You can hear the chopper blades over head. The spot light in shining on the ground below. It must be the police tracking a criminal. There must be an accident and Flight For Life is en route.
Or maybe it’s me, checking up on my kid.
Let me introduce myself: I am a mom. I had my daughter when I was 31. I love her intensely, even when she runs over to me and farts on my lap. My husband: a police officer, a veteran, an “man’s man” with a sensitive side. As our child grew, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we worked opposite shifts in order to not pay for childcare. We might appear to be overprotective right there, the fact that our daughter had a handful of babysitters in her life due to finances and family who weren’t capable or maybe didn’t want to help (or, horror of horrors, I didn’t know how to ask). Are we overprotective because one of us was always with her? I don’t think so. We were practical. And she was quite used to always having one parent around.
I never even heard the term “helicopter parent” until my daughter was in first grade. “What is that?” I asked. “A parent who can’t cut the ties.” It was first identified as an acceptable term in the 1960s. The 1960s. That’s quite a while back. I wasn’t even born then. My, things have changed, haven’t they? In many families now, both parents work. Dad is not necessarily the bread-winner. We had an era following the 60s, my youthful time of the 80s that went much the opposite direction as we went home to a key hidden under a rock, had a healthy sugar based snack, pretended to get some homework done, but really spent time singing with our radios and our mirrors, perfecting that rock star sneer. We were “latch-key kids.” I even got myself up and to school alone in the morning. It was a different time, and that wasn’t considered neglect or anything, it was typical. Children can raise themselves. Well, I did, and at times it’s a miracle I survived. It did give me street smarts (after a few close encounters) and by the time I went to college I had mastered binge drinking, lying about my age to men, experimenting with any drug my friends would allow me (note: MY FRIENDS were dictating my choices) and flying across the world by myself (as my hometown was in the middle east, my high school and college were in the states). Now here I am, in 2014, raising a daughter and attempting to find balance. I don’t want her to be alone all of the time. I don’t want her to be babysat all of the time. I wanted to have her, and I tried really hard to get pregnant. She was no accident. If I wanted her so badly, why wouldn’t I want to spend time with her? And is it her fault her parents have to work? Is it her fault her dad sees the darkest versions of parenting every single day? Is it her fault her mom feels guilty going to graduate school and having to call her on the phone to say goodnight? It’s not her fault, so please don’t judge her, and don’t judge us. We are who we are, and we are doing the best we can.
Behind every helicopter parent, there lies a story. Instead of berating, be curious. Stop judging and start wondering, because there are fascinating people out there, trying to do the best they can by their kids.
Life went along pretty merrily until the summer before my daughter entered first grade. In three months we lost my husband’s best friend to cancer (a person she saw weekly and who interacted with her a ton), our cat, a neighbor’s baby died in our house, and my daughter’s aunt was hit by a car while biking and nearly died. It was not an easy summer. And yet she seemed pretty good. I did everything I could to make fun happen, with the swimming pool, play dates, “normal” activities.
Death was at our door a lot, and it was hard not to think about how easy life can slip away.
I did begin to hover.
When she started second grade, I started graduate school and suddenly her mom who was always at her side, volunteering and taking her to and from school, was gone. Daddy took over, and became soccer dad, volunteer dad, and chief chauffeur. And each year started getting harder. The start of third grade, my husband and I were the only parents lining up with our daughter before school started. She was crying and clutching me like the kindergarteners around the other side of the building. I had the nerve to be embarrassed by my child. That makes me a pretty horrible parent, in my book. In talking to a professional therapist who works with children and grief, I later discovered that around the time the parent’s grief begins to lessen (on average, about two years) the children’s grief will kick in. So, really, she was totally text book normal. But I didn’t know that, and I became fearful of having a “clingy” or a “needy” child. These are very stupid words, by the way, now that I have spent so much time studying psychology. So, do everyone a favor and eliminate them from your vocabulary, especially if describing yourself. People are “in need of” secure attachments.
