My two children and I were at Dunkin’ Donuts, meeting my grandfather for a cup of coffee (for the adults) and a doughnut (for us all). My boys were 2 and 4 then, and it was an easy way (I thought) to connect with my grandfather.
When my 2-year old spun into a sugar-fueled meltdown in the middle of the store, I remember turning to my grandfather for support. I was surprised to find him laughing. When I tried to talk to him about how challenging I sometimes found life with two young boys, his reply was short: “Little kids, little problems,” he said to me, “Keep it in perspective.”
At the time, I remember bristling. The difficulties of raising my two boys didn’t feel little. I sometimes felt overwhelmed by their energy and needs. That day in the doughnut store with a small boy screaming at my feet, I didn’t want to hear that this was a little problem. Still, I knew how to fix it. I scooped up that boy and wrestled him into his car seat. I gave him his favorite blanket and put his CD on in the car. By the time we were half-way home, his eyes were heavy and the tantrum was over. I smiled at my older son in the rear-view mirror, and we moved on with our day.
“Fixing it” was what I thought good mothering was, back then. It seemed like my job — to fix their problems, to make them feel better. And, by and large, I could fix most things that upset them: the sugar meltdown, the conflict with a friend, the upset stomach, the everyday frustration. I smoothed, cajoled, disciplined, re-directed, kissed and loved their problems away.
Those boys are 24 and 22 now. And, as predicted, their problems are bigger than they were 20 years ago. And one thing I’m learning at this phase of parenting is how to be a mom who doesn’t fix.
Not that I don’t still try. Worried about my older son recently, I peppered him with questions and cautions. I went back to my old game plan. I wanted to fix, to comfort, to solve. Until he had enough, and he told me to stop — told me that I wasn’t being helpful, told me that, on his birthday (yes, it was his birthday, and this didn’t stop me), I needed to let him be. Ugh.
I reached out to him the next day to apologize. I had been out of line, having my own adult version of a meltdown because I was frustrated and afraid that I couldn’t “fix” anymore. And we actually had a great talk. He explained to me that he wasn’t broken, that he didn’t need fixing, that he just needed love and support as he worked through his challenges — the same as anyone else.
And as I listened to my son I thought of my grandfather. How he must have known all those years ago that I would reach this moment, when I would look in the eyes of an adult child and know that my fixing days were short-lived and now over. Because their problems had grown larger and more complicated, as my grandfather foresaw, but also because of what my son was trying to explain to me: that fixing implies something is broken, when perhaps nothing is broken at all, just getting worked out.
Honestly, I miss the days when I felt so helpful and needed, when I could kiss it and fix it. But I also do love that I’ve raised an adult healthy enough to manage his own life and tell me (gently) when to back off.
And so, in a cosmic role reversal, it is my son who now talks me down, reassures me and then smiles at me from his rear-view mirror. It is both great and awful, this mothering phase of letting go. Maybe a favorite blanket would help soothe me as I watch my boys walk away. And fall. And get back up and keep on walking to wherever they are meant to go.
Kim Flyr is a therapist and yoga teacher; she wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.