Magda Gerber was the first person to tell me to stay the hell out of my children’s way.  I thought I took her words deeply to heart. Thanks to her, I never lifted my boys up to play on something they couldn’t climb on their own.  This simple rule had multiple benefits.  First, the distance they could fall was in direct and safe proportion to their climbing skills. And second, I got to be the mom sitting calmly on the bench at the playground and not the one standing next to the play structure, arms painfully outstretched, waiting to catch my falling child while endlessly repeating some version of, “Be careful!”

Simply because I have never done it before, I will now, for the purposes of this here blog, define over-mothering as inserting oneself unnecessarily into one’s child’s developmental process.  The only thing a child who is put somewhere he cannot safely get to on his own learns is that he needs his mother in order to climb.

I know this.  I believe this.  Even so, when I look back, I see that I still spent too much of the last nineteen years doing a lot of meddling and calling it mothering.  Lately, I have been trying to change that pattern. Hence my New Year’s Resolution to “mother less, but no less than necessary.”

The other day, I may have skated into “less than necessary” territory.

It was no big thing.  Really. But in the end, the work of mothering is really nothing more than a long, linked series of no big things.

Oldest called.  Of late, he as been in mild, but unpleasantly consistent contact with the law.  Thus, I assumed he was calling to complain yet again about the high cost of parking tickets and fake ID violations and the negative impact said infractions have been having on his bottom line. I will admit to being a tad bored with his whining about money and
stifled the urge to yell through the phone STOP DOING ILLEGAL THINGS

Also, I was busy.

Those are my excuses.

Oh, wait, there’s one more.  His cell phone makes him incredibly and annoyingly hard to hear. He always sounds as if he’s slurring his words.  At least I hope it’s his cell phone. I’d much rather it be that than the other obvious choices – a significant pot or alcohol habit.

Anyway, he called and I can’t remember what he asked exactly.   Maybe it was, “what’s the deal with dry cleaning?”.  Something like that.  He had three shirts he needed cleaned. I was busy. He might have been slurring. I didn’t want to talk about money any more.

I thought that he was asking about how to get his shirts professionally cleaned when he was short on cash.  Thinking I was being – well, if you must know – brilliant, I informed him that it was customary at the cleaners to drop your clothes off for free and pay to get them back. Thus, he could take the shirts in immediately, and pick them up and pay for them after the first of the month from his replenished coffers. That seemed to work.  He said OK, thanks and we hung up.  The conversation was brief, bordering on curt.

I turned my attention back to my work, but for some reason the conversation kept nagging at me.  And whatever that thing was, the particular agent of buoyancy that made the conversation keep popping into my mind, I wish I had more of it because it is exactly the quality a mother like me should cultivate.  In fact, it is the probably the only quality I should be cultivating.

I had missed something.  But what?

Finally, it came to me.  He hadn’t been asking about the money.  Or maybe a little bit of it was about the money, but there was more to the question he had called to ask.   And because I had been busy, and figured I knew what he was calling about, I had missed it. 

When your child is small, he asks a thousand questions a day.  The questions break over you like long, curling waves you think will never end.

And then they end.  Your child grows up. He enters a phase where he either knows all or would rather die than admit he does not know all. After that, he successfully cuts the apron strings.  But here is a little secret.  If you wait him out, he will come back to you.  And when he does, it will be with questions.  The questions are lines he throws back to you.  They are his way of reconnecting.  He doesn’t need you to answer them anymore.  He just wants you to.

These questions he asks, they are gifts masquerading as questions.  And to me, they are a big deal.  Why? Because when he was little, he had no choice but to ask you those long, curling waves of questions. Now that he is grown up, he doesn’t have to call you.  He could look it up.

I called him back and said that perhaps I had misunderstood his question. I may have hurried off the phone, I said.  Was there more he wanted to know?  Was he really asking about the differences between dry cleaning and laundry – and when you use one and not the other?


OK.  I can help you with that.  What were the shirts made of?  Cotton?  You’d best launder them.  It’s cheaper and better for the clothes and the environment.  How about starch?  You’ll need to tell them how much starch you like.  How much starch do you like?

Is starch bad for them?

Once I assured him of the fundamentally innocuous nature of starch (it is innocuous, right?), we seemed to have covered all the bases. We hung up again, and I was more content.  If belatedly, I had been able to give him what he was looking for. 

I had caught the line he had thrown to me from 3000 miles away.


9 thoughts on “masquerades…

  1. You’re entering a new stage of mothering when they throw you a line to ask for advice. What a great post! I had to read it several times (just like your phone calls with Oldest) to catch the line.

  2. That’s so strange — my 21yo tossed me a line today. I, too, am ashamed to admit I thought that she was calling to complain. She started in about how her job (one of three) was cutting her hours, just as school is about to end. (She’s a teacher and thought she would be working more hours over the summer, not less.) I thought the call was going to be a whine, but we ended up talking about whether this was the nudge she needed to look at other options and maybe leave this job behind. She sounded happy when we got off the phone. She had needed someone to bounce ideas off of, and she had called me. That was nice.
    I find your quest to mother less very inspiring, TEOM. I tend to overmother, especially my boys. Gotta take a look at changing that …

  3. Great post – what makes it tough is the kids themselves don’t have a clue why they are sending out lifelines – they just feel the need to connect . . . what I love about what you did was you called back – you figured it out and went back to connect.

  4. I do understand. I have been mothering from 1422 miles for just over six years now. It sure ain’t for sissies…
    I strain to catch a hint of some tone in their voice, being at a real disadvantage because I cannot look into their face or eyes for further meaning. I have also attempted to draw power from that instinctive mother’s “bionic” hearing ability.
    When all else fails, I go with my gut instinct. Sometimes (just like you did) I call them back just to clarify.

  5. Great post. You’ve introduced me to Gerber; I’d not heard of her before, but my favourite childcare writer, Penelope Leach, advocates much the same. It’s funny though, how the hands-off, intuitive style of parenting freaks people out because they can’t understand that babies and small children can be self-initiators. I’ve learnt that trusting tiny kids not to fall, or hurt themselves, works, but that still makes people anxious. “He’s going to fall”, “Isn’t he going to hurt himself?”, “Should she swing that high?” are all things I hear over and over and again.
    It’s going to be interesting applying the concept of not over-mothering when my kids get as big as yours. Thanks for shining a light, and leading the way, Anna. The insight you provide into teens is so illuminating for me.

  6. #1 Daughter is in college in NYC. Sometimes she calls several times a day, checking in, keeping connecting, needing help grounding or just saying hi. Then there are the days when she doesn’t phone………and I have learned to sit on my hands.

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