By Dena Higley
I thought my family was perfect. In fact, no one would have considered that there were problems looming on the horizon. To the observer, we were an awesome unit of form and function. But somehow my efforts to be a “perfect mother” had become helicopter parenting. How did being a helicopter mom contribute to our family problems?
Our family of six was special. I had two children: a son who was diagnosed with autism at age four, and a daughter who was not disabled. Then, we adopted two more children: a seventeen-month-old daughter from Vietnam, who was born without a right leg and her fingers fused together, and a nine-year-old son from Ethiopia.
In the midst of raising these children, I had a very stressful job as the head writer of a soap opera. To offset the tension from work and to maintain peace and calm in our home, I became a helicopter parent. I drove my kids everywhere, never late in picking them up, never making them wait. I did their homework. I let them sleep in when they were tired. I involved myself in every aspect of their lives.
In addition to creating a calm home, I also instilled religious values. We all went to church together, and my children went to a private Christian elementary school. I thought I was covering all my bases and that everything in our family would have a fairy tale ending.
But, life is not a fairy tale—a fact I realized when my biological daughter came home from her sophomore year at USC and announced she was pregnant.
My overreaction to my daughter’s pregnancy was a big wake-up call for me. I was distraught over the fact that she had been stupid enough to get pregnant. She knew better; I had made sure that she knew all about abstinence and protection. I was grief stricken when I found out that she planned to drop out of college and get married. As I raged at her, I made it all about myself: I raised her better than this; I deserved better than this.
I had a complete mental and physical breakdown. Picking myself up out of the muck and mire of my depression forced me to seek therapy, do some internal examining and begin fixing my misguided parenting philosophy. In therapy sessions, it became clear that I had no idea where her emotions ended and mine began.
Now, I’m on a new and holy quest – to stop tying my self worth to the performance of my children. Before, when they did well in school, sports and the arts, I felt better about myself as a person. Frankly, that was no way to parent. It put way too much pressure on my children and sent the wrong message.
I’ve also learned that the first nine years of a child’s life are the time for planting seeds of parent/child intimacy, connection and trust. After that, our children need to individuate as they begin to cut the apron strings. I needed to learn to go with it. I needed some different parenting solutions.
I needed to let my children start owning their life. I needed to let them fail and suffer the consequences while the consequences were still relatively minor. I now understand that backing off, while at the same time, maintaining intimacy, connection and trust, can make the years of raising teenagers much easier to manage. And, when it’s time for them to leave the nest, they’ll be ready.
As for my daughter, she is now a wonderful mother and wife. We have cut the dysfunctional tie that bound us and forged a deep and healthy connection. I am a calm and content woman, a happy mother and proud grandmother. But, what a crazy journey!
Dena Higley is the author of Momaholic.