The Start of Letting My Son Go

my son's game faceI had to let go. That firey feeling in my throat and heart like a bomb was about to explode in my chest told me I had to let go. Even though I hate letting go. Because I am really good at putting every piece of myself into mothering my children but I am terrible at the letting go part.

I look at the pile of clothes on my floor and I can’t will myself to put them away. Those clothes were supposed to be moved into a suitcase—a suitcase that I would need for my much anticipated trip with my son to visit a college in California. But there was no need to move the clothes into the suitcase. And no need to put the clothes away right now and dig the knife into my heart any further.

I am not going on the trip to CA with my son. He begged to have his dad take him instead. “Mom, I have a baseball tryout, I really need dad there. You don’t lose any money because you used miles for your ticket. Dad wasn’t going to be able to go because of work but now he can go. I hope you can understand that it’s not personal. This is not about you.”

Understand that it is not personal. It’s not about me. Except that it is. It is because I was looking forward to spending this time with him. Because he is slipping away. Because it is his last year at home. Because as hard as I try not to, I am doing the countdown, noticing the “lasts,” while trying to hang onto the now­—the time he is still living in the house. Because I thought I would be better at all of this with him, my second child, a boy. I really should be better. His older sister, now a college sophomore, had already taught me how to say goodbyetwice

But I am NOT better. And he knows it. And it is too much for him.

He can’t be too close to emotions right now and I represent the emotions. He can’t be too close to the parent who talks about feelings and love and compassion. This is a dangerous and scary place for a 17-year-old boy to be. And even though his wife will thank me some day, right now I am a distraction from his mission—his mission to become a MAN. To prove that he is strong and capable and able to stand on his own ready to exit the nest—without his mom. And his mission in CA is to perform—to shine on the baseball field and to be sharp during his admissions interview. He needs to think, not feel. He needs to put his Game Face on. And dad is most definitely the Game Face guy.

But where does that leave me? In unknown territory. Adult son and his mother. A mother who needs to let go, and a son who is telling her to start now. She tells herself to trust that that her son loves her, that he will always appreciate having her as his mother, and that letting go doesn’t mean completely disconnecting from him—growing further and further apart so that eventually he will merely tolerate her, as is the case with so many grown men and their mothers she knows. It will be different. It has to be different. She tells herself all of this as she stares down at the pile of clothes that will not make it into her suitcase.

And maybe he is right. Maybe dad is the one to take him to CA. Because dad doesn’t look at him and allow nostalgia to plow him over—seeing a little boy who cried non-stop for the first 6 months of his life and then could not bear to be more than an arm’s length away from his mom. His dad does not feel, or certainly does not display, the ache of the snap back to the present moment when I see that this little boy is all grown up—and he doesn’t cry and does not want to be within an arm’s length of his mom. My son doesn’t see the pain of the inevitable separation all over his dad’s face like he sees it all over mine. My face is not a Game Face. My face reveals the love I feel for my son, and shows signs of the pain in my heart felt by a mother who hates letting go.

But the train is leaving the station and I can’t stop it. My son is getting ready to board the train. He went to CA with my husband. Readying me for the start of letting him go. Maybe I could start real simply—by putting away that pile of clothes on my floor.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Being a Parent of an Athlete

my kid playing baseballI wrote a “slice of life” piece about my son’s baseball game last week but felt that it was important to include some personal background to give you some context for the story:

Growing up, I was a competitive gymnast, tennis player and golfer. I had a driving force that would send me to the gym, tennis court and driving range for hours on end (Too many injuries pulled me out of gymnastics and I fizzled out of tennis because I simply wasn’t good enough). Over time, when I hit a rough spot during my teenage years, my internal drive was still strong but it had shifted. I was motivated more by negative forces than positive ones, and my self talk often sounded like this, “If you don’t win, you are worthless, a nothing. Work harder and whatever you do, DON’T FAIL.”

