Looking back and admitting to being overly attached, hovering and oh, are those tiger stripes?
It took a little more than 17 years, but I finally figured out what is required of me as a parent.
A box of pencils.
I'll explain, but first you need to know something about those first 17 years, years when I had no idea I wanted to be any kind of a parent but a good one — to raise curious, engaged children into adults who could make a good life doing what made them happy. Along the way, I wanted them to know they were loved no matter what. But somewhere between the good intentions and what I thought passed for unconditional love, I got a little bit lost. Along the way I sometimes found myself acting like the parents I had promised myself early on I'd never be, the ones who get overly involved in their children's lives. You know, that parent. The one who micromanages everything from playdates to piano lessons to play practice. The one who can't seem to separate her own wishes (or herself) from her children, and who won't settle for good enough.
I didn't learn the term "attachment parenting" until both of my boys were well into toddlerhood, but I would have denied it anyway. Or I would have pointed out that my first son's colic and needy nature practically demanded near constant holding to avoid screaming, and my second one's refreshingly opposite ease invited unusual closeness. But attached is what we were. My husband even teased me (and later my sons, when they were old enough to get the joke), "Where's that cord? Are you two still attached?"
As my boys grew, I never noticed that I bordered on becoming that other parent, the one for whom the term "helicopter parent" was coined. "That's not me," I thought. I'm just engaged, concerned and responsible. But my kids knew better.
"Mom, it's my school, I can walk in like I always do," one of my sons would say when I insisted on escorting him, at age 9, into basketball practice on a Saturday morning. It took me weeks to agree to suspend the daily morning texts from the 9th grader, assuring me he'd made it into his new high school after traveling the 18 miles by train, even though he did so with a train car of other students who all walked the three city blocks together from train to school door.
I wasn't a helicopter parent, I told myself, just a mother who is close to her sons. A mom for whom rose-colored glasses never existed, who wanted her sons to be safe, always.
And just this past winter, when so many mothers I know were enjoying dismissing the Tiger Mother as a ridiculous, overbearing taskmaster whose harsh methods to mold her daughters into high achievers bordered on insanity, I was busy, well, coming close to sprouting stripes and fur myself, though I would have growled in denial had anyone suggested such a thing.
When my 17-year-old son moved past the halfway point of his junior year in high school, something pushed me into overdrive on the parenting-without-perspective spectrum. I had already mastered the passive-aggressive compliment: Through his high school years, my son's steady but easily attained B+ report cards (with the occasional A) had been met with me imploring, "If only you'd work a little harder, think of how these could be all A's." He'd come home proud of an 89 on a test, and all I could do was ask what careless error he'd made that kept him from the 90, from the A.
All along, of course, I imagined myself to be a supportive parent, the type who glimpses that most seductive thing in a child: potential. All along, I felt it was my job to push, to prod. If not me, then who?
So you can imagine what happened when it was time to register for the SATs. Of course, I told myself, my son would sign up for the prep course offered after school, do the SAT question of the day e-mail, and study three different SAT prep books every evening to supplant his television watching. My son did as he was told. And then one day, he'd had enough.
"Mom, you're getting crazy about this," he said, good-naturedly at first. But I launched into a lecture about potential, working at one's full capacity and his not understanding what was at stake. Then, a lot less good-naturedly, he let loose the unkindest cut of all: "Mom, I'm just not like you."
And there it was. Seventeen years of blunders by a Type A parent, finally explained by her Type B child. He and I are not alike, in perhaps the most poignant of ways. My son seems to understand something about balance which I never will, and exhibits an innate sense of not wanting to drown in the often unrequited quest to outdo oneself. Somehow I hadn't noticed that, in the six week pre-SAT prep schedule I'd imposed, in addition to tossing out TV, we'd also shoved aside driveway hockey time with his little brother, bike rides with Dad and his ability to read a chapter a night of his favorite book.
"I need down time," he grumbled one day. "If you want to help me, I need pencils."
"What?" I thundered. "Pencils?"
"Yes," he said. "More number-two pencils." That's all he needed, thank you very much.
The next morning I stopped at Staples, came home and put the box of 72 pencils on my son's desk.
"Wow, that's a lot of pencils," he said when he got home from his prep class that day.
"Well, you know me," I said. Then, with great difficulty, I forced myself not to say anything more.