by Joy Sawyer-Mulligan
Shared in my monthly newsletter this week, this beautiful essay is my top pick for Mother’s Day reading this weekend.
I’d been warned.
“Someday, you know, she’s going to tell you you’re not her mother.”
The counselor looked at me, hard; I looked right back, not wanting to believe she was right, but knowing she was. “OK. I can handle that. I mean, in one way, I’m not. It’s just a kind of truth, right?”
But it wasn’t a truth I had any experience with. My female kinfolk claimed the robust end of the fertility spectrum. My mother was pregnant ten times. My older sister could launch a pregnancy simply by clicking her heels and spinning three times. Magic.
Not I. A flamboyantly ruptured appendix followed by a dose of Clomid that blew up one ovary to the size of a Florida grapefruit had left me with a bunch of tangled innards, a cat’s cradle of scar tissue. Eventually, a straight-talking ob-gyn doctor calculated our chances of joining egg to sperm at 14%. That’s a number sort of like your SAT scores: it sticks with you, especially if it’s way below the median.
But outside the doctor’s high-rise office, in the bright SoCal sunshine, my optimistic, glass-half-full husband said, “It’s okay. We’ll adopt.” I took the sun’s glinting off steel and windows in precisely that moment as a sign. Yes. Yes, we’ll make our family that way.
And now, five years as wife-husband-and-beautiful-child, a therapist was laying it out baldly: I had become a mother, but not 100% — at least not to my daughter. As a concept, our daughter’s biological mother Susan was present in our lives. But it’s a law of physics, the Pauli Exclusion Principle: two objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously. If it is true with matter, I could accept that it might be true with a little heart — room for only one of us mothers in that thar town. Yet after all my practice bracing myself for her saying it, after my rehearsals of a rational yet empathetic response, the ringing “You’re not my mother!” hurt. The right words came calmly out of my mouth — ”I am your mother, and so is Susan” — even as the arrow found home. Read the full essay…
Joy Sawyer-Mulligan has been an educator for over 30 years. After earning her undergraduate degree at Colby College and graduate degree at Middlebury College, Joy taught at St. Paul’s School (New Hampshire) and at Choate-Rosemary Hall (Connecticut) before moving to The Thacher School in Ojai, California in its second year of co-education. She has worn many hats at the Thacher School, currently the English Department Chair, teaching 9th and 12th grade English and advising sophomore girls. For Joy, recreation is a hyphenated word, and means writing, reading, hiking, and singing.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” –Eckhart Tolle
This Mother’s Day, I may not get to see my stepchildren, as they will likely be celebrating with their mom. But I will be thinking about them a lot, about how they’ve given me the opportunity to become a much better mother.
(An aside: Originally I wrote that my stepkids would be celebrating Mother’s Day with their “real mom.” As if I’m not real. But “biological mom” was wrong, as it implied adoption. “Other mother” is also wrong, as it implies equality between me and their mother, which I would never claim. The truth is that I am actually not really a “real” mother to my stepchildren, but that is another issue altogether, one that Joy Sawyer-Mulligan sheds light on in this beautiful essay about motherhood.)
Imagine, if you’ll indulge me for a minute, what it must be like to be one of my children. As a professional advice giver, I’m — let’s just be honest — bossy. I have an opinion (albeit science-based) about everything. When people (not my children) seek out my coaching, wanting guidance for improving their happiness, their effectiveness at work, or their parenting, I’m more than happy to tell them not just what I think but what, specifically, to do.
So it hasn’t been easy to be Molly or Fiona, the guinea pigs on which I’ve tested all of my science-based parenting advice since not long after I gave birth to them. I’ve done my best to arm them with instructions for every possible situation. Once, dropping my kids off at sleepaway camp for the first time, I found myself suggesting to a very nervous Fiona a specific way to breathe and specific things she might think about to distract her from her anxiety. I had become so controlling that I was telling her how to breathe and exactly what to think.
The irony, of course, is that trying to control your children is frequently futile and usually counterproductive.
That’s the clear conclusion psychologist Wendy Grolnick has reached over two decades of watching parents talk to their children. Here’s the gist of her research: The children of controlling parents — those who tell their children exactly what to do, and when to do it — don’t do as well as kids whose parents are involved and supportive without being bossy. Children of “directive” parents, like me, tend to be less creative and resourceful, less persistent when faced with a challenge, less successful solving problems. They don’t like school as much, and they don’t achieve as much academically.
Enter my awesome stepchildren. They’ve been in my life for almost six years. I’ve loved and supported them, but from a distance — we didn’t really live together until about nine months ago. It isn’t that I haven’t disciplined them, or asked them to help out around the house, or offered an unpopular opinion. I have. I’ve taken away devices, made and enforced rules, helped them address thank-you notes, just like I do with Molly and Fiona.
