This article first appeared on Positivepsychologynews.com.
When the kids were little and life felt like an exhausting treadmill, I often wished they would grow up with the flourish of a magic wand. Now that they are older and moments of mental anguish have replaced physical churn, I long for those days when washed pudgy fingers and well-brushed teeth were the most controversial items on my agenda. Even my youngest no longer needs Mommy to comb through her silky locks or read her a bedtime story.
Life with adolescents (and wannabes) is like a permanent position in a lighthouse, as most parents with teens would agree. We go through an endless mental chatter of where they are, who they are with, what they are up to, how do I know, how will I respond, how will they respond, and on and on in a desperate desire to ward off danger and build up resources.
I wish maternal instincts had an expiration date, and one well before our own! I do try and keep a check on my urge to helicopter parent my children’s lives and have refrained, for the most part, from perfecting their projects and hand holding them through assignments. But when it comes to friends, foes, relationships, and the kinds of experiences that build emotional resilience, I find myself often succumbing to an unconscious desire to plaster everything before it is quite broken.
I know that this is not good. Research shows that suffering leads to learning and growth. People learn lessons that no amount of tip-toeing around adversity can instill. But it is so hard to stand by and watch our children falter and fall without rushing in to heal their hurt. It is hard to allow them to suffer the pain of emotional turmoil without hauling them to the “happily ever after” ending.
I experienced this (again) over the past week as my oldest struggled with a serious issue of grave consequences with her roommate. The solution as advised by family, counselor and lawyer alike was evident based on the facts. My daughter had to get her roommate to leave through any legal means possible. But facts can trivialize the complexities of the human experience. In forcing her roommate to leave, my daughter was potentially inciting the rage of a very disturbed individual.
She turned to me for help as she struggled with her decision. I longed to relieve her of her anguish, but truth be told, I was myself struggling with the correct answer. I longed for clarity, but could not find it.
In hindsight, that was a good thing. If I knew what to do, I would surely have flung myself into the midst and sorted it all out before my daughter had the chance to learn from her experience. We live in what Brene Brown calls “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we revere recovery stories but gloss over the long and dark struggle that precedes the redemptive ending. As a result, we have little tolerance for the moments of chaos, agony, and brokenness that are a part of the journey. When it is our children, the tolerance is close to zero.
Watching Someone Else Struggle
As I watched her struggle, I doubted myself a hundred times over. Would she be able to get out of this? Would she suffer as a consequence? Would she think I had let her down? Would others judge me for not doing the legally correct thing? All these fears played out in my mind, unrelenting, accusing, harsh. In my inability to fix her world, I fell apart and felt broken.
Perhaps that too was a good thing. For when I came to realize my brokenness, the fears that I harbored, the fragility of my capabilities, the hollowness of my powers, I felt my own vulnerability. Through this vulnerability, through giving myself permission to fail, I witnessed the paradox of human nature. I was unable to make a difference, yet standing below with outstretched arms. I was struggling with my own fears of failure and judgment, yet fully open to all possibilities. I was living with my own brokenness, yet hopeful to bring out the best in my daughter. The more I accepted the opposing truths within me, the more I became whole again.
I needed to let the same happen for my daughter. I needed to step back consciously, so that she too could witness her brokenness. I needed to give her the space to experience the turmoil within her so that she too could embrace her wholeness.
Maternal Instinct Makeover Needed
Maternal instincts in the 21st century need a makeover. Our children no longer need the protective urges that evolved in the vast savannas of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Instead, they need our emotional strength to hold them through their struggles, and stand on the shoreline as they make their way out of the dark and gloomy waters of adversity.
This kind of selfless love is way tougher than the endless chauffeuring from one activity to the next, of sitting arduously through recitals and performances, of entertaining noisy play-dates, and planning exquisite birthday parties.
It requires that we sit with our uncertainties and fears and yet assure our children that they are not alone. It requires that we refrain from fixing the cracks and fissures in the urge of making their lives perfect. It requires that we contain our impulses and desires and live in the hope of creating something far more beautiful than perfection.
A hopeful and whole being.