My Mother’s Biggest Parenting Mistake Taught Me Children Need To Leave The Nest

empty bird nestThis is a reader submission for our Mother’s Day essay contest, “What My Mother’s Biggest Parenting Mistake Taught Me About Parenting.”

Right now my daughter is obsessed with Finding Nemo. At 27 months, she doesn’t get why my husband and I cry during most of the movie. Experiencing the devastating story of losing a spouse, having your child taken, and having to let that child go back into the wide world as soon as you recover him, probably makes us pretty average parents. But it’s the movie’s final lesson I find especially wrenching: that our children are supposed to leave us, that leaving is normal, healthy, and necessary. I don’t ask my own mom to help me prepare for my daughter’s departure because my mom has never come to terms with my leaving her.

As modern and Americanized as 45 years in California have made her, my mom is still old-school Chinese. In that school of parenting, the child owes absolute obedience and the parent is in charge of the child’s well-being, success, and happiness—forever. My mom did what I sometimes secretly want to do for my daughter: she sheltered me from the world and did most things for me in order to know they were being done, and done right. Her worst fear was that I would make a mistake and live with regret, whether from choosing the wrong college or the wrong friends.

She was a helicopter parent before the term became ubiquitous. More apt is the term “snowplow parent” for all the ways she tried to clear my path of obstacles.

Once, when I was learning to cook, I laid out a recipe and a tray full of ingredients for some kind of fancy breakfast torte. The next morning, I found my mom in the kitchen, halfway through my steps, declaring how much time she had already saved me. One summer, after she discovered a stack of job applications in my room, she found a wealthy family willing to pay me twice any mall job salary to tutor their son. And right before I bought a plane ticket to visit my new graduate school 800 miles away, my mom booked a hotel for three, and announced she and my dad would drive me there and back.

Like many kids of snowplow parents, I absorbed several lessons from my mom’s behavior: that I wasn’t trusted to do things myself; that my independence grew at the same rate as my mom’s fear; that my mom’s sense of self was wrapped up in me; and that if I wanted to live my own life, I would just have to keep it from her. Slowly, inevitably, I pulled away; I shared less and said “no” more. And my mom wept and mourned ever raising an American daughter.

Admittedly, I let my mom make my life easier long after I knew it was unhealthy. But today, our relationship is distant and strained. Neither of us can give the other what she needs. I don’t share with her much of my life to avoid her worry and need to fix. She has no vessel for all of her maternal love and instincts, however misguided those may be. The paradox of my snowplow parent is that her deep love, which ached to keep me close, eventually caused my alienation.

I understand why my mom parented me the way she did. I know she wasn’t trying to inhibit me. Having escaped rural China just before communism crippled it with famine, my mom had seen the kind of cruelty and despair that could ruin a life. But by clearing away the dangers for me, she also cleared away all the strengthening, character-building obstacles that train up an experienced, resilient, capable adult.

Like every parent, I feel pangs when I see my kid frustrated. But I force myself to let my daughter struggle into her clothes when she wants to do it “my by self” because I can’t just give her skills or confidence. She has to work for them while I cheer her efforts. I try, often with sadness lacing my enthusiasm, to celebrate her little steps of independence that push her ever further from needing me.

(photo: marioci / Shutterstock)

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    • Jayamama

      This is a great article. I think one of the hardest parts about parenting is knowing that your children will some day not need you anymore, and that it’s supposed to be that way. I can’t imagine watching my children go through hardships and taking a step back, knowing they have to work through it themselves. I think this story just attests to the fact that if you do what’s needed, even if it’s hard, then you may at least have a relationship with your children when they’re adults. Thank you for sharing.

    • notorious

      The movie I cried about (for the same reason) was Toy Story 3. Everyone always talks about crying at the end of that one, but I got teary eyed at the beginning when his mom is packing up his room to send him off to college. It is so bittersweet watching your kids need you less and less. Thank you for your story.

    • jessica

      I know exactly what you mean! All of it, except it was my dad and we’re of Jordanian descent. It’s a hard thing to deal with since you’re both aware that your snow plow parent is doing this out of a combo of love and genuine concern for you and deeply and rightfully annoyed. It took a long time but my dad and I are finally at the point where we can really talk and I can share most problems without him responding by swooping in and handling it on my behalf without my consent. Hopefully you and your mom will get there one day too.

    • Jussame

      This is beautifully (and thoughtfully) written.

    • Dfbirdg

      Any reason you must say 27 months and not two years old? When does it end? “Oh little Johnny is 324 months.”