But there is a major difference between the way that I parent my stepchildren and the way that I parent Molly and Fiona. Mainly, I’m just not as bossy. I’m more like a very involved aunty with my stepchildren than the helicopter mom I’m prone to being with my biological kids. I don’t criticize them, and I make an effort to hold my tongue when they do something that I find irritating.
I can more easily be supportive of them without being attached to the outcome; I can make a suggestion without caring whether or not it is taken. Instead of bossing my stepchildren around, expecting them to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it, I choose my requests carefully and try to voice them respectfully.
For example, I recently had an opportunity to teach both my stepdaughter, Macie, who is in 9th grade, and my sixth-grader, Molly, some new study skills. Unconsciously, I approached the kids differently. I was very directive with Molly, basically telling her what she had to do and then sitting next to her while she tried out my suggestions, correcting her every move. The following day, she was supposed to study on her own (using the new technique I’d given her). She tried, for a little while. And then, just like the kids in Grolnick’s studies, she got frustrated and gave up.
I didn’t realize my error with Molly until a few days later when Macie needed help studying for a test. I offered to teach her some study skills but was clear that I wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t want my help. I was delighted when she took me up on my offer. But I wasn’t as intent on having her put my tips to use.
My emotional stance in these two situations was completely different. With Molly, I was an anxious mom, worried about her school performance. With Macie, I was just there, loving the opportunity to teach her something that might be useful.
It dawned on me that I have been much more respectful of my stepchildren’s autonomy. I can support them without mistakenly thinking that their competence is my competence. I don’t worry (or even think) about how their successes or failures might reflect on me.
It is totally normal for parents to feel like they have more skin in the game with their biological children than stepchildren; psychologists call this tendency “ego-involvement.” In her wonderful book Pressured Parents, Stressed Out Kids, Grolnick writes,
Ego-involvement occurs when our protective and loving hardwiring collides with the competition in our children’s lives, prompting us wrap our own self-esteem around our children’s achievement. That gives us our own stake in how well our child performs.
However normal it may be, my “ego-involvement” wasn’t helping anyone; it may have actually been making Molly and Fiona less successful in their endeavors. Noticing how differently I was behaving with my stepchildren was a giant wake-up call. I needed to be more supportive of Molly and Fiona without being intrusive, to make requests without being so bossy.
After the study skills incident, I resolved to coach my children more like I coach my clients: gently, and without ego-attachment. Instead of dictating what I want when I want it (“Put that freaking device down! You should be helping me with dinner! Start peeling the carrots NOW!”), I’ve returned to the “ERN” approach I devised in Raising Happiness:
- Empathize. “I know you’d rather be looking at Vine than helping in the kitchen right now. I’m dying to know what is cracking you up.”
- Provide Rationale. “But I need some help with dinner or we are going to be late for your performance.”
- Use Non-controlling language. This one is hard for me. Asking questions helps, as in: “Would you rather peel carrots or set the table? Either would be super helpful right now.” I don’t let myself say “should,” “have to,” or “I want you to,” which is what Grolnick sees as the epitome of controlling language.
None of this is about lowering my standards or relaxing rules; my children will still tell you that I’m the strictest parent on the block. But providing kids with high expectations and lots of structure is very different than being bossy and dictatorial.
As I’ve made an effort to be less controlling, my connections with my children have instantly deepened. Why? Jess Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, recently explained to me that “parental control kills connection.”
So on this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful for my connections to my four children, all of whom I love with all my heart. And right now I’m especially grateful for my beautiful stepchildren. They have given me the opportunity to experience what it is like to love without the sticky attachment of my ego, and that is truly the sweet spot of motherhood.
“Laughter is an instant vacation.” — Milton Berle
It is easier than ever to raise a self-centered, ill-mannered child — even if you aren’t wealthy.
I’ve been re-reading Amy McCready’s excellent parenting book, The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic. In so doing, it’s occurred to me that our generation of parents may be best remembered for our spectacular ability to give our children what they want when they want it. Need a lesson in promoting entitlement? Look no further.
- Make sure your kids have access to all the latest iDevices, in multiples if possible. For example, it isn’t too much for middle-schoolers to have both an iPhone AND and an iPad; that will prepare them for the Macbook Air you plan to get them for high school. This technique takes funds, but often grandparents can help. When kids drop their iPhone and break the screen, consider replacing the whole device with a newer version.
