The Specialness of a Tuna Sandwich

Helping each other—even if it's just making lunch—is our family's way of showing love

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My son unlocked the front door, tossed his keys in the wooden bowl on the entry table and joined my friend and me at the kitchen island. After she reached up to hug the 22-year-old she hardly recognized with a mustache and a beard, I asked if he wanted anything for lunch.

"Sure. What's there to eat?" he questioned, as he opened the refrigerator door and peered inside.

"There's sliced turkey or I could make you a tuna fish sandwich," I answered.

"Thanks, Mom. A sandwich sounds good."

My stunned friend looked at me and then at my son, as if I had offered to buy him a new Ferrari. "You're a nice mom. I would have handed my kid the can of tuna and told him to make it himself!" she said. Her offhand comment both surprised and offended me, yet initially, I didn't understand why.

I placed two slices of bread in the toaster and grabbed a can opener. "The reason I'm making him a sandwich," I explained while opening the can, "is if I asked him to make one for me, he wouldn't think twice." Although at times it may take a bit of prodding, when I need a favor, I can count on both of my sons to oblige. They, in turn, know they can count on me.

Our family refers to these gestures as "doing special," a term associated with my ex-husband's grandmother. We rarely saw the matriarch of the family, but when asked whether she needed anything, her response was always the same: "Don't do special." We refer to her signature phrase jokingly, but the underlying truth is that helping one another is one way our family shows love and respect for each other.

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My son, either channeling his great-grandma or sensing my defensiveness, said, "I'll make it, Mom, but can you tell me how?" I turned to him and wondered why I hadn't taught my offspring the basic skill of making a tuna-fish sandwich. Together, the two moms guided my eldest through a tuna tutorial, suggesting how much mayo to add along with a dab of relish. He stirred the creamy contents and spread them on the toasted bread, technically making his own lunch, yet my friend shook her head and said, "You're lucky your mom is so helpful."

Why was she shocked by my offer to make lunch for my son? He didn't expect me to prepare anything and I didn't feel obligated to do so. Although she's one of my closest friends, I have no idea how this mom of two interacts with her sons. We rarely scheduled playdates together when our kids were younger—they were the same age, but not friends.

We clearly assist our sons to different degrees, yet that doesn't mean one parent should be regarded as better than the other. Still, my sons are at an age where they ask little of me. If I have an opportunity to do special for either one of them, I won't hesitate.

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It took years for me to find the right balance between assisting and micromanaging my children. When they were younger, I could have commanded the squadron of helicopter moms swooping in to handle for their children what they were capable of managing on their own: making friends, alleviating boredom and dealing with disappointment.

One afternoon, as I was describing to my sister a hovering mom who coddled her children and stifled their independence by orchestrating their every move, I stopped mid-sentence; I was describing myself. If I didn't adjust my parenting style, one day my sons would be anything but self-sufficient.

Instead of obsessing over my boys, I focused on instilling a sense of responsibility, self-discipline and compassion within them, while at the same time giving them the opportunity to find their way. The result? Both sons are confident, resilient and surrounded by friends whom they consider their second family. They know I'm always available as a resource and will support their efforts, yet I have no desire to manage their lives.

As my friend walked to my car and I locked the door behind her, I shook my head. Why was I offended by her comments? Why had I tried to justify my eagerness to help my son when there was no reason to do so? Maybe I'm sensitive to any suggestion I'm one step away from reviving my expired helicopter license. Maybe I feel defensive that anyone would believe I'm still keeping my thumb on my sons' lives. Or maybe I had forgotten that each person has a distinct method of parenting.

And if a friend whose parenting style differs from mine is convinced I'm doing too much for my sons, including making a simple sandwich, it doesn't matter. A parent is always allowed to do special.

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