When I was still coaching skating, my boys were young. In fact, I retired shortly after Aiden was born and Cooper went into first grade. While I have an infinite number of wonderful memories, one that comes back to me often was an off handed comment a mother of a school aged skater said to me. Her son was new to private lessons and she was visibly anxious, nervous. I wasn’t her son’s coach, but we were chatting while the Zamboni did its job and she said, “It’s hard to put him out on the ice with someone I hardly know. It’s like opening up his little brain and letting someone dump into it whatever they want. I have no control over it.” I’m paraphrasing of course, it was nearly 15 years ago, but the sentiment was powerful for me. I regarded her words as a coach, being careful my instructions were chosen wisely, making certain my criticisms were coupled with encouragement. It wasn’t until my own sons went to school that I took those words to heart as a mother.
When my boys were young I controlled everything — what they ate, when they slept (well, truth is I had zero control over this, but I did stick to a pretty hefty bedtime ritual in every effort to — control their sleep), when they played outside, who they saw and who they didn’t, who babysat and who didn’t, what friends they played with and those that we didn’t visit.
I did a lot of things right, I think I can comfortably say I did most things well, and in the beginning, controlling their environment worked for us. Controlling their environment served several purposes – one, the simple act of structure allowed my brain that loves to organize and plan, settle into the chaos and unpredictability of parenting young children. Two, I believe it did provide clear boundaries for my boys, something they paradoxically thrived on as children do. Three, controlling every small aspect of their little lives gave me a semblance of peace and a feeling of control over my greatest fear — losing my babies. I won’t argue the fact that having three babies in five years who never slept through the night until well into elementary school made controlling their environment a powerful tool for me to function well. In the beginning, my way of parenting, of controlling as many unknowns as I could, served us all well.
As the boys grew, the tension between us began to grow. I battled with Cooper religiously — embarrassingly so. We locked horns over how and when and where he did his homework, we argued about what and when and how he would eat, we fought over his behavior (which became increasingly obnoxious — because, well you know what … no one likes to be told how to breathe) and how he treated me. Jackson and Aiden battled rarely, they were still content to follow my rules, for the most part, they observed as they watched Cooper make the maiden voyage into teendom.
When the boys were young, that control gave me peace. It lessened the anxiety that life created. Cooper’s growing disregard and disobedience for my laundry list of rules erased that peace and in its place discomfort returned. That familiar ball in my gut that told me if he didn’t do exactly as I said, the world would fall apart. Something bad would happen. And it did happen, but not in the way I thought it might.
My mom was here, Cooper was maybe 11? He and I were fighting in the kitchen — I have no recollection about what — simply that he wouldn’t do exactly as I said (don’t get me wrong, it’s important to be obedient, it’s important to follow rules — I just hadn’t yet developed a sense of which boundary to set, which to make rigid, which to allow him to decide. Again, no one likes to be told how to breathe.). Our argument escalated and he was disrespectful, and I yelled and screamed he stormed off. It still hurts my stomach to think about. In the end, even though he was disrespectful, I was not listening. I could not hear a single word he said, my need to control him was so overwhelming I Could. Not. Hear. Him. My mom came in the room, tears in her eyes, and said to me, “Honey, what is this about?”
I didn’t know, exactly. I went for a walk and cried most of the miles. I was disappointed in myself. I was sad for my son. I was angry at him, too. I was angry that he couldn’t just be compliant. I was upset he was forcing my hand, making me change my ways. Funny how that works. My cocoon of control was erupting, the nervousness I had attempted to dampen by controlling their lives had never been erased, it was back and louder than ever. I had to find a new way of doing things.
Thus began my recovery. I gave Cooper more leeway, I listened to his ideas and his thoughts. I gave myself the power to veto — and I did, often — but I also gave him the power of his voice. I gave him the respect a tween and new teenager needs, and that he deserved. I had a new mantra — I made every effort to become accessible, to be available when he needed me but most of all to be approachable. I utilized natural consequences instead of demands. I allowed my need to control the unknowns melt into the confidence that he was doing life. That he was making his way. Sure, he made mistakes — but so do I. Every day. Watching him blossom under the new rule was comforting. The rules and structure we had set forth in his younger years were the foundation of the life he was building for himself.
I began to enjoy the new order. I began to relish not having to make every decision, be in charge of every choice. I am learning to trust his instincts (and those of his brothers) and I am learning to draw lines where I felt there needed to be boundaries. I see us in my mind’s eye, driving in a car. He has his hands on the wheel, and I sit beside him, offering my input when asked and speaking up when he’s speeding too fast. The anxiety I thought would come if I relinquished control was replaced with a peace that he was settling into early adulthood with respect and grace, and screw ups, of course there are screw ups. But in the end they are his screw ups, and he will learn and grow on his own, not because I demand it.
I don’t think my need to control their environment is unrealistic or unusual. I don’t think I did any damage or harm to my boys in those younger years, I think I (we) gave them a strong and healthy nest from which to fly. I just think I held on too long. I didn’t realize the work that we put in when they were young, the rules and the rituals, the structure and the discipline helped create pretty capable young men. I was selling them, and myself, short. My mom asked me the day Cooper and I had our fight, “Do you think he’s fragile? Do you think he can’t do this without you telling him what to do and how to do it?” I remember those words stinging me. No! He wasn’t (and isn’t) fragile. He can handle life’s disappointments and downturns. He can handle failure. They all three can, and should. I was short changing them. I was teaching them that I was the one who had all the answers, that their answers wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t work. I was teaching them, in the beginning, what I wanted them to know about life. But by not letting go as they grew, I was teaching them they weren’t good enough, smart enough, capable enough to make some choices on their own.
Aiden and I watched the movie “Inside Out” and when we walked out, his wise little 12 year old mind said, “I liked that movie, Momma. It’s right, too. You have to have the bad to have the good.” Wrapped up in my need to slow the chaos was a desire to protect them from the bad. The fact of the matter is, no matter how hard I try there is no reality in that effort. And in the end, I know they need enough of a rainbow of emotion to live full, complete and happy lives – the blues and the yellows.
By taking a step back and allowing them to step and fail and succeed on their own I am learning more about who they are, I have the best seat in the house! The pressure is off for me to create their lives. I am enjoying them more (even tho there are plenty of times I throw my hands in the air and think “For the love of God why did he do that?!”). Fifteen years ago I taught childbirth education, breastfeeding and parenting classes. One of the things we always touched on was the need for newborns to cry. That the goal should never be that a newborn doesn’t cry, the goal should be that we comfort, soothe, and allow that communication with out babies. That we make every effort to hear what they are trying to tell us with their cries and to realize that crying is one of the only tools they have to express discomfort, sadness, displeasure. Somewhere along the way I stopped listening to what they were telling me, so certain I was that I knew best. I am thankful to that spunky, rowdy, obnoxious, loving 11-year-old-Cooper for showing me that I had forgotten what I knew.