By Melissa Dribben
The Philadelphia Inquirer
I never expected a parental epiphany to arrive as late as this — 29 years after the first child was born and three years after the youngest decamped for college.
I also didn’t expect it to come as the result of a chance encounter with a stranger. But epiphanies are like milkweed, drifting around out of reach until you’re not looking, then landing in your hair.
My husband and I were out, enjoying a peaceful, kidless afternoon when we came across a woman in the throes of a motherly meltdown.
One of her little girls, who looked about 8 or 9, was standing by her side with a suspiciously innocent expression. The other who — judging by her newly minted front teeth was probably about 5 — was hanging onto the back of her stroller with a feral, wide-eyed look.
I didn’t have to know what they had just done. Thrown a tantrum over an ice cream veto, felt a tilt in the sisterly fairness balance, demanded snow in April?
Whatever it was, it was clear that they had put every tiny, hypercharged atom into it.
“I don’t think I can take this much longer,” the mother said with the exhausted desperation of a climber on an Everest expedition who is down to her last tank of oxygen.
Poor thing, I thought. And you’ve barely left base camp.
Who knows why she chose to make her public confession to us. Maybe the internal pressure had just reached its blow point. Or maybe the Poor Thing could read our faces and knew she had found kindred souls.
My husband spoke first.
“Take it from me,” he said with gloaty wisdom. “In 15 years they’ll be gone and you’ll be free. You won’t have to worry about them anymore.”
“I can’t imagine that,” said the Poor Thing.
Of course she couldn’t. Because it is unimaginable.
He was lying to her.
No parent can escape the angst that accompanies every child — from “does it have all 10 digits?” ‘til death do us part. They should put a black-box warning on pregnancy tests.
My husband worries plenty, although he never developed it into an art form as I have. The man has always slept like a cliche. He closes his eyes and, as long as no one is screaming, never lets the cog-turning interrupt his dreams for eight infuriating hours. Not when they were babies and could not tell us what was wrong. Not when they were teenagers and refused to tell us what was wrong. And not now that they are adults and don’t tell us what is wrong because they’re worried that we’ll worry.
In his waking hours, though, he has always felt some of the same stomach-flipping fear that I did when any of them was suffering. Or failing. Or making some idiotic blundering mistake.
Broken hearts. Broken bones. Broken promises. Broken laws.
They upset him. But every one of them broke a little piece of me.
When our children were driving him crazy, he got angry. Like the night he left for work at 3 a.m. because he couldn’t stand our 6-month-old’s howling. Or the night when we got the dreaded call from our 17-year-old that started, “I know you’re going to be mad. ...” And in five well-chosen words he let said miscreant know that yes, he was.
I flattered myself, thinking that because I worried more, I was the more involved, more invested parent. The anxiety didn’t paralyze me. I was always ready for action. Helpful analogies. Practical advice. Alternative strategies.
I wore myself out, though, and for years I believed it was a noble sacrifice.
So, in defense of martyred mothers everywhere, I corrected my husband’s false promise to the Poor Thing.
“Don’t listen to him,” I told her. “It doesn’t matter how old they get, you never stop worrying. They really do get nicer to be around, but they’re never really gone.”
I don’t know if she felt comforted or instead cursed at me after we left. She was probably too tired to care.
I was still thinking about the Poor Thing a week later when my daughter sent me a text from college.
She was upset about a few things. My reaction was to pull out my usual ammunition: analogies, advice, strategies — and, of course, worries.
Her reaction, to my surprise, was to tell me to shut up. And, furthermore, that my constant concern was a problem.
Not possible, I told her. That makes no sense.
Possible, she told me. Stop trying to fix me.
It took a few days, and sleepless nights, before I realized that she was right. Because you don’t worry about someone when you are confident she will succeed.
That’s when I pulled the milkweed out of my hair.
My work is done. My husband realized that truth long before I did. All those years of trying to shape them and guide them, of playing the omnipotent sculptors of their character? They’re over.
We knew — how could we not? — that they were born with their individual personalities, talents and glitches. We did what we could to foster the good and rein in the bad. (Bad? Bad?? Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m not talking about you. You’re perfect. I meant your siblings.) But as with any career you have loved for 29 years, the news that you have outstayed your usefulness comes as — well, news. I was so used to mothering them so hard for so long that I didn’t notice when they outgrew me.
They are the people they are going to be. And although I will never stop wishing for them, wanting for them, offering advice and loving them, they have earned my respectful distance.
One of my friends, who is more well-adjusted than me, told me I should feel liberated. That now I can relax and watch them figure out their own problems.
I get the concept.
It is the ultimate chase-your-tail scenario.
When you worry about your children because you are not confident that they can manage their own lives, you make it harder for them to gain the confidence they need to fight for themselves.
But the golden rules of parenting are made of soft mettle.
Not long after I met the Poor Thing, I attended the parole hearing for a 40-year-old career criminal. His 60-year-old mother had vowed a thousand times that she was done coming to his rescue. Yet she agreed to let him come home to live under house arrest.
“No matter how old they get,” she said, “they’re still your children.”
They are. Especially when they fail to grow up.
Maybe if she had carried through on her threats to cut him off, her son would have turned himself around sooner. But I’ve been a mother long enough to know better than to judge. You have no idea what other parents have tried. What they’ve been through. Whether they have had sufficient access to professional help. Or rendition.
Meanwhile, I am almost ready to concede that my husband was probably right when he told the Poor Thing that, in a mere 15 years, she won’t worry anymore.
Unless one of her children (not you, sweetheart) remains incommunicado for 36 hours — failing to respond to repeated text messages, emails and phone calls.
Then, you can worry.