Helicopter parenting refers to “a style of parents who are over focused on their children,” says Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders near Detroit and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide (via Parents Magazine).
Define “over focused.”
In recent months I have felt myself “focused” on the kids more that usual. I would not consider myself a full-blown helicopter parent, but moving -as we did again in August – brings out my hovering tendencies. I know we are asking a lot of the kids to adjust to a change in place, a different school, new friends. So I am constantly watching them, checking in: Are they feeling adjusted? Are they happy? What do they need to feel at home?
I have noticed that it takes my kids about 4-5 months to really settle in after a move. It is at this point that the veil of anxiety seems to lift and they find their groove, their comfort zone, their routine. They morph back into their carefree, confident, snarky selves. Read: They don’t need me to hold their hand anymore.
Unfortunately once I am in helicopter mode, it is hard to turn it off. My blades are going too fast. For me, worrying is a bit of an addiction – once I start I can’t stop. My grandmother used to call it “fretting.” I get drunk on fretting and sometimes do stupid things I will second guess in the morning.
It is the afternoon of Emma’s holiday chorus concert and we are scrambling to get ready. Emma has a cold. She is tired and nervous and indecisive about what to wear. She wants my opinion on her outfit but only if my opinion matches the decision she has already made in her mind but refuses to share. Because I am supposed to guess. I guess wrong. Twice.
She is very congested and demands tissues. I hand her a roll of toilet paper because I forgot to buy tissues. She blows her nose and it is impressive. She is a fountain of snot. How is she going to sing through all that snot? My OCD train has left the station. I have appointed myself the Mucus Manager.
We load up in the car and bring the toilet paper. She can’t bring toilet paper on stage – how will she blow her nose? I dig through my bottomless bag in search of tissues and my hand finds a travel pack I stole from my mother’s bathroom. It’s a Christmas miracle. Suddenly I am Mom of the Year.
I turn in my seat, victorious, arm extended, passing the tissues to Emma like the Olympic torch. “Look what I found!”
“I don’t want them.”
“But you said you can’t stop blowing your nose.”
“I don’t want the tissues, Mom.
“But you could just stick them in your pocket….”
“Ok, ok fine, no tissues.”
I turn back around in my seat. A minute passes.
“Fine, just give me the tissues.”
I pass them back to her. We get out of the car and walk toward the school. As we open the double doors and she spots a group of her friends, she spins around and tosses me the packet of tissues.
“I don’t want the tissues.”
And with that, she takes off down the hall toward the chorus room.
But how is she going to sing through all that snot?
I am not proud of what happens next.
I should have just gone to my seat. But I don’t. I follow her down the hall and slip into the chorus room. I slink against the back wall, creeping behind the risers where the kids are finding their spots. What the hell am I doing in here, I think but it is too late, I am in the middle of the room. One of Emma’s friends spots me. Shit. She taps Emma on the shoulder and points. Shit. Emma looks at me with eyes that say “WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING. HERE.”
I hold up the packet of tissues and point to them. I mouth to her “I WILL LEAVE THESE RIGHT HERE,” pointing to the chair that holds her jacket. Then I gave her a thumbs up. Emma’s eyes get wide. Her friend snickers. This ship is sinking and I can’t save myself. The music stands feel embarrassed for me.
I find Phil in the auditorium and slink into my seat. I text my friend Julie and give her a play by play of what just went down. She replies with helicopter emojis.
Phoebe lands the role of Sally in a local stage production of A Charlie Brown Christmas. For seven Sundays she rehearses from 3:00-6:00; a big commitment for a six year old. We practice her lines in the car, before bed, while she brushes her teeth. She has two big scenes: one with Charlie Brown and one with Linus.
The big night arrives. I drop Phoebe backstage and we settle into our seats.
I try to be patient but I am counting the scenes until Phoebe’s stage debut, when she dictates her Santa letter to Charlie Brown. After what feels like an eternity she and Charlie Brown take the stage:
Sally: Dear Santa Claus: How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year so I have a long list of presents that I want.
Charlie Brown: Oh, brother.
