I hit bottom today. I hope. This morning, my daughter Rhys (4), sneezed. She reached for the tissue box, her fingers poised over the puff of white, “Mom, will you get me a tissue?” she asked sweetly. Without thinking, I walked over from the other end of the kitchen, “Of course, love. Here you go!” I replied as I handed her the tissue. Our eyes met and widened. We both knew what had just happened. I had fallen off the wagon.
Old patterns are a bitch to change. And one of my most insidious patterns is my need to do things for my children that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. Whether it is retrieving a tissue, a spoon or a pair of socks, somehow I’ve internalized the belief that mother equals sherpa, butler and server in our family. Unfortunately, I’ve reinforced this pattern with my children for several years.
When Ava (8) was in preschool, her teacher pulled me aside one day at pick-up time. Mr. Chris explained that while Ava was a compassionate, caring child, her tendency to jump up whenever someone sneezed and dive over the other kids in her eagerness to grab her classmate a tissue was disrupting to the class. My first thoughts: Disrupting? It’s not like you’re teaching them calculus! My child is helpful and caring! How can one precious four-year old (mine) disrupt a roomful of snot-nosed kids playing peek-a-boo? Please!
Then the shame crept in … Realizing I was busted, I explained that Ava came by her behavior honestly (as if Mr. Chris hadn’t already guessed). I modeled the same behavior for Ava, anticipating each sneeze and producing the necessary tissue with flourish. I had always thought this attention to my child’s every need was the mark of a good mother. While my belief in what makes a good mother has changed over the years, my actions have yet to catch up.
I thought my confession to
Father Mr. Chris would change my pattern. Wishful thinking. Flash forward four years: Ava would no sooner jump up to grab someone a tissue than share her last bite of birthday cake, but she still will earnestly ask me to get her something that is within her reach. And if I respond, I often feel angry and resentful, neither of which are smart strategies for good relationships with my children. Or for sanity.
I like to think I’m improving, but my “do it yourself” muscles are as weak and flabby as my neglected core muscles. And no amount of side-planks and crunches are going to fix this pattern.
I’m clear my tendency to anticipate and fulfill another person’s needs isn’t for the other person. It’s for me. I get to feel in control – useful, needed and important – a paper towel here, a spoon there, a refill of cereal for you and a freshly-sharpened pencil for your sister! I’m like a short-order cook on crack – faster, faster, faster! Gosh, I’m great! (All this multi-tasking counts as exercise, right?)
Keeping my children small and dependent is also a great way for me to stay busy so I don’t have to focus on my own life adventures. And running around attending to my kids’ real and imagined needs assuages my insidious mommy guilt. (Here I am typing away on this blog while my beloved daughter’s boogers go unattended. The horror!)
Unless I’m on a quest to resent my kids as much as possible, something has to change. And apparently that something is me. So I decided to start today. Here’s how my redo with Rhys went this afternoon:
Rhys: “Mom, could you get me a spoon?”
Me: “No. “
Rhys: “Mom, would you please get me a spoon?
Me: “Thank you for the ‘please.’ And no.”
Rhys: “Mooooooooom, why won’t you get me a spoon? I’m starving, my yogurt is getting cold and I need a spoon!”
I was tempted to reply: “My darling daughter, ‘no’ is a complete sentence. I want you to have the experience of satisfaction and self-esteem that comes from doing things for yourself. I want to model for you that there is no shame in refusing a request, especially when that request will bring resentment. I would rather say “no” now rather than resent you later.”
I resisted the urge to explain. I would have lost her attention at “darling daughter” anyway.
Instead I replied: “I hear you need a spoon. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
Not a drop of resentment in me. And I didn’t have to stand up. Unfortunately, I’ll probably burn fewer calories if I stop jumping up at every request! Perhaps I can fill my newfound time with side-planks.
Do you struggle with doing things for your children or others that they can do for themselves? If so, I’d love to hear. If not, quit gloating and share your secrets already!