Tears Dry on Their Own

I let go of the helicopter mom I was and evolved into the mom my grown-up kids need me to be

Young adults still need their parents. Those of us with 20-something children know this to be true. Some need us more, some need us far less than we'd like them to, but sooner or later, they will come to us—their older and wiser parents—with a problem too complicated or painful or expensive or dangerous to manage on their own. As has often been said: "Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems." No matter how old those "kids" are, when they are faced with a really tough situation, it's more likely than not that they will call mom or dad—or both.

Way back when, back in the last century when I was raising my kids, I felt every pain and trauma my children experienced—sometimes more intensely than they did. I was a helicopter mom just as much as the next hyper-focused parent in my suburban community, where birthday parties and softball games were celebrated on a level that, in retrospect, was completely ridiculous.

We didn't just love our kids, we were awestruck by them, and wanted the world—everything that was possible for them to have and see and do and know—for them. Since I was a stay-at-home mom, my full-time job, from morning until collapse-in-bed nighttime was taking care of my children. I was their anchor and lifeboat and soft landing and disciplinarian, and I loved them so much that sometimes just looking at their faces could break my poor, overfilled heart.

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And then they left home, for college and then jobs, and became their own people, living in apartments I rarely see, doing things I know nothing about, having feelings that I wouldn't understand and lives that are their very own. And as much as I miss those little people who once held my hand and told me their secrets and cried in my arms and listened as I told them stories of my childhood, spellbound by the different way I grew up—as much as I miss them, I am glad they have found their way away from me. Because unlike childhood secrets, grown-up secrets can be much more personal and intimate and private, and this is why parents have to let go.

I am here for them when they need me now, waiting with an open heart and resisting judgment or criticism when their problems seem insurmountable to them (even though I know they are not—so far). When they are really, really upset—sad or angry or hurt or depressed—I feel that mom that I was when they were six and eight or 13 and 15 (oh those teen years) creeping up my spine, into my brain, into my open, beating heart that begins to break again like it did sometimes back in those growing-up years.

But I stop myself from letting it happen—letting myself absorb their problems like a drug store moisturizer that never quite disappears from your skin. I stop myself and let myself be the mother of an adult—rational, calm, intellectual, sympathetic. I stop myself because, at some point along the way, I had to let go of the mom that I was and evolve into the mom my grown-up kids—my hard-working, independent, unique adults—need now. It's tempting, in fact sometimes impossible to resist, being the mom I was for so many years, but we are all better off if I'm able to be this mom, who, instead of absorbing their tears into my skin can offer a tissue to dry their eyes.

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No one has to stop being a parent when their children become adults, but everyone needs to rearrange the way they do their parenting. If I'm going to continue to grow, not just older but in ways that enhance my life, then the person I was needed to change. It wasn't easy, and sometimes still isn't, but I know it was the right thing to do.

Except if the world falls apart and they are wrecked. If they are feeling so badly and cannot figure it out, then I'll become the other mom again. Because I can let go, but I can also hold on tight if they need me to.

Tags: family