Smotherly Love

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Overfunctioning Maternal Instincts

But somewhere deep inside my overfunctioning maternal instincts there lurked a notion that I, and I alone, had to get them through the first few weeks of nursery school and the first few days of summer camp, through team tryouts, drama tryouts, final exams, anything major, anything that might make them unhappy. I felt responsible for every aspect of their lives, but above all I felt responsible for their happiness.

This is a tricky business, as every parent knows. When our children are little, we have enormous power. We feed them, and that makes them happy. We talk to them in high voices, and that makes them happy. We sing to them, get them into dry ­diapers, show up at the door, make a face, blow a bubble. We are the great and powerful Oz.

As their needs get more complicated, however, so does their happiness. And though trying to keep an infant fed and dry and smiling and more or less happy is a more or less reasonable goal, trying to keep a 7-year-old happy, let alone a 12-year-old, is not. It's not even a good idea.

As soon as unhappiness hit, I tried distraction and avoidance. When my daughter was having a tough few weeks with a difficult teacher, I kept showing up at Friday pickup time with little gifts, until one day she said, casually, "It's okay, Mom. I'm used to her now. You don't need to buy me anything else."

The truth was that seeing my children unhappy made me unhappy. And I didn't like that. In fact, for a while I believed I couldn't bear it. And so I lost touch with one of the best gifts a mother has to give: perspective. I was the grown-up and I knew that not being the teacher's pet or not having a starring role in the class play was small potatoes in the big picture, but too ­often I forgot those insights. Even though I adopted the preferred parenting language of the time ("Did you have fun?" "Did you meet anyone new?"), my kids could sense my anxiety in the ­vibrato of my forced cheerfulness and my fumbling attempts to suss out crucial information ("Not that it matters, but did you remember all your lines?"). Too often they got the message that the fleeting unhappiness brought on by disappointment of any kind constituted an intolerable burden -- for them and for me. It was better not to try than to fail, better to stay in your known little world and avoid the judgments of the wide and wicked universe.

Continued on page 3:  Raised Stakes


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