We want to hold our children close and protect them forever, but if we don’t embrace our helplessness as parents, we may hold them so close we squash them.
When I held my new-born son in my arms I understood why they say that a mother is capable of anything, even murder, to protect her child. My husband felt the same when he realised that this little bundle of life was going to be looking to him for protection. However, I’ve also come to believe that we also need to embrace the helplessness of parenthood, the boundaries of our ability to fully protect them.
Helpless as parents?
Yet being a parent means that we are always balancing on the knife-edge between over protection and benign abandonment. The tendency towards over protectiveness is inflated by the increasing societal fantasy that we can insulate ourselves from every perceivable danger. Health and safety regulations – though born from a genuine desire to protect – stifle creativity and breed a false sense of security. At the same time as parental anxieties are fed on a daily basis with concerns about the shadow side of the internet, traffic dangers, stranger dangers, not to speak of the temptation of sex, drugs and alcohol for our increasingly younger teenagers, makes this world a seemingly dangerous one. Yet, objectively, children in the western world are safer now than they have ever been before, less likely to die before the age of five, less likely to suffer malnutrition, or even abduction.
None of us want to be the parent that looks back and says; “if only….”, yet those parents who meet with tragedy will tell themselves that, even though they have no reason to. When I lost my first pregnancy at three months, I felt I failed this unborn child of mine, though everyone around me tried to tell me different. How much greater then is the self-imposed guilt when your child is lost to you at the age of 5, or ten, or 21?
Protecting them from the worst
So we do the best we can to avoid ‘the worst’ happening, and in doing so, we are in danger of robbing our children of the immensely important almost-worst experiences that help them to grow strong and resilient. I was a bit of a kamikaze pilot in my early teens, and managed, in one and the same month, to almost cut my thumb in half sledging on a piece of corrugated iron, and tearing a huge hole in my chin by falling 2 metres down out of a hayloft (don’t ask). This was Holland in the seventies, and although it elicited one of the only two outbursts I ever heard from my father during his life, the whole process of being taken to hospital (alone), being stitched up, and sent home left little mark, other scars on my thumb and chin.
We need to let children experience life, struggle with life, be they relationships with others, or, as in my case, the forces of gravity. And yet, how do we do that while at the same time trying to make sure they are safe enough?
I believe that the first step is to embrace our parental helplessness. That in the end, however much we try to control our children’s lives and environment being a parent is about feeling helpless most of the time. If we don’t, we’re probably suffocating our children with too much care. Helpless to stop other children making them feel sad and small, helpless to stop them falling over and bleeding, helpless to stop our teenagers from getting into contact with people and environments that are detrimental.
Children begin the process of differentiating from their earliest caregivers from the age of 18 month (source). As early as that they begin to follow that magical inner prompting that will, if all goes to plan, help them to find their feet, control their bowls, develop their will, understand their power, and their weakness, their own agency, their creativity, until eventually, they torment us with blaring music coming out of their rooms, mood swings, and that final (for the teenager most painful) flight into adulthood.
And at each stage, as parents, we are balancing between giving them a little more space each time to meet this inner prompting, while staying close enough to step in should we be needed, and only when we’re needed. For an infant this is less than a meter, for an almost mature teenager this may be countries apart. We’re helpless to protect them from all the evils than may befall them, and that is so, so hard, and yet we have the power to arm them as best we can with all the wisdom, self respect, reflexiveness and most of all, experience, their own experience, so they can navigate as true captains through their own world of opportunity.