Surprise, surprise, those messages, which pounded in my head for years, would ultimately destroy my ability and motivation to compete. I never developed the essential coping mechanisms for dealing with failure that all successful athletes must cultivate for times when they are in a slump, they lose a game or a match, or are not performing at the level to which they are accustomed. My lack of resiliency would explain why after shooting a terrible first round in the state high school golf tournament my junior year, followed by an equally terrible second round, I refused to pick up a golf club for decades.

Which brings me to today. I have now have a son who is a competitive baseball player, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that it is game of failure. The best of the best pro baseball players hit the ball three out of every ten times, and the scoreboard has an actual spot that highlights the number of ERRORS the players make (not fouls, like in basketball, but errors-as in how many times you totally screw up). And my son plays two of the most high-pressure positions out there: short stop and pitcher.

I love to watch my son play. But in all honesty, there are times when I think I will explode from the nervous energy that brews within me. As much as I try to push my old demons away, to try and separate my stuff from his, so that I can support him and love him no matter what successes or failures he experiences on the field, there are times when my competitiveness takes some of that joy away. Every single time I find myself feeling stressed or anxious about a game of his, I have to talk myself off the ledge and remind myself that this is my MY fear of failure and MY difficulty in dealing with competition—not his, and that it is crucial that I do not drop my old baggage on him.

I have seen him have moments when he did not deal with failure as well as he wanted to. But watching him work his way through these issues, and find coping and recovery strategies for dealing with failure has provided him with some of his most important life lessons and has been incredibly healing for me.

The Story:

I needed a break. I could tell that my energy wasn’t helping him. My perfectionism, my fear of failure, my feeling that I could some how control the outcome of his baseball game by willing him and his team to succeed. It was time for me to separate myself and let him play his game. He was in a slump, had had a tough game the night before, and I felt that my presence at his game was some how hurting him.

Could that be true? What if it was?

The section tournament game—a game not to miss.  The team wins, they move on; they lose, they are done. “I’m thinking of sitting this one out, hun,” I mentioned to my son the day of the big game, trying to sound casual about it. “It seems like that the games that you played when dad and I were out of town were the best three games of your season. How would you feel if I didn’t come? Do you think it’s less pressure for you if I am not there,” I asked him somewhat tentatively.

“Mom, it doesn’t matter if you are there or not. Do what you want,” he responded, like a typical 17-year-old.

Ok. Got it. But I still felt unsure. How could I really not go? Would the other parents think I am not supporting him? Am I being crazy? My husband said that it is okay either way. “He knows you love him,” David said, trying to ease my tension. And he repeated my son’s message, “Do what you need to do,” but added, “It will be okay.”

My youngest daughter and I headed out to the lake and she jumped thrillingly into the hot tub while I sipped a beer and sat on a deck chair allowing the blazing sun to warm my face and offer me some semblance of calmness. I exhaled and felt like I was a million miles away, and that a million pounds had been lifted off my chest. I knew I could support him better from where I sat; that my energy was positive and detached—not in an “I don’t care” kind of way, but in a spirit of letting go and practicing self-care kind of way. It was better for me to not be in the stands riveting with anxiety, and deep down I knew that this was most likely better for him.

But there was that all-too familiar feeling of guilt to reckon with—that frustration with myself and more questioning, ”Why can’t you just go enjoy your son’s game? What kind of mom doesn’t go to his son’s section baseball game?” Well, I guess this kind of mother, whose 10-year-old daughter splashed in the hot tub, thrilled that she would not be dragged to her millionth baseball game of the season. Thrilled to have time alone with me—a relaxed me (or at least trying to be).

“J just got a hit and drove in a run,” my husband’s text message popped up on my phone and pulled my eyes away from my daughter, and away from my here and now. I smiled and mindfully tried to stay focused on her, chasing the “I SHOULD be there” thoughts away. “Mom, watch me swim laps! Time me,” Jo blared toward me before submerging her entire body under water.

