Like every big revelation in my life, it came out of nowhere.
One day I woke up and realized that I’m doing my children a disservice by treating them like babies, trying to protect them from the big, bad, scary world out there. I have some serious helicopter mom tendencies, which I try to hide from my cooler, more freewheeling mommy friends.
Plus there’s the divorce, which breaks my heart a million times every single day for my beautiful children; makes every, single cell in my body want to grab my babies and protect them from any more pain and vulnerability.
But this summer my nine-year-old son asked to go to sleep away camp for a week with his friends. I agreed. I hoped it would give him some male bonding time, which he sorely needs after spending three years with me and his eight-year-old sister. I also believed that this particular camp would have good male role models, another thing my son desperately needs.
And for once, I was right. When he arrived back home, he seemed more confident, more secure, more grown-up in the very best and most healthy grown-up way. I find myself standing back to watch him interact with his peers and grown-ups, and I feel awe of who my son has already become and who he may someday be.
I made the right decision by letting go.
It made me realize, with a terrible pang, that I need to keep pushing my children off into the world instead of holding them back. Within reason of course. And at the same time, I need to tell them the truth about things, so that they can protect themselves and learn how to make good decisions all on their own as they grow up.
So now my children Know Things. They know that there is a Big Mess in the Middle East. They are not allowed to watch images of dead babies and bombed-out schools on television, but they understand the basic facts about the history of Israel and Palestine. I don’t answer questions about who is right, and who is wrong. Instead we discuss how we would feel if we lived other people’s lives.
Today my children learned that because I’ve gone back to work, I sometimes have to carry my laptop over to the playground to finish up a project. They got bored after a while and started hanging over my shoulder. When they saw I was writing about a John F. Kennedy speech, they started interrupting each other to tell me they knew that speech. And then my son paraphrased the following words:
So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.
We rushed home to find the speech excerpted in my children’s favorite JFK bio. They opened the book and read the president’s words out loud to me. I could barely breathe. My children are so wise, and it has nothing to do with me. They teach me.
And then my son looped President Kennedy’s words back to the situation in the Middle East. I hug him, and because he’s not quite ten yet, he hugs me back.
My children leaned other things recently. They know that their mom is tired at the end of the night. If they stay up too late, she will snap at them – she is no longer “nice mom” after 10 pm. They know that they must load their dishes in the dishwasher after lunch and dinner and they must empty the dishwasher while I’m at work. They must clean up after themselves. If they don’t put their dirty clothes in the hamper – rightside out only! – the cleaning ladies will not wash them and put them away in their drawers, all nice and folded, every Wednesday. They also know that the weekly “ladies” are a big luxury for our family, but that they help their mom keep the house running as normal while she works.
Maybe it’s terrible for my children to know these things. Maybe it’s even child abuse, or something that more privileged and enlightened people would never force their children to do, as someone recently insinuated to me. She told me that she expected her children to do “better things” like sessions with their tutors or lacrosse traveling team practice. Things to improve their bodies and minds. But what about their character, I wondered? What about cultivating grit and responsibility and a strong work ethic in our children? It’s only a few chores, I thought. But most of my children’s friends are encouraged to leave dishes on the table and would never dream of taking care of laundry. A friend recently told me that she didn’t know how to do laundry until she went away to college, and this is pretty much how she is raising her own children.
For now I’m betting that my way is what works best for my little family of three.
My children also learned this week that the funny scratchy thing on my arm is another squamous cell cancer – in situ. “Which means it won’t spread, right,” asked my son. “Absolutely,” I answered before explaining that it’s no big deal, really, and that my doctor will take care of it. Oh, and this is why I drive them crazy about rash guards and sunblock.
The next day my babysitter innocently remarks that both children put on their sunblock at the pool without any reminders from her – and they did it cheerfully.
I just smile. I think we’re finding our groove again.