My daughter was seeing safety disappear all around her.
Halfway through third grade a school-mate died. She was the music teacher’s daughter. She was our neighbor. She was a kid, and without obvious reason of any kind, she died in her sleep. That’s when I started sleeping with my daughter more. I felt that on those nights when I was in her room, I could protect her from somehow randomly dying. I could keep her safe.
We ended third grade with an unfortunate experience: eye surgery to correct strabismus. If I could have seen how perfectly fine she was, that for her to need her mom was not a flaw, that for her to be fearful and overwhelmed by the chaos of school was not bizarre, that for her, falling asleep could be dangerous. If I could have seen that, I would have insisted on better pre-op nurses. I would have insisted on an anesthesiologist who gave a shit about the before and after fears of surgery. Instead, my daughter went into surgery terrified. She felt her body go numb. She tried to fight. It tore my heart out to see her struggle like that. And when she awoke, she was in the exact same state (which I have since read about, and it is quite common). She woke up TERRIFIED and stayed that way for twelve hours. I mean, terrified. Every three minutes (while she refused to open her eyes) she would doze off and wake up screaming, “Mommy? Am I awake? I don’t know if I’m awake!” I laid on the floor for the entire day, while she was on the couch next to me squeezing the hell out of my hand. I promised her I would sleep in her bed for the next two weeks, because now she also equated falling asleep with not just death, but anesthesia – which in her head was worse than death. And then her dad got sick. I know, it doesn’t seem like anything else could go wrong. But this is life, and ours is not the most or the least challenging. It just is.
He became ill the summer before she entered fourth grade. He was feverish in the beginning, and was tested for West Nile Virus, which had been found in Colorado. The test came back negative, as did every other test they thought to run. He was sick for three months before his doctor finally scheduled an MRI. It took two weeks to get the results. They came in the morning I was planning on taking my daughter to Dinosaur Ridge. It was a hot day in August. I was starting my graduate school internship in a week. My third year of grad school would begin in two weeks. And the doctor called to tell us my husband had lesions on his brain. When you see your big strong husband felled by health news like that, wow. Let me tell you that was a hard day.
One note, in case you are going through this stuff, we did not share what was happening with my daughter. I mean, she knew her dad was sick. But she didn’t know how worried we were, because we tried to keep things so friggin’ normal! I actually took her to Dinosaur Ridge anyway, and took my husband in for his emergency high contrast MRI that afternoon. Oh crazy crazy people. If I could do it over, with all I’ve learned about the brain and parenting and child psychology, I would have told my daughter a little bit more, because she knew things were bad. But when the parents don’t give words for those feelings, the emotions get very confusing.
My husband lived, I’ll give you that right away because this is an article about helicopter parenting, not about his sickness. It turned out to be encephalitis, which if you don’t know about – you should google because it happens and most doctors don’t recognize the symptoms. It is a brain infection, possible after a virus like West Nile, but they couldn’t prove that’s what he’d had. It took a good 6 months for his brain to get a bit more normal, although the lesions are dead brain matter, so, well, dead is dead.
So, now here we are at fifth grade.
My daughter can not handle sleep overs because she gets too anxious. In fact, sleep is a daily challenge in our house. The fifth grade has a three day field trip in the mountains every year. And so, we drove her up each day, and we drove her down to her own bed each night. And on the first day, while waiting for her to finish an activity, a fifth grade teacher said, “Some parents just can’t let their kids go. They’re always fine up here. They have so much fun.” Yeah. I can’t let her go. OR, maybe there’s a story here. Maybe you should wonder why this can be so hard for some parents and some kids. Maybe this is not a choice. It just is.
My point in writing this is we never know the story. Start asking people what their story is. If they are in the midst of some family illness or some traumatic event, they might totally blow you off, or they might seriously appreciate the opportunity for authentic connection.
They might need someone not to judge them.