a car. The kids shouldn’t ride their bikes around the corner to the neighbor’s house because WHAT IF? My father seems to warn me regularly of traveling dangers – driving in the rain farther than 20 miles means I’m risking life and limb.
As I became older, I was warned not to take risks because of “what if’s.” I was “discouraged” from pursuing interests because of the potential for Something To Go Wrong. Travel put me too far out of reach. Whenever I flew a plane anywhere, their anxiety was palpable. A college semester abroad was out of the question; I didn’t even ask. As recently as last month when I flew to California I was warned, “I don’t want to have to go down there and put together a search party for you.”
Somewhere along the line my burden became to make my parents feel better about my (not ridiculous) choices for my life. If I choose to do something that makes them uncomfortable, it’s up to ME to alleviate their discomfort. The little girl in me thinks, “That’s not fair!” The adult in me thinks, “How can I make them feel better about what I’m doing?”
Here comes the epiphany: Making them feel better about my perfectly reasonable everyday decisions is not my job.
When they offer to do for me what I am perfectly capable of doing myself, the overt message is: “We want to help.” The covert message is: “We want to spare you from doing something that might hurt you, which would subsequently hurt us.”
They are loving, kind, and amazing parents. I love them dearly. I have a strong desire to be respectful and loving and giving in return for all they have done for me. By the same token, I also want to be and be seen as the strong wife, mother and woman that I have become.
My husband needs a wife who can step up and do hard things.
My children need to see their mother step up and do hard things.
I’ve learned through every step over my boundary that when someone is always swooping in to try to protect you from the hard thing, you get stunted. It’s a whole lot easier to let them, because whatever it is, it’s a hard thing that may carry some risk. I’ve struggled so much with saying ‘no’ and embracing risk. But, by embracing the risk, I’m embracing my life.
My job now is to assess and decide, not hand over the responsibility for my life and choices to make someone else feel safer. My job now is to give this gift of responsibility to my children, little by little, as they step away toward their own lives.