If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

A consummate helicopter parent learns the essential lessons of letting go.


Rob and I were thrilled when our daughter Laurel was accepted into State College, where we had been students. The campus held special memories for us. The bench where we first kissed. The café where we drank coffee all night to cram for exams. I couldn't wait to share it with my daughter.

"Of course, we'll come with you for freshman orientation," I told Laurel.

"What do you mean? It's just for students," she said, running a hot comb though her long, auburn hair.

"Well, yes, orientation is just for students. But we're not going to let you drive up there and move into a dorm all by yourself," I said.

"Why not? I drove that far last summer when I was a camp counselor."

"That's different," I argued. "All the other freshman will be arriving with their parents, helping them get settled."

Laurel pouted. I knew that look. It meant the conversation was over. That night, I told Rob what had transpired.

"Laurel may have a point," he said, reaching for the remote. "You're a wonderful mother, but you've been micromanaging our daughter's life too long. Give her some space. Let her make her own mistakes."

Micromanaging? Rob and I had tried to have children for years and were seriously looking into adoption when I finally became pregnant at 42. The birth of our daughter struck us as a miracle. I left my position as office manager of a large dental practice and embraced the role of motherhood with unconditional fervor.

As she grew older, my involvement never waivered. I closely monitored Laurel's activities. She was an accomplished pianist, captain of her gymnastics team and had a 4.0 GPA. I was so engaged in my daughter's life, it never occurred to me I had crossed a line.

"Put yourself in her position," Rob said. "Would you like to spend two hours every afternoon practicing piano while your friends are at the mall?"

I was hurt and confused. Rob's words opened a door that I had sealed shut the day Laurel was born. Yes, it's a mother's duty to protect her child from harm. But had I gone too far? At Laurel's next gymnastics meet, I approached another mother.

"Tell me the truth," I said to Alaina, "Do you think I micromanage my daughter's life?"

Alaina blushed.

"Um, well, I've heard other mothers, not me of course, but other mothers call you a helicopter mom," she said.

I had heard the term before, but never applied to myself. I looked at Laurel on the balance beam, her eyes darting from the beam to me and back again. I smiled and waved, but my heart sank. I always thought I was eliminating all the obstacles in my daughter's path, never suspecting that the biggest obstacle was me.

After the gym meet, Laurel usually comes home with me while other members of her team pile into an SUV and head to Dunkin' Donuts. I don't allow Laurel to eat fast food or sweets. This time, I encouraged her to join her friends.

"Really, Mom?" she said, her eyes scrunching up.

"Yup. And it's okay to have whatever you want." I pressed five dollars into her hand. Laurel gave out a whoop.

"You're the best!" she cried and ran off to join her teammates.

At that moment, Rob's words replayed in my head. A child isn't an office to be managed. I had been holding on too tightly. Laurel needed the freedom to grow. And in retrospect, so did I. By turning motherhood into a full-time job, I was stunting my own growth.

"You've worked really hard this year," I told Laurel. "Would you like to cut back on piano lessons?"

Her face lit up. It had never occurred to me that giving my daughter more freedom would make both of us happier.

Now that Laura is at college, I have more time to explore my own passions. I now sell my own line of natural soaps at the local farmer's market. But I still struggle with the balance between holding on and letting go. In my head, I know my daughter's a young woman who needs to find her own way. But in my heart, she still is, and will always be, my miracle baby.

If you suspect you may be over-involved in your child's life, ask friends and relatives for their perspective. More important, ask your child if he or she would like more space. And be open to whatever they say.

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