If I Could Have a Parenting Do-Over

If we do our jobs well as parents, our children gradually grow to be independent from us. While I expected this to happen, it unexpectedly hurt as they needed me less and less.

I had willingly derailed a high-powered job as a lawyer to be an at-home mom. My mother had worked outside our home, and I was a latchkey kid. I longed as a child for a mom who would be home more often and who could attend all of my school and extracurricular events. So I tried to give to my children what I felt I had missed out on during my own childhood.

I unwittingly put all of my eggs in the motherhood basket and lost some of myself along the way. So as my children pushed me away during their teen years, I felt diminished and slightly resentful. I wanted them to grow, but I took it personally when they did not need me so much.

If I could start the parenting journey over, these are some of the things I would do differently:

1. Practice Self-Care and Cultivate Self-Compassion

There were days when my children were very young that taking a shower required more effort than I felt willing to give. As they grew and I reclaimed more free time, I wish I had used that time to develop more of my personal interests and activities. One cannot pour from an empty cup.

My friends who worked outside of their homes, even part-time, seemed to have maintained more self-esteem during their intense motherhood years. Other challenges exist for working parents, and no choice seems to be perfect. For example, the working parents could not be with their children as much as they would have liked, and those who worked inside their homes perhaps were not modeling professional success for their children. But at least the employed moms had identities aside from motherhood that seemed to serve them well, especially as their children became more independent.

I know that no one could do for my children what I could do for them as their mother. I do not regret my time out of the professional working world so that I could be the best mother to my children that I could be. But I could have done more for myself than volunteering at my children’s schools. For example, developing my spirituality at this time or pursuing my creative passions would have been to my benefit.

After my children left for school, I felt a bit rudderless. I was somewhat apprehensive of what was I to do now. Could I return to practicing law, having been out of it for 15 years? Did I ruin my chances of having professional success? It took me some time to figure out what I wanted to do with the next chapter of my life. I know I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be an at-home mother, but my confidence in my professional abilities had taken a hit.

I always have had great compassion for others, but not for myself. I had to learn how to practice self-forgiveness as an adult. I carried unresolved childhood issues into adulthood that affected me in unacknowledged ways. I also had to learn new ways of bringing joy into my life. When a therapist asked me what brought me joy, aside from my children, I had no answer. I had lost sight of my individual sources of happiness, like spending time in nature.

As I incorporated more self-care into my life, I became a better mother. My self-love and positivity improved all of my relationships. I now know that no one is responsible for my happiness but me. And putting my “oxygen mask” on first allows me to thrive and better meet life’s challenges.

2. Nurture My Relationship With My Partner

When my children were born, my then-husband’s needs took the back seat–even behind the dog’s needs. I was exhausted and preferred sleep over intimacy. As a result, we grew apart. When the children left the nest, our marriage was in tatters.

I know now that this was a mistake. When the children leave the nest, if the parents’ relationship has not been given due attention, many marriages falter. This is a common juncture in which couples divorce. Moreover, parents can role-model healthy relationships for their children. I would like to have done more of that when I had the chance.

I never wanted to divorce. Now one of my goals is to model to my children a healthy relationship with myself.

3. Let My Children Do More for Themselves

My misguided thinking drove me to do as much as possible for my children until they left home as adults. I realized later that I had deprived them of learning experiences by micromanaging their affairs. Natural consequences are potent teachers. Had I not driven forgotten items to them at school, for example, they likely would have remembered them more.

I did have one proud parenting moment when my daughter thanked me for teaching her to use a dictionary instead of telling her the meaning of her homework vocabulary words. We do not get much positive feedback as parents, so I’ll take it!

4. Ease Up

A wise therapist advised me that the more I let go, the more my teenage and young adult children would come towards me. I was desperately holding onto them, trying to protect them, which made them move away from me. The more I eased up, the more they were willing to share with me. This was counterintuitive to me but true.

I thought that if I knew where they were and who their friends were that I would have more of a chance of protecting them from harm. There may be a modicum of truth to that, but I went overboard. I needed to give them more space.

5. Stop Comparing Myself with Others

We live in a social media-frenzied world. Few people post negative things online about themselves. So it was easy for me to imagine that everyone had Instagram-worthy lives, free from difficulty. That is not the case. Every family has issues. Some are more visible than others, and some are adept at keeping their issues from outside view.

What others think of me, however, is not my business. Nor is it something within my control. When my children were young, I exhausted myself by trying to create a Norman Rockwellian version of family life for us. I tried to dress my children perfectly, instead of allowing them more self-expression which is, I understand, a common recipe for rebellion.

I allowed some of my childhood baggage to infect my family. Had I dealt with this baggage sooner, it may not have affected my adulthood as deeply. So if you have unresolved childhood issues, I implore you to get help sooner than I did.

6. Be More Present

The days are long, but the years are short, cautioned parents along the way. I did not then understand the truth of this statement. Oh, how I wish I had been more patient and had savored the hours spending floor time with the kids. I was usually thinking of my to do list as I played the game of “Life” for the fifth time in one day or read the same book for the tenth.

I wish I could have just relaxed more. I was a fairly anxious parent, probably because of some childhood traumas I had experienced. I was always on the go and enrolled my children in too many enrichment activities. Some of them turned out well and fostered lifelong interests for them; others, they did not even like. I wanted them to have every advantage, and especially those that were not available to me when I was a child.

Most of us want better for our children than what we had. I thought all of my efforts were toward that goal. But presence, love, and patience are much more important than any thing or activity. I wish I could have slowed down more and have been more of a “human being” instead of a “human doing.”

Now that my children are adults, I do my best to listen more, instead of talking. I have become comfortable in silence. The more I listen, the more I get to hear about their lives. I try not to give any advice unless asked. And when they do ask, I begin by asking them questions so that they can figure out the solutions for themselves.

I barely get to hug my adult children now. They each live in other cities and shy away from my exuberant affection.  

Boundary-setting has not been my strong suit, so I am still learning to keep out of their business. I am delighted by the strong, passionate people they have become.

We as parents can take neither full credit nor blame for our children’s successes or failures. They came from us, but they are not truly ours alone. They are their own people, with many sources of influence. As much as I tried to be their everything, they have their own Higher Power and it is not me.

In the spirit of self-compassion, however, I will never regret the fierce love I have for my children. They always will know how much I love them, even as their wings develop and they take off. For that, I am very grateful.

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Website: MariaLeonardOlsen.com

Maria Leonard Olsen is a lawyer, author, journalist, speaker, mentor and recovery sponsor. She also leads writing/empowerment retreats for women and is a co-host of the Inside Out radio show on WPFW-FM, 89.3, in Washington, D.C. 

Her latest book is 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield 2018).