Sally: Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems to complicated, makes things easy on yourself. Just send money. How about tens and twenties?
Charlie Brown: Tens and twenties! Oh, even my baby sister!
Sally: All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.
She nails it. My smile threatens to break my face.
I can relax – the hard part is over. She only has one line in her next scene with Linus and it’s an easy one. I sit back and in my chair and let my butt cheeks de-clench.
But then the scene with Linus begins and Phoebe is not on stage. I check the program. I check the program again. There is her name, clearly listed.
Oh my God where is she.
I turn to Phil and hiss, “Where is she???” Like he knows. Like he somehow telepathically received some inside information while sitting right next to me rifling through my bag for gum.
He looks concerned which freaks me out. Then he shrugs his shoulders.
Did she puke? Is she in the bathroom and missed the entrance? Phoebe has a habit of pooping at inopportune moments.
But what if she’s sick? What if she’s crying? Do I go back there?
I turn to Phil. “Do I go back there?”
We look around us and realize we are smack in the middle of the row. “Do I text Amy?” Amy is the director of the show and conveniently a good friend. Phil shrugs again.
With my index finger poised over the keyboard, a text from Amy appears on my phone:
As I am typing “do you need me? I can come back” I am already climbing over people, lunging and stumbling and excusing myself to freedom. Once I push my way through the auditorium doors and escape into the hallway, I take off in a full sprint. I weave my way through bags of costumes and kids waiting for their curtain call until I reach backstage. Then, I see her, her big blue bow askew, her hand pressing a wad of bloody tissues to her nose.
She turns and sees me. Her costume is covered in blood. Those blue eyes, so big and scared, fill up with tears like giant fishbowls.
Crying for me is highly contagious. My tagline could be Dolly Parton’s line from Steel Magnolias: “I have a strict policy that no one cries alone in my presence.”
But I know if I cry we are sunk. I pinch my leg hard and force a fake smile as I crouch down next to her.
“Mommy,” she whimpers, “I have a bloody nose.”
“Yes, you did,” I say. “But it has stopped. You are ok now.”
She whispers, “Can we go home now? RIGHT NOW?” She clutches my arm with her bloody little hand.
“The play is ending – don’t you want to take your bow?”
She stares at me blankly. She looks like a cartoon character with PTSD. I realize this is the part where I have to step in and decide about the bow. She is cooked, she is toast. 95% of me wants to swoop her up and get her out of there, but 5% says: You are not actively bleeding so do the bow. Finish what you started. I have no idea if this is the right decision but I go with it.
She does the bow, sort of. She kind of lurks stage right, still holding the bloody tissues to her nose. Close enough.
The curtains close and she runs to me. The other kids are so sweet and supportive, giving her hugs and high fives. She forces a smile but wants out.
She grabs my arm and whispers: “Can we go home right now?”
With heads down, we weave our way through the crowded lobby. I spot Phil and give him the “wrap it up” signal with my finger. When we reach the car, Phoebe says, “Will you sit in the way back with me?” We settle into the third seat and hold hands. As the car pulls out of the lot, she starts to weep.
“I missed my scene with Linus.”
“I know. It’s ok. You nailed the big scene with Charlie Brown.”
“I sort of missed my bow.”
“No you didn’t! You went out there. You bowed.”
“How did you know I had a bloody nose?”
“Amy texted me.”
She turns to me in the dark; headlights from passing cars illuminate her streaky cheeks. “When you got her text….did you get up and leave right away?”
“Did you run?”
I squeeze her hand, our fingers intertwined. “I ran.”
She sighs and rests her head on my arm. Suddenly she separates our fingers and presses my hand flat with my palm facing up. Then she places her hand in my open palm and wraps her fingers in-between mine. I begin to wrap my fingers around her knuckles but she stops me.
“No. You keep your hand flat. This is how I want to hold hands. With only me holding on.”
I smile, but at the same time my heart hurts a little. Both emotions -the joy and the sadness- are equally true for me in that moment; connection and separation sharing the same bittersweet space.
“Got it,” I say, uncurling my fingers away from hers. “I can do that.”
I can do that.