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The Parenting Mantra I Cling to When Things Get Tough

Photograph by Twenty20

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I felt the intense desire to protect my baby. I worried when my daylong “morning sickness” prevented me from eating anything but tater tots and ice cream. When my son was born, so tiny and wobble-necked like a baby bird, the urge to protect him intensified even more.

For the first few years of our kids’ lives, our biggest job is to keep them safe and healthy. We try to make sure they don’t choke on grapes or stick forks into electrical outlets, or grab their arms just before they dart into the street. But as they grow and begin to venture out into the world around them, our roles start to blur.

My son is 7 now.

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The other day, I went on a field trip with his first-grade class. On the bus ride back to school, three girls across the aisle were whispering and giggling while peering over at my son. Instinctively, I shot them my Mommy Death Glare but it didn’t phase them. As the ringleader continued to whisper and laugh while looking straight at my son, I wondered what to do. My son was glaring back at the girls. I fought the inclination to leap across the aisle and bitch slap the rude kids.

Instead, I took a deep breath. What is my job here? I asked myself.

How hard it is to let go. But how necessary.

Is it to go all mama bear on the girls? To tell a teacher and let them handle it? To try and distract him and pretend it’s not happening?

There are so many instances when I just want to insulate my son from all the aches of the world. I want to shield my son from everything from the specter of climate change to the violence to the goofy girls on the bus. I want to help him hold onto his innocence for as long as possible. I spent those first few years learning how to protect him; as it turns out, it’s much harder to unlearn it.

Over and over again, I have to remind myself that my inclination to pad my kids from all the suffering they might experience in the world is not my job. My job is not to protect them from every discomfort. My job is to help teach them how to deal with problems so they can learn to cope with what life hands them. I repeated this mantra over and over again when we were sleep training and when I was met with hysterical shrieking as I enforced a time out. And I reminded myself of this on the bus.

“Hey,” I said quietly to my son. “What are some strategies you could use right now?”

He shrugged his shoulders, still shooting the girls a nasty look.

“Well, you could tell them you don’t like what they’re doing. Or you could ignore them, right?”

He nodded his head.

“Or we could take some deep breaths together,” I added. We opted for a hybrid of ignoring and breathing, as we sat in silence for a few moments, staring out the window of the bus. The energy shifted. The girls moved on, and it seemed my son had, too.

When we got back to his school, I squeezed him tight before leaving. I thought about how what I witnessed was only one tiny part of his day that I’d just happened to be present for. I’ll miss plenty of moments when someone isn’t kind to him, as well as moments when he’s not kind to others. I'll even miss moments when he makes choices I wish were different.

How hard it is to let go. But how necessary.

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There’s no way for me to protect my kids from all of life’s struggles. Over and over again, I remind myself that I can teach them something: What I know about getting through the hard parts, how to speak our truths, how to take care of our bodies and spirits, how to be resilient.

And then, how to let go.

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