- Give your kids a break, especially if they (or you) aren’t feeling well. Everyone is under a lot of pressure these days. It is okay to limit kids’ screen time to 2 hours a day, for example, but these rules can be ridiculously hard to enforce on a day-to-day basis, much less if anything out of the ordinary is happening. If you think they might have a sore throat, or if they seem too tired to go to school, let them stay home and watch Netflix or ESPN all day — especially if they don’t like school very much.
- Refuse to consistently enforce bedtimes. It is normal for kids to want to stay up late, especially if they are texting with their friends or there is a big game on TV. One night, nag them until they go to bed. The next night, you’ll likely all be tired from the previous night’s effort, so just let them choose their own bedtime, or ignore them until they fall asleep on their own. That way they will realize that, actually, they are in control of their bedtimes. If their attention or impulse control at school suffers because they are tired, excellent stimulants, like Ritalin, are widely available.
- When things aren’t going your way, point to the shortcomings of other people. You are entitled to good service from the dry cleaners, cable guy, flight attendants, etc. Since your kids will never have one of these jobs (see # 9), there is really no need to show empathy or compassion towards underperforming service workers. Similarly, when your kids bring home bad grades, listen earnestly to their accusations about how bad their teachers are. Consider complaining to the Principal or School Head, or at least send a harsh email.
- Pay for as many enrichment activities, tutors, and the best sports teams you can afford. When you pay a lot for something, the coaches, faculty and staff tend to feel they owe kids more success, praise, higher scores, trophies, etc. They are also more likely to go out of their way to ensure that your kids have a good time — and that they never feel defeated or disappointed (see # 7).
- Confide in your kids as though they are your close friends, especially if you really need someone to talk to about a problem or if you are already crying or enraged. Lack of boundaries creates the expectation that your business is their business to worry about and fix. Having you as a friend first and parent second ensures that their close friendships with peers don’t fully develop, and therefore won’t interfere with their closeness to you (or their ability to support you when you need them). Moreover, this lack of boundaries will ensure that they are often rude to you, much in the same way they’d be with a sibling.
- Do everything within your power to prevent your kids from feeling pain. This includes any sort of discomfort, difficulty, or disappointment. Cover for them when they make mistakes. Insist teachers raise mediocre grades. That way, kids won’t learn how to rise to challenges or handle their mistakes themselves, and they will feel entitled to a life free from discomfort or disappointment. And when the going gets rough in the future, they’ll be more likely to find a way to lie or cheat their way out of the situation — or they’ll instantly start blaming others. (See # 4.)
- Give them money whenever they need it. This is easier than remembering to dole out allowance, helping them find a job, teaching them to manage their own money, or helping them understand the relative cost of all they things they desperately “need.”
- Don’t insist kids write thank you notes. Kids are busy, and so are you (and we all know it is you that will be saddled with addressing and mailing the notes). People already know that kids are grateful for all they have and everything that receive; no need for them to learn how to express their appreciation in written form, especially given how much they already have going on.
- Make sure they never have to do an entry-level or minimum wage job. Boredom is uncomfortable (see # 7) and unnecessary these days. Working their way up in an organization is a waste of time if you can use your connections to help them start at the top; hopefully they’ll pick up a strong work-ethic from all the people around them that did earn their positions. (If they need cash, see # 8.) Bonus #1: Kids start to assume that all adults are willing to go the extra mile for them, and that they are entitled to skip the hard bits in life. Bonus #2: This will greatly reduce the odds that they’ll ever work in a service industry, or have the chance to work along side people different from them — and increase the odds that they’ll act superior and degrading to servers and cashiers everywhere.
- Above all, let them out of their chores around the house. Kids often have trouble managing their time; it is understandable if they are distracted by video games, Instagram, or 10,000 texts from their friends. Nothing is more relevant to adolescents than what is happening on their phones — remember, this is normal. They need to keep up with the social scene if they are to have friends and be accepted by their peer group. If they have homework, don’t compound their distraction or time-management issues by asking them to empty the dishwasher.
These techniques will ensure not just that your kid will be ill-mannered and entitled, but also possibly insecure, materialistic, anxious (or arrogant), and dependent. They definitely won’t develop the skills they need to sustain lasting and loyal friendships without your near constant interference, to handle stress and anxiety without drugs and alcohol, or to hold down a real job without your connections. What better way to shore up our family connections than to ensure that our kids always live with us?
***Does this post make you feel criticized? If so, please know that wasn’t my intention. (I don’t even believe in criticism; it doesn’t inspire behavior change.) I’ve written dozens of posts about how to raise grateful and compassionate children. This time, though, I thought I’d do something a little different and use humor to remind us how to be the best parents we can be. Many of us are parenting in a culture that makes it very easy to make these mistakes! Even so, we can raise kind kids with strong characters.***
Now THIS is a good idea!
“Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” — Anonymous