My youngest child turns 17 this week. I only have one more year of legal responsibility over a human I helped make. Three of my children are legal adults and until a month ago when the oldest got married, they were all living in my house and financially dependent on me. I’ve spent a significant amount of anxious time wondering whether their continuing dependence is just the natural result of their neuroatypicalities creating a non-standard timeline for development, or if I failed at parenting in some fundamental way. This set of thoughts was churned up once again by reading an article about lawn mower parenting and recognizing myself in it.
I want to pause right here and state that I know beating myself up over past decisions is neither emotionally healthy nor useful. Looking back, I honestly made the best decisions I could based on the knowledge I had at the time and the resources/energy that were available to me. Especially considering that I had four kids who fell outside the norm in ways that even school personnel (who are highly attuned to helicopter and lawnmower parenting) recognized as needing extra attention. This post isn’t about regret over failure. It is me analyzing the ways that my anxiety played into my parenting. It is me being fascinated by how parental faults can have a cascade effect on children lasting for years into adulthood. Put more succinctly: we all screw up our children in one way or another because we’re human. Part of the work of young adulthood is learning to form an identity separate from the framework our parents made and, in stepping out of that framework, to grow in the directions that the framework previously prevented. I want to see clearly how the structures I built both enabled and inhibited growth because many of those structures now need to be dismantled for my children to step free into independent adulthood.
A couple of weeks ago I had a confrontation with my 17yo. Confrontation does not quite feel the right word, because it was more a venting of pent up emotions rather than an argument. We were all upset, but no one was angry. In the after discussions, it became clear to me that I have some habits to change. I have to stop protecting him from my emotions, putting how I feel on hold because there is a crisis to manage. He is old enough to know I must be feeling something, and absent emotional information from me, his anxiety fills in disappointment and anger. I also have to stop speaking for him, labeling his emotions, and positing reasons for why his anxiety is acting the way that it is. We’ve reached the point where me explaining his reactions is far less useful than him struggling with his reactions and figuring them out for himself. All of these behaviors from me were healthily adaptive for the challenges we faced when this kid was younger and less self-aware. Now they are scaffolding that needs to be removed so he can develop strength to stand on his own.
Several times in the past few weeks I’ve run across a quote that feels very pertinent:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
I love the self forgiveness that is inherent in this quote. None of us are perfect. Even at this moment when I’m consciously trying to adapt my parenting to the new set of needs, I’m probably causing some new problem which I’ll be able to see clearly in the future. That’s okay. Once I see clearly, I can do better. For now, I’ll do the best I can.