Life has ahold of my babies. Each year it pulls them out from under my wing with a little more insistence and a little less apology. As much as I’d like to keep them near the nest, at 8, 10, 14 and 20, I’m doing way less safekeeping than I am crisis intervention, damage control and wound tending.
I’ll be honest, some days I actually want to nudge them out into the wild. Thick-as-their-hair-goop attitude, for example, has me handing them off to the bus driver gladly, no matter how awful the “mean girls” on board.
But other days — when makeup can’t hide their hurting hearts, when their slumped shoulders and hopeless expressions give away the ever-increasing weight of the world they carry — I’m left wondering if there isn’t some design flaw in this whole protect-them-with-your-life-while-they’re-young-then-relax-your-grip-and-learn-to-let-them-go child rearing reality we unwittingly sign up for the moment they’re born.
Though letting them go feels unnatural, the truth is, I have no choice…
I can’t protect my 20-year-old from the harshness of adulthood, nor from her limited experience in navigating it. I can offer guidance and empathy and stay connected best I can, but at the end of the day, her path is hers alone to choose.
I can’t protect my teen from awful eighth grade rumors. I can hold space for her hurt and remind her of truth and encourage healthy reactions, but at the end of the day, the weight of those rumors rests on her.
I can’t protect my preteen from disturbingly stupid pop lyrics. I can turn the radio off, express my concern and expose her to “good” music, but at the end of the day, that crap is playing EVERYWHERE, and the more prohibited, the more she craves it.
And try as I may to minimize the impact, I cannot keep my eight-year-old from the influence of three older sisters. She IS exposed to more than they were at her age, and attempts to prevent this are mostly futile in the face of her reality as the youngest.
Every variable in their lives — from the friends they choose and the scene they’re into, to the quantity and quality of snacks they’re offered everywhere they go (don’t get me started) — is becoming harder and less appropriate for me to attempt to control.
And while my mind understands the need for their increased independence and autonomy, being asked to make room for decisions and experiences that are likely to hurt, confuse and mislead them is no small request of an open-hearted, all-in mama.
Take your average, everyday radio tune, for example:
I eat my dinner in my bathtub
Then I go to sex clubs
Watching freaky people gettin’ it on
It doesn’t make me nervous
If anything I’m restless
Yeah, I’ve been around and I’ve seen it all
I get home, I got the munchies
Binge on all my Twinkies
Throw up in the tub
Then I go to sleep
And I drank up all my money
Dazed and kinda lonely
You’re gone and I gotta stay
High all the time
To keep you off my mind
Spend my days locked in a haze
Trying to forget you babe
I fall back down
Gotta stay high all my life
To forget I’m missing you
Pick up daddies at the playground
How I spend my day time
Loosen up the frown,
Make them feel alive
Oh, make it fast and greasy
I’m numb and way too easy
Awesome, Tove Lo, and thanks a million, pop industry, for enlightening my starstruck preteens regarding the navigation of heartbreak.
Some days I fight it. I’ll grab the iphone reins and protest with Paul Simon or Jorge Ben (or if I’m really feeling feisty, Krishna Das).
Other days, I join in. There’s only so much of, “Yeah it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two but I can shake it, shake it like I’m supposed to do,” from their mom that they can take before they’re begging me to change the station.
But other times, when I’m feeling patient and the lyrics aren’t too distracting, I just sit back and watch as my girls lose themselves in pop culture-soaked, adolescent and preadolescent “bliss.” I even try to go there with them. I try to remember what it felt like when I was twelve and Casey Kasem held me hypnotized with his sing-song voice and obvious connection with all things cool.
Meeting them where they are is essential to this phase of parenting. Again, I get this on an intellectual level.
But doing it well and consistently and patiently with tolerance, empathy and effectiveness requires something of me. Something dependent upon my investment, not in their wellbeing, but in my own:
It requires a feeling of centeredness.
Centered, meaning standing in my OWN truth and integrity.
Centered, meaning honoring my OWN needs and desires.
Centered, meaning checking my OWN judgments and tempering my OWN angst and aware of the source of my OWN anxieties.
Centered, meaning kind, patient and loving toward myself as I navigate my OWN murky waters.
From a centered place, my reactions to their detachment, their struggles, their eight hundred million needs and their cruelly-confusing culture are completely different than when I’m “off.”
Off, meaning hating pop culture for making millions by corrupting the innocence of children.
Off, meaning fearing the unknown built into every developmental milestone.
Off, meaning going about my days with a knot of anxiety in my gut for every hardship they encounter and I’m forced to bear witness to.
Off, meaning reactive and short-fused and stuck in my head for fear of the pain I’ll feel if I dare to engage my heart.
But more than anything, when it comes to raising this big, messy brood, “off” means I’m less capable of connecting — with them, with my truest self, and with the divine.
Without each of these connections, I’m severely limited in my ability to offer them the one thing they need most from me during the handful of years they have left in my nest: support in discovering the TRUTH of who they are.
A few days ago, I walked in the front door to find my eight-year-old sporting a crop top, high healed boots and bright red lipstick. Had she merely been playing dress-up, it would have been funny, cute, even kinda sweet. But in addition to pushing her luck by raiding her sister’s bedroom, she had hijacked someone’s phone and was engaged in a one “woman” photo shoot.
I faked unfazed best I could:
“Hey Estella! What are you doing?”
“I’m taking selfies, of course. MOM! PLEEEEEEEASE never ever ever erase these photos. I LOVE the way I look.”
