The day begins in the usual, precision-oriented way.
5:40am – Alarm buzzes, leaving me time for one snooze before my workout.
7:00am – First pajama-clad child slips into the kitchen, greeted by Mommy-in-Action, a sweaty, energized whirl of efficiency, packing lunches, pouring milk, spreading butter on toast. Two remaining children are nowhere to be seen.
“GIRLS,” I call in my chipper, sing-songy way. “Time to get uhhhh-up!!!” I have already visited their room once, to snuggle briefly, whisper lovingly, remove covers and open shades.
7:08am – Second child sidles up to the kitchen island, rubbing sleep from her eyes, yawning audibly. I pause momentarily to give her a kiss on her tangled head, then present her with a sippy cup of milk, some expertly-buttered toast and a firm reminder to eat quickly. My third child (the eldest) remains notably absent.
“LAYLA!!” I shout, more forcefully this time. “BREEEAAK-FAST! CHOP CHOP!”
7:13am – I consider filling a large bowl with ice, to pour on my still-sleeping ten year old. The thought of wet sheets saves her from this rude awakening. Instead, I reach for two pans and bang and clang my way up the stairs.
“Let’s go, baby! Feet on the floor. You snooze, you lose. Move it, MOVE IT!”
Who am I, and how did I get here? I wonder.
7:33am – Three crusty-eyed kids are lingering over their breakfast and goofing around, despite recently drafted House Rules, posted nearby, that it is time for everyone to be upstairs brushing and dressing. My breath quickens. My shoulders tense. My patience wanes. After all, there is a dishwasher to empty and three able-bodied children I whole-heartedly believe should be doing it. I also feel rather strongly that they should have set their alarms, risen independently, packed their own lunches, and made their own breakfasts — but despite aforementioned House Rules, they never do any of these things.
I take a deep breath and remind myself that all is well, that punctuality isn’t everything, that I should just smile and enjoy these precious years with my young children.
7:39am – My endorphin-high has dulled, the kitchen is a mess and the clock is ticking. Loudly! Forget gentle pleas or calm coaxing, to hell with promoting independence, fostering responsibility and the gifts of failure. Let the scolding and ranting commence!
Ask any parent what they want most for their children. Some might have longer, more detailed or elaborate answers than others, but my hunch is, most will say, “I just want them to be happy.”
The problems arise when this simple fact is complicated by pressure — and fear. Pressure to instill proper values, a sense of responsibility and independence. Pressure to prepare them for a harsh, competitive, unpredictable world. Fear that our children, if simply loved but never guided or pushed, will fall behind, fail to thrive. Fear that if we don’t prepare them for the cruelty out there, they will be caught unawares, ill-equipped to handle whatever comes their way. Fear that they might not survive.
Or is it just me?
Both my parents died before I was 30. I have seen first hand how all of the mundane, daily worries we carry mean next to nothing at the end of that last day. I aim for an overall deathbed attitude of gratitude and appreciation on a daily basis, and have always approached my children as gifts to be cherished, rather than future super stars to mold.
Recently, however, I seem to be spending a lot of time nagging and pestering.
I scold when lights are left on, huff when instructions are ignored, lecture when we are running behind schedule. I complain when laundry isn’t put away, harp when rooms are not straightened, nitpick and highlight every minor infraction.
I know I am not alone, I hear much the same from many of my friends and clients.
The question I finally paused to ponder today was simple: Why?
So what if my children – my kind, talented, smart, delightful (I could go on and on) children – appear to lack slightly in the “household chore” department. Why is that a problem? What am I making it mean that they can’t remember to turn out the lights or put away their toys?
I don’t really care about the damn socks lying on the floor, so why the sudden sense of urgency? Why have I devolved from loving mother to relentless dictator? Why the tension in my neck, the tightness in my chest? Why the irritability, the lack of patience, the short fuse?
I know that these are the signals my body sends when I am in the grips of false and limiting beliefs, my body’s way of telling me I am believing a lie.
What, I wonder, is the painful story I am telling myself about my children’s future?
And there it is, as clear as glass.
My children are 10, 8 and 6. Until quite recently, all I had to do was nurture and care for them, cuddle and read to them. All I had to do was enjoy them, answer their questions, delight in their discoveries. Suddenly, with my children getting older, I can feel my tenuous bubble floating beyond my reach, poised to pop. I have known all along that it would, that my job as their mother is not to keep them forever coddled, but to enable them to make it on their own. In truth, I never expected my bubble to hold quite this long. But it has, and I have gotten comfortable, knowing intellectually that these precious years would inevitably end, yet emotionally attached and delusional.
And like most delusional, attached and fearful humans, desperate to control that which they have no ability to control, what have I done?
Tensed up. Tightened my grip. Put up a fight!
It’s called the “fight or flight” response, a dynamic with which, as a life coach, I am quite familiar. When we were cavemen, helpless prey in the jungle, we developed this acute stress response. When we perceive a threat – be it a lion eyeing us as dinner or a car veering toward us on the freeway – those ancient survival instincts kick in. Our body releases hormones, our heart beat quickens, our breathing gets shallow and fast, our body tenses – ready for action. Now that we are not cave dwellers or lion prey, we reserve our fight or flight response for more modern day threats – not simply physical, but often psychological – a slight from a colleague or another mom at school, anxiety about an upcoming presentation.
Or in my case, the more subtle, yet pervasive fear that my children are fragile and vulnerable, that to “just love” them is not enough, that I must fortify them with practical life skills, edify them with instruction, enhance their every possibility in life, and above all, safeguard and protect them from harm. I must be tireless and diligent, so that they will maximize their potential. I must be absolutely on top of everything – must root out their every flaw – so that they will thrive in this difficult, unforgiving, messy, brouhaha called life.
Basically, I must control everything.
Or, I could just lay off.
I could admit that my behavior has been ludicrous. I could acknowledge that my plan to assign more chores and ask my children to assume more responsibility for themselves has gone completely awry. It may have begun as a healthy, well-intentioned campaign to instill character and promote independence, but it has become a box-office failure starring me as some caricature of a harried, bitter, petty mom, a woman who has everything she wants and needs, yet complains about unmade beds and frets about ungrateful children.
When clients worry about some future event beyond their control, so much so that it limits their ability to appreciate their present reality, I often ask: “What if I gave you a crystal ball, assured you that your children will grow and thrive, will mature into responsible adults, will most definitely ‘maximize their potential’ (whatever that even means), then who would you be?”
So I turn the question on myself.
The words “crystal ball” generate a subtle yet palpable shift in me. I take a long, deep inhale, pause, then let it go. I feel my body melt and relax, releasing every tense, tight, grasping effort for control.
In my crystal ball vision of my family’s future, I know exactly what I want to see. All of us, alive and well, healthy, happy to be together. I want to see my husband, silver haired, still handsome, bouncing a baby grandchild on his lap. I want to see my three cubs, fully grown, still each other’s closest friends, laughing at some inside joke. I want a table full of delicious food, a blazing fire, more grandchildren milling around, witty banter whizzing about.
I want to be at the center of it all, a constant source of comfort, support and unconditional love. I want to be their safe place to land, their cozy cave to come home to.
That, in the end, is me maximizing my potential. As for my children, I have a strong sense they will be just fine.
Now if I could just get them to go to bed on time!