I remember wanting to be “the good mom,” wanting to protect my daughters from making my mistakes. I remember charging through their lives as if I were their personal full back - pushing aside chores, adversity, negative experiences and disappointments aside, as well as being their personal administrative assistant so they would have the time to do the hours of homework, sports practice, volunteering and part-time jobs required to get into a “good” college.
In my defense and that of other parents my age, my daughters’ childhoods were far more complicated than anything I’d experienced as a kid. In my world, prepping for the S.A.T. exam meant finding a #2 pencil - not hours and hours of exam strategy instruction/tutoring and practice tests. Sports meant playing a season - not striving through personal trainers and off-season Club sports to start on the Varsity team by freshman year. Homework could be done with what was at hand, at home, on my own time, with no parental oversight or after dinner trips to the crafts store. Weekends and summers were endless days of hopping on our bikes and heading off with the only admonition ringing in our ears, “Be home in time for supper.” We sorted out our own teams, fights with friends and created our own adventures and rules. And college was not a life-or-death decision. We applied to a couple, and we went.
Fortunately, “life” threw me a curve ball (actually, it was more of a fast pitch to the head), and I was forced to take a good, long, hard look at myself. And, in the process of researching my issues (mostly related to my decades-long experience coping with loved ones’ alcohol abuse and alcoholism ) and going through therapy, I realized that instead of bolstering my daughters’ self-esteem and chances for an amazing life, their take-away message was, “You’re not good enough;” “I don’t trust you to make the ‘right’ decision;” “I don’t think you can do it without my help.”
At first I couldn’t imagine how I was going to put the genie back in the bottle - especially given the technology that adds an immediacy to just about every interaction. Not to mention that my daughters were in their late teens when I started. Nonetheless, the three of us agree that the new principals I decided to follow allowed them to take responsibility for their lives, ultimately changing our relationship all for the better.
Here are the five principles I followed:
1. Understand how the brain develops. Learning from our own mistakes is a huge part of learning to cope with life. When children are constantly stimulated / rewarded while their brains are developing (from birth through early 20s), their brains wire and “demand’ good things to jump-start dopamine pathways. They also become adept and comfortable with stress and the feelings of emptiness and angst that result when the fight-or-flight pathways are not constantly triggered. The Partnership at DrugFree.org has an excellent site that can help with this understanding, “ Guide to the Teen Brain .”
What I learned as a mom: This explained so many things (even some of my own young adult life behaviors!). Teens often don’t know why they do what they do, nor can they - their brain is not fully developed. It also helped me better understand how to “share my advice” in a manner they could “hear” and to appreciate that underage drinking and drug use can cause long-term problems because of the brain development that is occurring at the time.
2. Stop yourself with a quick check. Ask yourself, “Can my child do this?” Sure it may be uncomfortable, frustrating and have an imperfect outcome, but if s/he can wire neural networks to cope and self-soothe - the world truly can be an amazing place.
What I learned as a mom: Quick checks helped me to get a grip on whether I was reacting to a feeling or the fact of the matter. I also learned that sometimes I did have something to add, but I learned to offer, not jump in. I would say something like, “If you’d like me to __________, I’d be more than happy to. I have the time right now and can do that for you.” And, if they told me, “No thanks. I’ve got it covered,” I accepted that without attitude or hurt feelings.
3. Establish a baseline of need vs. want. One of the really difficult fights with myself was wanting to give my daughters what they wanted - and that ranged from purses to jeans to pierced ears to cell phones - especially if they “needed” the item to be a particular brand or make. It gets expensive! And it sends the message that it’s having the material things that make us happy.
What I learned as a mom: Deciding what I was willing to pay changed the conversation to, “I will give you $X.” That gave them the opportunity to decide just how important the item was to them and then what they were going to do to raise the remainder of the money they needed.
4. Have your own, separate life. When our children see us able to find satisfaction independent of another person’s reaction, input or praise - they learn to do the same. Additionally, if our lives are so intertwined with theirs, they feel an underlying responsibility and/or resentment when they try to separate (such as going off to college) because they feel responsible for our happiness at a time they are trying to find their own path.
What I learned as a mom: Perhaps the most important lesson here was the one I learned - namely that I am a “self;” an independent person who has dreams and capabilities and an adventuresome spirit - all totally independent of my daughters and what they do or don’t do or think or don’t think of me. This has been especially important in our relationship now that they are both graduated from college and off to the next phase of their lives. They feel free to go and do because they know I am doing the same.
5. Recall this partial quote from Kahill Gibran’s book, The Prophet:
Your children … come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams….
What I learned as a mom: This is such a wonderful, profound yet simple reminder - I don’t own my children - not their minds, not their bodies, not their “selves.” It is absolutely my job (more so then, than now, of course) to guide them, but the more I allowed them to find and develop their “person,” without guilt or worry for how I felt about it, the better it was for them (and as it’s turned out, for me, too!).