As I a concentrated on my stop watch on my phone, it buzzed again. “They are hitting us like it’s batting practice. We are down 6-2,” my husband revealed. O.k., another big inhale as my mind turned to the seniors who could be playing their last game, and then jumped ahead to next year when my son would be a senior (oh my!). Then my heart became even heavier as I thought of the 8th grader who made the varsity team and whose dad was rapidly losing his 3-year battle with cancer. Would his dad get to see him play another baseball game?

“Mom! How many laps did I swim?! How fast did I swim them? Mom, come on, please get off your phone!” I peeled my eyes away from my hand held device and back to the here and now. Back to my daughter’s youth and innocence—a reminder that despite the fact that life is filled with all different kinds of losses, there is also so much joy. I was reminded that it is okay to sit back sometimes and allow myself to just be, and to take care of myself, and trust that my son knows how very important he is to me, and how much I love and believe in him, no matter where I am or where he is. I hoped that all my children feel this.

“Twenty-five laps in 35 seconds! Best yet,” I shouted loud and proud, as if she had just beaten Michael Phelps’ record (there I go again!).

My phone vibrated. That magical and yet baneful piece of plastic and metal, which has the power to instantly pull me out of the present and split me in two—I’m here but I’m there—which is actually kind of nowhere.  I should just turn it off. Yep, I’m turning it off. I grabbed the phone out of my pocket and positioned my finger on the power button. As I started to press down, I glanced down for a split second as the words flew off the screen and and hit me on the head.

“J hit a home run.”

My eyes filled with tears and my heart began to pound so loudly I was sure my daughter could hear it from under water.

“No way,” I managed to type, half wondering if my husband was telling me the truth. My son had never hit a home run.

“Yep, first of his career,” my husband revealed (as if I didn’t know).

My daughter looked at me and asked me what was wrong. “Honey, you need to dry off, we are going for a ride,” I told her, and continued to explain to her about her brother’s milestone and that I just needed to be there when he walked off the field.

As we drove out to catch the last few innings of the game, I felt at peace. I didn’t know if he would have hit his first home run if I had been in the stands that night. But it didn’t really matter. I was truly and completely happy for him. And I was happy that I was able to let go and create some healthy space for myself and for my son.

This was a victory in and of itself.

The Agonizing Necessity of Letting Your Child Fail

PositiveWaysFailureAffectsMindThere is no getting around it, even though you may try to shield them from it, and find ways for them to avoid it, your kids will at some point have to face the dreaded agony of failure. For most moms, myself included, whether we admit it or not, when we see our children experiencing failure or disappointment, it feels like the sky is crashing down on both them and us. And sometimes, probably more often than not, we feel the pain even deeper than our children do. In most cases, our children bounce back from their disappointments relatively quickly, and yet we often stay stuck in them for way longer than we know is necessary or appropriate. Furthermore, many well-intentioned mothers, in an effort to try to “spare” their children from having to deal with failure, will go to borderline crazy lengths to assure that their child’s “fall from grace” will be cushioned or avoided all together.

Question to ponder:

What does it feel like to witness your child experience failure?

And even deeper:

Do you feel that your child’s failure a reflection on you as a mother?

Lately I have heard so many moms talk about their successes or failures of their children in a way that it is difficult to decipher who’s is who’s. I recently texted a friend to see how she was doing and she responded that her daughter made the varsity soccer team and her son had lost his tennis match. I wanted to respond, “But wait, I really wanted to know how YOU are doing!” Can we, as mothers, separate our identities from our children’s?

Before I go any further, I have to write a disclaimer: Anyone who knows me knows that I am as guilty as the next mom of allowing my entire being to be directly and significantly affected by what is happening (or not happening) in my children’s lives. I ride the crazy train with my kids and have a first class seat on that well know parenting helicopter that so many of us ride. I obsess about whether they will make a sports team, do well on their tests at school, be asked to a dance or be admitted to their college of choice.  Having said that, I am actually working on this issue within myself right now, so I have become hyper-aware of my own hovering and somewhat controlling nature, as well as that of so many of the lovely moms in my life.

