I think of my life in two phases: now and B.C. (before
children). Before having my own children, I rolled my eyes at the so-called
“Helicopter parents” who rescued their children from disappointments and
frustration. Or, if we are keeping up with the latest judgmental term for moms,
I would have rolled my eyes at the “Snowplow” moms who move all obstacles out
of the way of their precious unique snowflakes.
To be sure, as a school psychologist, I have stories of
extreme parental hyper-involvement that evoke the collective societal eye roll.
One time, I had a mom burst into my office while I was counseling a girl. She screamed, “I was listening outside this door and my daughter is lying! I never
said that!” Um…no. Or there was the time when I was doing an assessment with a
middle school boy for learning differences and the mom came in my office in
advance to make sure the desk was ergonomically correct. She straight plopped
into the chair and measured the distance to the worktable. And I kid you not, I
left to go to the restroom and when I came back, she was on a chair with some
sort of Volt-o-Meter making sure that the lighting was correct.
I’ve also observed parenting being treated like an Olympic
sport. I have had parents tell me they are worried about their kid’s speech
evaluation getting into their file for Harvard and the kid is like 4 years old.
Ummmmm…relax. And just a few weeks ago, my neighbor told me of an Easter egg
hunt that was like Lord of the Babies, with parents
running ahead and pushing other parents to make sure their kiddo got an
egg, leaving the toddlers in the dust. Ummmmm…it’s a plastic egg. I can get you
like 40,000 for a dollar at Walgreens. It’s going to be okay.
You might have your own story of a mom swooping in like a
helicopter or plowing her way in her child’s life to make sure everything is
perfect. And you would be right to think that she was doing too much.
And yet…now that I have my own kids, I can sort of
understand the impulse. I mean, I don’t own a Volt-o-Meter, and I’m pretty sure
I wouldn’t trip a toddler so mine could win the egg hunt, but you know what I’m
saying. Once you hold your child in your arms for the first time, your
worldview changes. You want to do everything to protect your child from
harm—psychological and physical harm alike. In fact, recent studies show that
women’s brains actually change when they become mothers. So those familiar maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce
protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.
Basically, just looking at your infant sets your amygdala on fire to protect
him or her, so this might explain why when you first become a mom, you might start entertaining doing things that
you used to mock other moms for doing.
I’ll be the first to admit that as a parent with a blazing amygdala,
you sometimes just can’t help but let fear take over your imagination. While
you are holding that precious baby bundle in your arms, you start to worry
about 18 years from now, thinking, “Hmmm…maybe I should home college her so she
doesn’t ever go to a party and make foolish life changing decisions. Perfect!
If she is home colleged, she’ll never go on Spring Break and meet a tattooed
guy named Bubba and do the Macarena on a bar with him (not that I did that of course). Hmmm…that’s
cruel to keep her sheltered, so maybe I’d let her live it up at the Science
Museum for a week over break”* Wait, what
am I thinking?!?
To make problems worse, these days, moms are bombarded with
terrifying information about everything that could hurt, maim, psychologically
damage, or kill your babies.** When you watch the news, every child is suddenly
your baby and OMG my baby is going to go
on spring break in Aruba and never come back!!! It’s terrifying and
insidious. Here is a sample of the information I learned in my Facebook feed
just this week:
-Plastic thermoses will KILL YOUR BABY (eventually)!
-One kiss to your baby when she is in the hospital CAN KILL
-If you don’t label your child’s car seat with her name,
when you are both unconscious in a car accident, the paramedics won’t be able
to identify her or know her blood type!
-If you don’t give your child a pacifier, she will DIE OF
-Your child will walk to school by herself and NEVER COME
-If you go to Disneyland, your immune-compromised child will
DIE OF THE MEASLES
Of course, I’m all for public service announcements and
getting the word out there to help parents make safe choices. Finding missing
kids? Um, hell yeah, of course, blast everyone’s feed, Facebook. I admit, my
kids’ car seats are labeled and I can’t wait to give my second baby her first
birthday vaccination present. Happy Birthday, sweetie! You get not-Measles! Obviously, I
appreciate education about how to keep kids safe, but my point is that the
sheer volume of products and choices you make that can possibly murder your
child makes childhood seem über-perilous. And I consider myself relatively free
from DSM-5 anxiety disorder diagnoses, but it’s enough to want to put your
child in a bubble.
And not to be that in
MY day gal, but I seem to have a fair few memories of getting disappointed,
hurt, and putting myself in stupid situations and I do believe I survived
relatively unscathed. I recently asked my mom if she was secretly looming
around when I was riding my bike all over town without an electronic leash
(cell phone) for hours and hours with my sister, and she said, “No, we trusted
you.” My own mom mind immediately thought, “Yeah, but how can you trust everyone else?!?” Is the world
significantly more dangerous than 30-some years ago, or do we just have
information about every perilous thing at our fingertips now, clogging our
Facebook feed with fear?
As a school psychologist, parenting has become a constant Me
vs. Me battle, fighting the urge to over-protect my offspring. I can remember so
vividly the first time my own Toddler B got hit by another child. I had dropped
her off at preschool and I peered in the window to see my darling happily
engaging in…wait what the heck is that kid
doing to her!?! Some kid was slapping my girl repeatedly, laughing
maniacally, and she was just standing there, crying, and no teacher was nearby
to intervene. And here the battle happened in my mind:
School Psychologist Me: “Let your child experience
discomfort, work through problems on her own, and experience hurt and
disappointment in order to build adaptability and coping strategies. This
incident will teach her how to self-advocate and be assertive.”
Mama Me: “OMG that kid is straight up hitting my child and laughing
about it! Someone please get that little sociopath to off my
School Psychologist Me: “The teachers will take care of her
and process this appropriately if I let them.”
Mama Me: “F-it. It takes a village, I’m getting that monster
child off my baby!” (*lunges toward junior psychopath*)
School Psychologist Me: “Okay, the teacher has put the child
in time out and we will now debrief this whole incident appropriately. The
aggressor probably has some lagging social-emotional regulation skills and is
in need of nurturing intervention.”
Mama Me: “WHAT? That evil little boy is crying because HE is
in time out? Like he’s the victim here? I’m going to have to call his parents
and tell them to keep that psycho kid away from my baby.”
Oh, it’s embarrassing to admit that Mama Me has a secret
little helicopter-snow plow looming in my thoughts. But having my own kids does
make me more empathetic and less judgmental of parents than I used to be. Obvi,
you can still be empathetic without having kids of your own, but for me
personally, that was the turning point in my career that gave me a deeper
understanding of how hard it really is to parent in today’s climate. Perhaps as
professionals and educators, we can encourage each other to at least pause
before we roll our eyes at an anxious parent and acknowledge that our culture
bombards parents with messages that fuel the little helicopters and snowplows
in our minds.
* Yes! Yes! They can go to "The University of Rebecca"! My
daughters could major in Maternal Resentment with a minor in Zero Independent
**They will ALWAYS be my babies, I don’t care how old they