“Stay in control!”
These three little words are the basis of so many things: song lyrics, workouts, party etiquette… and parenting.
And being a modern day mom or dad means that control is literally at your fingertips — you can activate “parental controls” on televisions and video game players, track your kid on your smartphone, and/or hop online to virtually see your everything your child is up to, including the grade on the test s/he took five minutes ago, his/her social media accounts, and even his/her emails and texts, too. (The latter is for only the most domineering among us… or concerned… two sides of the same coin… or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.)
I submit that being a control freak is pretty endemic to GenXers and also the youngest Boomers. We want our homes in order, our pantries stocked with nutritious/organic/non-GMO foods, our kids to participate in all the activities necessary to be healthy, well-rounded, and college-desirable… we push and pull and manipulate and demand, because that is how we spinners of the 24/7 gerbil wheel keep the home fires roaring in a PC and socially acceptable way.
For me, the seeds of control freakishness were planted when I popped the first kid out. The pediatrician told me to keep a little log of how often my son peed and pooped, and I did so obsessively… for weeks. I then started drawing correlations between how often and when he ate as to what to expect for output. When I saw my doc again, she told me that she only wanted to see that things were “normal” for a few days and that my work on the chart was waaay done.
And so I did what any “normal” budding control freak would do: I kept going for at least a month more, just to be sure.
Lucky for my son, after three months I went back to work and at that point had to relinquish control first to my husband, who was working from home then, and soon thereafter to a nanny. Another six months later, and I was hearing from my mommy group friends that there was a great music class for babies, and why wasn’t my son in attendance?
When I asked my nanny if she would consider taking him, she burst into a wide grin. “I’ve been waiting for months now for you to tell me what you wanted me to do with him!” she exclaimed.
I was shocked. She had raised three of her own kids and was a nanny for countless others, so why would I know any better than she?
The answer of course was that if you are truly in control, you assert your will whether or not you know what the hell you’re actually doing.
And so that was the “Mother knows best” wake-up call. Since then, the idea of orchestrating every scrap of every day has become habitual. Well, maybe even one step beyond that — it’s become a smothering blanket of comfort that tells me my precious will always be safe as long as everything unfolds exactly as I’ve planned it.
This is relatively easy to do when the kids are young, as even if they have their own phones, you drive the party bus out of the station each and every day.
Once the young’uns can do their own driving, all bets are off. Or at least many bets are off. Even though you can track them like lab rats with your tiny hand-held device, they are off and running and try as you may, you really don’t know every little move they make.
In my heart, I know this to be a good thing. Technology is a double-edged sword, and sometimes knowing too much is, well, too much. Plus having confidence that you’ve prepared your child well for driving and other big leaps to independence and self-reliance is one more way you can have a major say in how the whole shebang pans out. (I look to this excellent post by my BBF Jessica Gottlieb on launching a new driver for guidance.)
See how that control thing keeps rolling on? Even when it’s just a facade, you can still think you have it!
In the meantime, though, the process of relinquishing your power is a very active exercise. Take this past weekend, for example. My son was away on a three-day long retreat for a YMCA program he does. Despite our cellular umbilical cord, his end remained set to silent the entire time.
Back in ye olde daze when there was no such things as cell phones, teens would go away for weekends and parents wouldn’t know a damn thing until the kid was picked up at a predestinated place. Even then, there would be maybe only a few grunts of description with nary an emoticon to cue whether or not the time away was great or a bust.
I thought about that all weekend long as I physically stopped myself at least a dozen times from texting my son to see how he was doing.
This is something I believe is called self-control.
And so instead of pouring my energy into the futile mission of trying to control something uncontrollable, I instead went into an OCD of cleaning tailspin. I organized canned goods by theme (i.e., peanut and almond butters with jelly, assorted beans in a color-coded array, etc.), cleaned out spice racks, made homemade lentil soup, folded laundry, organized bathroom cabinets, and generally foisted my “love” onto intimate objects that I fantasized would text me thank you notes for paying such nice attention to them… if only they could.
It was time consuming, exhausting, and ultimately a decent distraction until the time when I could pop his bus’s whereabouts into Waze so I could follow his arrival time to the minute. Something that I couldn’t control, though, was that he got back in the middle of a workday for me, so my husband did the honors of receiving the child back into the fold.
Hours later I arrived home and as I opened the door to see my family in their normal positions (guys on the couch watching sports, daughter in her room liking up a storm on Instagram, bitch on her dog bed, watching the inside of her eyeballs), I realized that the only thing out of control all weekend was me.
Things play out the way they do thanks to destiny, luck, or some other force in the Universe, but even the best-laid plans aren’t a guarantee.
Plus it’s true what Richard Bach said: “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.” (Jonathan Livingston Seagull wisdom, along with the “Love Is” people, were my bathroom reading in my formative years.)
So if you see me hanging out with a chatty ass seagull, just know that I’m trying to loosen my grip and let the freak go. After all, the only person you can honestly exert control over is yourself.