I destroyed my daughter’s childhood in an instant, and she hated me for it.
I’m not a helicopter parent. Not in the typical sense of the term. I don’t bring forgotten homework or lunches to school. I don’t hover over schoolwork or even check to see that it’s done, much less properly. I know it’s up to my daughters to succeed on their own.
Still, I have this habit of throwing out nets to catch them when I think they might fall. Gradually, I’ve realized those “nets” might actually be hazardous to their health.
Perhaps the best—and worst—example of this tendency of mine occurred when my older daughter Joy became subject to bullying at her school by several girls over everything from her clothes to her religion.
One day a girl emerged from this particular gang to ask if 9-year-old Joy believed in Santa.
“What did you say to them?” I asked Joy, the knot in my stomach twisting tighter.
“I said, I didn’t know.” She muttered these words, chin tucked, and walked up the stairs.
I flew into a panic. “We have to tell her,” I ran over and perched on the dining room chair next to my husband.
“Tell her what?” He looked up at me from his computer, eyebrows askew, behind his firm masculine shield against my mothering instincts run wild.
“We have to tell her there’s no Santa Claus!” I gasped for air between the words, snatching peeks up the stairs on the lookout for tiny feet.
“Why would we do that?” He shook his head at me, squinting.
“Because otherwise those girls are going to keep bugging her about it and pressuring her until she says she does believe, and then they’ll make fun of her even more!” My hands talked as loud and wild as I wished I could in that moment.
In the end, he gave in with a shrug. “If that’s really what you think we should do.”
So, I called her downstairs and sat her down. “Joy, we need to tell you something. We want you to know that there are different ways of believing in things, and the spirit of Christmas means a lot of different things to different people. Daddy and I still believe in Santa…in a way…as an idea of giving and magic and generosity of spirit.”
“Why are you telling me this?” She curled up her fists and squinched her face.
“Because…we felt like you needed to know that as far as the literal story of Santa, that part is played by me and Daddy.” I looked at her father for support. He was nodding.
She pulled her knees all the way into her chest and slid off the chair. “Why are you telling me this?” Tears rolled off her face.
I tried to go to her, but she pushed me away. “I was just afraid that if the girls at school were bothering you about it, it would be better for you to know—”
“Stop, just stop!” She ran upstairs, crying. “I can’t believe you’re telling me this.”
The world stopped, followed by ringing in my ears and not the jolly kind.
I had just destroyed my daughter’s childhood in an instant, and she hated me for it.
I didn’t really think it would come as a surprise to her. I expected her to nod and say, “I know.”
I’ve apologized for that day many, many times over the years, using it as a good example of how parents sometimes make mistakes and learn as we go.
I only wish I had learned my lesson once and for all about trying to protect them.
Recently, her younger sister, Emma, came to tell me about the new vitiligo treatment she had read about on the web. Her skin condition causes random areas of painless depigmentation over patches of her body, while taking an immeasurable emotional toll.
“They have a 100% money back guarantee.” She smiled and nodded at me like a woman in a commercial.
“I wonder though, honey, why the last specialist we just saw at Stanford who listed all those options had never heard of it.” I tried to sound casual to avoid a full-blown confrontation.
“But they had pictures and it was 100% natural.” Her voice trailed off a cliff. And when I turned to her, her smile had faded like her skin.
A skeptical cynic at 12, she’s not usually a sucker for quick-fixes, but full of commentary when she sees a television commercial: “Oh yeah right, those granola bar ingredients are ‘all natural.’” But this time she needed so much to believe it would work.
As far as we both know, vitiligo as yet has no cure. We’ve tried every available steroid cream and other topical ointment—everything except the intense, risky, unreliable light therapy route. I just couldn’t bring myself to support an ounce of hope behind some Internet cure.
But suddenly huge tears popped to the front of her eyes when I’d simply tossed her hopes like water balloons.
“I’m sorry, honey,” I hugged her tightly then pulled away to see her up close. “But can you understand why I’m having a hard time getting excited about this idea?” I bit my lip and sighed.
“Yes,” she said, through the sniff of tears. “You didn’t want me to be disappointed when it didn’t work.” But the sing-song tone lacked the zip of her usual sass.
The girl had my number. But she seemed happiest when she wasn’t thinking about the vitiligo. Should I have bought the product from the Internet, let her anticipation build while it shipped, and waited for the effects to…what?
I had zero hope that it would actually work. But did that give me the right to destroy hers? And was I really helping her by circumventing this experience?
And even though her sister, Joy, is older now, I still walk a tightrope of encouragement versus warnings when it comes to her dreams of a career in theater. I carefully craft suggestions that don’t sound quite like “back-up plans.”
In my attempts to protect them, am I just a monstrous hope smasher, a dream destroyer? Ostensibly, I let them chase their dreams: I drive them to voice and dance lessons and theater rehearsals and shows, and encourage them to pursue whatever their interests. But maybe it’s not my place to say something might not work out. Perhaps I create too much doubt.
I just want them to at least have their hands out in front of them to catch themselves if they fall, not be caught stumbling, be prepared, not scarred for life.
I guess this is part of letting go as a parent, separating your own pain from theirs, holding onto that knot in your heart that anticipates all the mistakes and failures they might encounter and just sitting back in your chair—trying to find your breath—yet watching everything unfold with your mouth closed, waiting for the day that they ask you for something again, whatever that might be.
Amy McElroy is a writer, freelance editor, and writing coach. She’s the Essays Editor and author of the column, “At the Root of Things” for www.sweatpantsandcoffee.