When one of my boys was a teenager, I was away on business when he had a bad accident. It was winter, and he and his two brothers were out in the country with other family members. They were tobogganing, a favourite activity of theirs, sliding down a hill they knew well, one by one, on plastic carpets. My son, then 14, decided to go down the hill on his stomach, head facing uphill, knees bent up. His brothers were at the bottom, watching. It was icy. He gathered speed. They yelled at him to bail. He couldn't hear them. At the bottom, far from where they usually came to a stop, there were some rocks jutting out of the snow. He was headed right for them. And he hit them, knees first.
I was in Vancouver when I got the call. I rushed home, of course. He was in the hospital, having fractured one of his knee caps, in pain but otherwise okay and well attended to by family, friends and doctors.
"You think that if you had been there, it wouldn't have happened, right?" a friend of mine and fellow mother said to me that week when I was a Wal-Mart-sized bag of anxiety and guilt.
She was right. I did think that. I had the Mom God complex.
And frankly, who doesn't? One week into a new school year, what mother hasn't worried that her daughter or son isn't in a class with his or her friends? Who hasn't monitored her child's emotional state when he returns home from those first few days?
I have often mused – to myself and other moms – that we're only ever as happy as our least happy child. Experts love this topic. They see helicopter parenting as an epidemic, leading to a generation of entitled children who don't have the life skills to deal with adversity and a less-than-perfect lifestyle. But isn't some of it understandable?
"We have come to this point where we measure our success as parents on the happiness of our children," says Meg Meeker, a pediatrician, mother of four (ranging in age from 19 to 28) and an author of The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers. "We see it as our job to make them happy all the time, and because we want to feel successful as parents, we will do whatever it takes to make them happy." The phenomenon of boomerang kids – those who return to live at home after university – is a direct result of that misguided sense of responsibility, she says, not because of all the other excuses parents like to employ, such as lack of job opportunities and the fact that many life milestones for young adults are being delayed. Many parents just can't abide the thought that their child may be a tad miserable working a starter job and living in a lousy apartment on the wrong side of town.
"The trouble is, this kind of level of involvement with the happiness of our children's lives is unsustainable," Dr. Meeker says. "And it makes the mothers miserable." Not only that, children suffer because of it. "It's creepy to them. They hate it. They feel that their job is to be happy or to pretend to be so mom will be okay. It's like emotional incest," Dr. Meeker says.
I always nod my head sagely when I hear parenting experts talk like this. Because I know it's true. "The trick of parenting is to have the right closeness and the right distance," says Vikki Stark, a family therapist in Montreal with two grown daughters. "There's a gift in adversity," says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto parenting expert. "Parents shouldn't be afraid to let their kids feel the whole spectrum of emotions."
But what none of the advice ever fully addresses is the heartbreaking vulnerability we invite for ourselves when we become parents – unwittingly, of course, because at the time we just feel the big, beautiful urge to have babies.
And no one prepares you for the puzzling paradoxes of being a parent – that you love your children intensely with the goal that they'll eventually leave you, that you care for them enough to let them fail so they can learn, that loving them is letting them hate you sometimes, that you want to protect them from things you can't.
Being a parent is a mix of anxiety and hope and disappointment and pride and despair, and while it's not cool to suggest some suffering is involved – it sounds selfish, and parents are supposed to be selfless – it may account for some of that obsessive helicoptering. Maybe it's a symptom of some unconscious wish that life be less uncertain, that you can safeguard your own heart a bit. Think of it that way and you can have empathy for parents, rather than criticize their level of involvement.
As time has passed, I have found my way through the tension inherent in being a parent in this time of child-centred family life, namely that you want to help, but shouldn't always. Sometimes it's blurry. I have edited (but not rewritten) some university papers. And sometimes it's very clear. Once, a young teenaged son asked my opinion about his girlfriend. I offered some advice that seemed very wise about how to have a healthy relationship.
"Can you explain that to her, Mom?" he asked sweetly.
"No," I said, patting his hand. "That's something only you can do."
But if I can guide them to discomforts I know will be good for them, that doesn't mean I won't acutely feel every little hardship they'll encounter in their lives and wish I could help them. And when it seems right, I may. When we become parents, we sign up for an intensely symbiotic relationship with our children, like it or not.
So let me hover when I need to, I say. And if all goes well, I won't ever have to land.