My heart sunk and my mind freaked out as I scrolled through 50+ photos of her pouting, kissing the air and batting her eyes.
“What do you like about them?” I asked, forcing curiosity.
“I look beautiful!” she beamed, lipstick smeared and uneven.
And with that, she threw off her heals and skipped away, leaving a trail of innocence in the wake of tested waters.
Innocent or not, my panic button had been pressed. If my mind had had a megaphone, the police would have been called.
“Wait!!! STOP LIFE!!! You can’t have her, too!!! I WON’T LET YOU TAKE MY BABY!!!!!”
Like a caged animal, I reacted (inside, at least) not to immediate or certain threat, but to the sudden and overwhelming reminder that I am not in control.
I’m not in control of their safety (not always, and never entirely).
I’m not in control of their pain (nor the ways they choose to manage it).
I’m not in control of their path, their perception, their choices, nor their self-preservation.
I’d been thrown off-center, evident by the sudden presence of fear, blame, assumptions, dread, and helplessness.
Seasoned in the art of parental patchwork, I quickly noticed the derail and slipped away to our porch swing to assess the damage. This time it wasn’t a daughter, but me in need of mending.
Side note: I have come to see frequent, self-imposed “timeouts” as one of the greatest gifts I can give to myself, my family and ultimately, the world. When “thrown,” the sooner I can remove myself from the situation, still my mind for a moment and employ my tools, the less time I spend walking around in a compromised state, negatively affecting the quality of my thoughts, reactions and interactions.
Though my re-centering process looks a little different each time, it always begins the same way: I close my eyes, breathe deeply and observe what’s going on, both around and inside me.
In this case, my thoughts were throwing a toddler-esque tantrum, demanding to be heard, seen, and believed. Had you been in my head, you’d have heard something like this:
“Uuuughhh!!!! Selfies make me f*cking CRAZY!!! I KNEW I shouldn’t have let her sister get an iphone. Why the hell doesn’t Hunter have his devices password protected? Where the hell even IS HE!!?? The fact that my eight-year-old is puckering and pouting and offering herself to the pedophile-filled world as “kissable” (because, of course, “THAT’S WHAT YOU DO IN SELFIES”) is a sure sign that I’ve failed, utterly and completely, as a mother. In fact, our whole culture is one big failure. Selfies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to everything we have to fear about this screwed up age of distortion, shallow connection and image obsession that our babies are being forced to navigate like child pioneers. How can a culture claim to be civilized, then set the stage for its children to be highly sexualized at a young age, forever addicted to devices and generally unable to resist the temptations of complacency, perpetual pleasure seeking and mindless consumption modeled all around them?! I’m screwed. She’s screwed. We’re all screwed.”
Believe it or not, all these thoughts happened over the course of about thirty seconds. Fear is no slacker. It works overtime, hellbent on swift and complete domination.
Continuing to breathe, I allowed my inner child to do her thing, assuring her that I was there, that I wasn’t going anywhere, and that I heard her.
Slightly calmer already (simply having honored my initial feelings), I turned to my tools. (My internal toolbox isn’t always organized, but it is well stocked.) This time, only two were needed: my Control Is an Illusion tool (which reminds me that the only two things I have control over are my interpretations and my reactions), and my Tell the Truth tool (which I often bust out when fear has managed to distort the facts).
In about five minute’s time, I was back to center — still wobbly, mind you, but roughly re-aligned, fear’s grip loosened and its presence loved back to a manageable size.
The new narrative hardly sounded like the same person, because it hardly was the same person. The centered me draws from a completely different well of resources:
“My girl is not sexualized, she is curious, and merely modeling the world around her, just as children always have. She’s wired to want to feel beautiful because she values beauty and notices it everywhere she looks (and rarely in made-up women). This circumstance presents a perfect opportunity to talk with her (from a like spirit of curiosity) and better understand the ways she’s absorbing all that’s naturally trickling down from her older sisters. My girls are amazingly strong, resilient, smart and capable. Their ability to thrive in life will be less influenced by my ability to shelter them than my ability to model thriving.”
I was even able to reduce society’s influence down to something more digestible:
“”Selfies” are not inherently evil at all. They’re yet another form of expression born of our increased freedom and access to invaluable resources, resources we need at this point in history in order to re-connect and expand our collective consciousness. The fact that we’ve not yet learned to self-govern toward our own best interests makes perfect sense given the depth and breadth of change we’re facing and the speed at which it’s hitting us. I get to choose my response to all this change, and I choose connection, love, understanding, tolerance and personal growth.”
In the initial, fear-based narrative, I not only became an instant victim, but I also victimized my girls, suggesting they aren’t capable of empowered, conscious responses to their reality. Under the illusionary spell of fear, my creativity was immediately disengaged, my clarity blurred and my energy drained under the weight of assumptions.
Centered, however, everything shifts for me:
Finding my way back to center isn’t always so simple as five minutes on a porch swing. Depending on my degree of attachment, re-centering sometimes takes me hours, days, even weeks. But the more I practice loving myself back, the more patience I have with my very natural, and very human process.
Whatever it is you’re currently struggling with, however Life seems to be lurking around your loved ones, know that your instinct to protect them is one of the most beautiful aspects of your being. And for those moments when you’re painfully reminded of your limitations, I offer the following footpath forward:
We can’t always protect our babies, no matter how earnestly we try. We can, however, protect ourselves from fear’s grip on our hearts and toll on our minds. The more invested we are in our own growth, healing and emotional wellbeing, the more light we’re able to shine for them to see by.
The brighter the better,