this is ground control to major mom

I’m not a helicopter parent.  I’m a spaceship parent. 

And I’ve discovered that this is the very reason I can’t seem to make myself fit in with the other first-grade moms when, on occasion, I visit my daughter’s classroom.  I’m pretty sure they think I practice some form of “detached parenting.”

This was first pointed out to me, rather blatantly, when I opened the door to my daughter’s pre-kindergarten class on the afternoon of her end-of-the-year party.  My husband and I had been sharing a car for months at that point (though we worked in two different cities) because the Jeep was waiting for its refurbished engine, and so I had asked a colleague for a ride.  I had arrived just a few minutes late, and my then-four-year-old was crouched by the window, searching for something outside.  She jumped up when she saw me, yelling, “I told them you were coming,” as she ran at me across the classroom.

I told them you were coming.  And they hadn’t believed her.

It was then that I learned I was the mom who didn’t show up enough.

And two years later, nothing has changed.  I feel the sideways glances and I know they’re thinking, “Oh. That must be Georgia’s mother.”  I see the moms of two of her classmates at the splash park downtown in the summer and so I do what I think I’m supposed to and make an attempt at small talk (I really hate small talk). They entertain my questions with terse replies, and when I walk away, they continue the conversation I (clearly) interrupted.

I’ve tried.  I promise, I’ve tried.  Hell, I joined the PTO Board, for chrissakes.  But when I showed up to the first meeting, I was egregiously underdressed in my jeans and flip-flops, and so I stood by myself in the kitchen, drinking a beer, and thinking that I should have chosen the wine or rum punch.  Yep, probably the pretty, sherbet-y rum punch.  And then I saw a group of moms from Georgia’s class, so I decided to join them.  I asked questions that I thought were harmless, small talk questions, but quickly came to the realization that I was the only mom who didn’t know the names of every student in the class.  That I was the only mom who didn’t know that Alex was the “new kid.”  That I had no idea the Assistant Principal had left abruptly and had already been replaced (I got some wide-eyed looks for that one).  And when the conversation turned to how many spelling words the kids were supposed to use in their sentences this week (all twelve? only five?), I had to turn away.  Because what I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just ask your son?”

It’s not that I’m detached. It’s just that I feel like her schooling is her thing.  Not mine.

But I can’t help thinking that if everyone else is a helicopter, then the spaceship has to be wrong.  And, sometimes, I feel that parenting is all about proving to everyone else that what we’re doing is right, about measuring ourselves against others, and using our kids to do that.  So at the end-of-the-year party for kindergarten, when no one was really talking to me (except for the lesbian couple who, I’m sure, got sideways glances, too), I busied myself with my toddler and my three-year-old (and, come on, even though I didn’t have a babysitter, part of the reason I wanted them there was so that I could say, “Look! My hands are full!  I can’t be here all of the time!”).  But I know all of those other moms were looking at me as my daughter won every award, certificate, or trophy given.  Perfect attendance.  Citizenship.  Perfect score on her standardized math test. I tried not to react.  But inside, I was saying, “See?  See?  I don’t hover, and I’m still a good mom!”

And that was just plain stupid.  Because my daughter was the one who won those awards. Not me.

What’s good to know, I think, is that we’re all a little neurotic.  And none of us knows what we’re doing.  What we do know is that there’s more than one way to do this.

I can’t be the helicopter; I can’t drop into her classroom whenever I want because I have this job that I have to go to.  And, fortunately or unfortunately, my work hours are inflexible and coincide with my her school hours.  I can’t be in her classroom all day because I have to be in mine.  (Although, sometimes I’m pretty sure my students wouldn’t notice if I wasn’t there.  And they’d probably even stay in their seats that day.)

So I don’t always know what she’s doing at school.  I don’t always know exactly what she’s learning.  I don’t always know exactly how she’s behaving.  And I have to be okay with that, because I make myself crazy enough with everything else.  When she does well, how do I know how much praise is too much?  How do I know how much praise is too little?  How do I show her that I’m proud without making her think that hard work is something she’s supposed to be rewarded for and not an expectation?

How do I know if I want her screened for the accelerated academy?  And then, if she is screened, what if she doesn’t get in?  What if she gets in and doesn’t succeed?  What if she feels like I’m pushing her to be one of those kids?  What if, what if, what if . . .

I know this:  I have to trust my child.  I don’t need to be in the classroom, criticizing the teacher (and, trust me, it’s so easy to criticize a teacher when you’re not a teacher).  I have to believe that my daughter will tell me if something is wrong.  And I have to believe that she will make good choices.  And, if she doesn’t, well, then she’ll learn something from that, too.