As I dissect this issue of mothers being somewhat unhealthily enmeshed in their children’s lives, I start with a seemingly simple, yet extremely complicated question: Why? Sometimes when my husband has reached his limit on listening to me go over and over and over my worries and concerns about a kid-related issue, he will just stop me dead in my tracks and say, “Why do you care so much? Maybe it would be good if you try to focus on something that you can control, or go do something for yourself instead of obsessing about an outcome over which you have ZERO control. You gotta stop worrying about the kids’ stuff. It’s theirs, not yours.”

Although there is a little sting to his directive, I know deep down that he is right (darn it!). He is encouraging me to give myself permission to let go. To trust that the chips will fall where they may for our four kids, and most importantly to trust that they will be ok, wherever their chips fall. And if their chips fall the “wrong” way, and they feel sad and defeated, then my husband and I will be there to love and support them, and to help them regain their footing so they can put their chips back on the table.

We moms have such a tough time with the letting go piece. From the moment we hold them in our arms as newborns, we are programmed to “make it all better” for our kids. We make it our life’s work to make life good and safe and happy for them. But thankfully, Wendy Mogel (Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B-) comes along and beautifully teaches us how kids must fail in order to grow.  She explains that we are doing our children and ourselves a major disservice by not allowing them to experience failures and disappointments. When mothers don’t set clear boundaries with their children, and take on too much of their children’s “stuff,” they run the risk their children developing this line of thinking:

“I don’t really have to care, or feel anything about whether or not I make the team, make a bad decision, or get an A or a D on my test because my mom is taking it all on. Therefore, I am not even really accountable for my actions or inactions, because mom’s got me covered.”

Some moms, (myself included, on a few occasions), will actually not only take on their children’s successes or failures emotionally but will go a step further. They will intervene. They will call a coach, a teacher or an admissions director and threaten, question, manipulate, and even beg or bribe the person in the decision-making position to give their child what she “ABSOLUTELY DESERVES!!!” Okay, this is probably a good time for mom to step back, be very honest with herself, and figure out whether this is about her or about her child.  This type of behavior sends an even scarier and potentially hazardous message to her child, which could sound like:

“You are not capable of accomplishing your goal/s on your own and therefore you need me to step in and take care of it for you.”

This deprives your child of learning the invaluable, character-building lessons that one learns from failing or falling short of a goal, with resiliency at the top of the list. It also could lead your child to feel that:

  • “My mom does not believe in me enough to let me figure things out for myself. I must be inadequate.”
  • “My mom cares more about whether I make the team or get the grade she expects me to get than she does about me as a person. She doesn’t love me for who I am, she loves me for what I do. Therefore if I come up short of her expectations, she won’t love me.”

Confession: My daughter got a B- on a paper her senior year. She is a fantastic writer and that was not a typical grade for her on any type of writing assignment. I am friendly with her teacher and when I saw him at her school one day, I said casually, “Hey, why did you give Sophie a B- on her last paper?” He stopped, looked at me straight in the eyes and said in a very serious tone, “Because I knew it was not her best work. She knows she can talk to me about it if she would like.”

Yikes! I cannot even begin to explain the scolding I received from my daughter when I crawled out of my shame hole a few days later and told her about it. “Mom! I wasn’t really bothered by it. It wasn’t my best work. I can’t believe you did that! Why would you do that?!”

With helicopter parents attending job interviews with their children http://huff.to/18cx1PG and micromanaging their every move, it is hard not to get sucked into thinking that being overly involved in your children’s lives is a way of showing your children that you care. It’s difficult to draw the line and know when it’s ok to advocate for your child, and when you need to bite your tongue and/or detach yourself from their “stuff.”

Next time you want to step in and try to prevent your child from failing or facing disappointment, take a moment to sort out your own feelings, and ask yourself:

What am I afraid of?

Did You Know that Motherhood is a Competitive Sport?