Because, really, my goal as a parent is not to raise the smartest kid with the highest test scores.  There will always be someone smarter, anyway.  Instead, I’d like to raise a kid who’s confident enough to be independent, who feels good about who she is. I want to raise a kid who practices tolerance, who doesn’t talk badly about the boy with two moms.  I want to raise a kid whose heart stays big enough to house compassion.

Even if it means the other moms think I’m lost in space.

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you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to (un)fold ’em

It was dusk, that time of day when drivers first turn on their headlights though it’s not yet dark, when the landscape loses its depth and definition and faces become shadows.  I stood on the beach, squinting against the orange glare of the just-set sun and saw the shape of my barely-six-year-old daughter running at me through the half-light.  She was alone.

Less than a minute later, my husband came charging down the beach behind her, and it was then that I saw, even from a distance, the panic on his face, the pride on hers.  And I knew; she had left our friends’ condominium without him, and she had crossed the street by herself.  When she was only steps away, she opened her mouth to tell me, “Mommy!  Guess what I did!”  I didn’t guess.  I yelled.  Oh, I yelled.  And her eyes took on a different kind of shine; their radiance disintegrated into fear.  I’m not sure what I said, exactly, but certainly words like dangerous, killed, and don’t ever do that again. Ever.  Things that made no real sense to her.  So she mistook my terror for anger and hid her face in my pant leg, crying, “But I looked both ways!  Left, right, left!”

When I stopped yelling, I grabbed her and held on.  And after a few minutes, she caught her breath.  (I still try to catch mine every time I think about what might have happened.)

Sure, maybe I was overreacting.  Gulf Drive is only a double-yellow-line road with a speed limit of no more than thiry-five miles per hour.  But it was Anna Maria Island on a holiday weekend, and a child that isn’t yet four feet tall.

(And, really, how am I to know if I was overreacting?  I’ve never had a six-year-old before.  I don’t know what age kids are supposed to be when they start crossing busy roads by themselves.  Hell, I didn’t even know six-year-olds got molars until I looked into her mouth recently and saw them breaking through.)

What’s even more telling, I think, is that after the yelling was over, there might have even been some part of me that was proud of her; she had had enough trust in herself to believe she could get herself across that road successfully.  And she did.  I guess I should have, too.

Maybe this kid-raising business is about allowing them to put themselves out there, even if they might get hurt (physically, emotionally).  But that means that we, as parents, have to be willing to be risk-takers, too.

We become so worried that we’re going to “mess them up” that we end up suffocating them with protection.  We have an innate desire to soften each landing.  But some landings are supposed to be hard.  Because the human condition is not (always) a safe condition.

I think of my littlest, who is learning to walk (an obvious comparison).  He crawls across the concrete at the splash park downtown, scraping the skin from his knees.  I could pick him up, but I don’t (mostly because my back needs a break — his sister refers to him as “Baby Chubba” for obvious reasons).  So he sticks his butt up high in the air and crawls on his hands and feet.  Or he tries to stand and comes crashing down.  But he’s one step closer.

So if we can let go of their little fingers when they’re learning to walk, what happens as they grow older?

I remember becoming a bit obsessive when my oldest was in pre-kindergarten about where she was going to attend kindergarten.  I went crazy filling out applications for charter schools, entering lotteries for all of the “good” schools.  It was enough to make my head explode.  And then, when I learned she hadn’t gotten in to any of them, I realized that it was completely out of “mommy’s” hands.  We found out the Friday before school started (on a Monday) where she was going to school.  And she’s fine.  Better than fine, even.

I have a friend who, after looking at a picture of my kids, said to me, “You let them climb trees!”  I don’t know if she knew, exactly, how much of a compliment it was.

Sometimes we just have trust in ourselves, and trust in them.  Even if we have to hold our breath while we watch.

When it’s all over, when they’re all grown up and I’m letting them go, I want to know that I’ve taken risks as a parent, and that I’ve encouraged them to take their own risks.  Did I let him fall down enough to learn to walk on his own?  Did I let her write her own essays and do her own science projects even when I could come up with more than a thousand ways to “improve” them?  Did I let her continue to play soccer even after that boy punched her in the stomach?

Did I let them climb trees?

Did I let her become a writer, even though I knew what was ahead?  Did I let her love who she loved, even though I knew the way her heart would break?

I hope so.  Even if it meant I had to hold my breath through the heartache (hers, mine).

After all, she looked both ways.  Left, right, left.