Image

I didn’t really either until I had kids. It starts when they are babies, “My kid is 18 months old and still doesn’t sleep through the night.”  “Oh really? Sucks for you, my kid started sleeping through the night the very first night he came home from the hospital and has done so ever since.”  Then the competitive banter moves to when they start walking, talking, reading, writing, adding, subtracting and goes all the way to their GPAs, SAT scores and what college they are attending.

I am all for healthy competition. I think it is part of what makes the world go around. But the idea that parents are competing with each other based on their children’s merits…to me, this is downright crazy!

Our children naturally compete with each other, hopefully in a motivating way, but competition can be difficult for kids to navigate. Parents can be helpful or hurtful in the way they teach their children to deal with competition. It is essential for parents to look inward and be aware of how much they are using their children’s accolades to boost their own self-esteem and their feelings about themselves as a parent. Beware of this mindset: “Just look at how great my kid is! I did this!”

This issue is often taken to an extreme when it comes to kids in sports. I am blown away by the adolescent behaviors that are demonstrated by adults when it comes to kids and their sports. Are some parents trying to realize their own unfulfilled dreams through their children? Do they have early visions of their kid playing at Wimbledon, the Super Bowl or the World Series and will stop at nothing to make sure these visions become a reality (and actually think that they have that much control)?  There are actually two issues at hand here. The first involves how hard parents push their kids in sports (and in life, which I will cover in another post), and the second is how some parents develop extreme levels of competition with other parents in an effort to try to get their child “ahead” of others.

As I talk with other moms about this, I find that I am not the only mom who has been completely ignored by another mom who is pissed off that my son was chosen for a certain team and hers wasn’t, or that my son was getting more playing time than hers. Mothers have shared with me stories of how teammates’ parents have marched into coaches’ offices and ranted and raved, “How could you choose Susie for the last remaining varsity lacrosse spot?! My daughter is so much stronger and has trained so much harder! That should be her spot!” And to get even more infantile, this mother will proceed to give both Susie and her mom the stink-eye any opportunity she gets.

I am not saying that I have not felt that surge of competition or even jealousy if another kid gets picked for a team or a position over my kid. Of course, I have, this is only natural. But it is what we do with these feelings that matters.  I am not mad at the parents of the kid who got picked over my son. I am not mad at the kid either. Or the coach. I may be disappointed but I try to deal with that disappointment, and not take it out on others.

How I treat my son’s teammates and their parents is not going to affect whether my kid gets more or less playing time, or gets the position for which he is competing. I wonder if some of these parents who chose to treat other parents and kids poorly think that this is some kind of intimidation tactic. The only word I can think of in response to that is, “ICK!”  Another disturbing fact that I have learned is that sometimes the kid, whose parents are acting like this, doesn’t care that much about whether he makes the team or gets on first or second line on her hockey team. Also, she has no problem with her teammates or their parents. It is solely an issue for the kid’s parents! They are competing for the kid’s spot on the team more than the kid is! So, what I would like to ask these parents is, “Who this really about, your kid or you?”

Obviously, this issue has hit a nerve with me. Quite honestly, I was very hurt and blindsided by a mom who recently chose to act this way toward me. All I can say is that if your kid is on my kids’ team, I will talk to you in the stands, I will cheer like crazy for your kid, as I do for every kid on the team, and this is what I will tell my kid about being on a team and competition:

  • Work hard and always show respect to your teammates and your coaches.
  • Cheer on your teammates! Even if you are sitting on the bench and are not happy about it.
  • When it comes to direct competition with a teammate: Maybe you are better, maybe he is, but this competition will force you to continually strive to improve.
  • Ultimately it is up to the coach to make the decisions for the team. Respect that (and so will I.)
  • Welcome to life. It isn’t always fair. You will compete for a job. Sometimes you will get it, sometimes you won’t. End of story.
  • Don’t ever give up, on yourself, on your team or on your coach.
The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog. Tim is an author of 5 #1 NYT/WSJ bestsellers, investor (FB, Uber, Twitter, 50+ more), and host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (400M+ downloads)

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