Overcoming a Helicopter Mom:  A Study in Fortitude

May 21, 2017

Hanna Elizabeth O’Connor is graduating from high school in a few weeks and will be going to college in the fall.  The college application process was brutal, but Hanna handled it with great poise and maturity, and she can hold her head up high.  Her mother, not so much.

Throughout the last year, I’ve attended meetings at Hanna’s school hosted by the college counseling staff; I’ve read a lot of books, listened to podcasts, and availed myself of all the resources out there for students and parents navigating college admissions.  Much I’ve what I’ve heard and read, I already sort of knew from doing this once before with our oldest daughter, but I did learn at least one new thing, and that’s the fact that I’m exactly the sort of parent that none of want to or should be.  Turns out I’ve broken just about all of the 10 Commandments for Parents of College-Bound High Schoolers:

  • We are supposed to let our students drive the process, figure things out for themselves. This makes the process less stressful.
  • We’re supposed to avoid any and all contact with admissions offices and admissions personnel, because this can impact their chances of admission, and hey, that’s stressful, too.
  • We’re supposed to not nag our kids to death about studying for standardized tests or whether they’ve gotten their applications in, even if it’s the spring of their junior year and they haven’t yet taken the SAT or ACT, and there are no other tests being offered until the fall, because it stresses them out.
  • We’re supposed to take our kids to visit colleges they and they alone select. We shouldn’t make suggestions, because this, too, stresses them out.
  • During those visits, we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut so as not to unduly influence them with our opinions. You know.  Because that stresses them out.
  • We’re supposed to be supportive and available to talk about the process, but only if our kids initiate the conversation. This is so they don’t get stressed out.
  • We’re supposed to encourage other well-intentioned adults not to quiz our kids about their post-high school plans, because that’s sort of stressful.
  • We aren’t supposed to talk about the process with other parents, even if the kids aren’t around, mostly, I think, because it’s impolite. But it could also stress our kids out, even if they don’t know about it.
  • We’re not supposed to tell our kids where they should or should not apply, or review any portion of their applications unless they specifically ask us to. Because of the stress, stupid.
  • It goes without saying that we have NO OPINION WHATSOEVER about where they actually end up going to school, except to the extent that financial considerations play a role in that decision. But if we have to talk about it, we should do it in a non-stress-inducing way.

In other words, we’re supposed to be preternaturally and ceaselessly calm and devoid of any emotional investment in the process that could potentially influence our kids’ decisions or opinions (or stress level) in any way.  Basically, we’re supposed to spend a year demonstrating a Zen-like discipline and detachment, and even as we recognize just how high the stakes are, we are never to communicate that fact to our children – ever.  In short, we’re supposed to so thoroughly model and embody this level of equanimity that if our children receive unfavorable results (which they won’t, so long as we do our part), they will accept them with the dispassionate composure of the Queen of England.

That’s a tall order, and if you know me even a little bit, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I failed miserably.  Just to give you an idea of the extent of my transgressions, here are all the things on the No-No List I have done in the past year – and please don’t judge me – I know just how badly I fucked up:

  •  I was regularly in touch with my child’s guidance counselor to voice my concerns and worries about my child’s list of schools and why she hadn’t received her decision from some schools that other students had already heard from, and to vent my frustration about decisions that didn’t go her way, and to express lots of other things I can’t remember but which, if my kid had heard them, would have stressed her out.
  • I encouraged her to consider schools that, in retrospect, may have been unrealistic options, not because she was incapable of being successful at those schools, but because I failed to appreciate that when colleges say they employ a “holistic” review of applicants, what they really mean is, “yeah, we really just look at the GPA and SAT.”
  • I talked to other parents – lots and lots of other parents (in fact, anyone who would listen)—about the process – a lot. I’m sure this caused her stress, even though she didn’t know about it.
  • I brought up the topic with Hanna on many, many occasions, even when I knew she didn’t want to talk about it. This stressed her out.
  • I kept insisting she process how she was feeling about not getting into this school or that, when she really just wanted not to think about it. My therapist – who LOVES processing stuff and gets paid to help people do just that, later told me that what I really should have been doing was trying to take her mind off the whole thing – et tu, Meredith?
  • I suggested she consider applying to additional schools. In January of her senior year.  I think that might have stressed her out.
  • I suggested she consider taking the ACT. Again, in January.  So, maybe some stress there, too.
  • I insisted she attend admitted students’ programs at every school she got into, even the ones in which she had no interest, and even though she was exhausted, overwhelmed, and so sick of the process she wanted to shoot me in the head (although she never actually said that). There might have been some stress involved.
  • I blatantly lobbied for one school over the other when she had narrowed her school down to two choices (although I said good things about the other school, too).

So, yeah.  I did all that stuff.  And guess what?  Hanna was stressed pretty much every minute of every day of the twelve months.  Mother of the Year, here, folks.  But you know what they say:  If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a terrible warning.

My failure to maintain the impassivity and level-headedness that all good parents are supposed to demonstrate for their children is probably the result of becoming too emotionally involved in the process, and I know this had a negative impact on Hanna, because when she received rejection or wait-list decisions, she was devastated, which can only mean that I did not do a good enough job at cultivating her self-esteem or ingraining in her an unshakable belief that a college admissions decision is not a referendum on her value and promise.

I felt inestimable despair as I watched what the process did to her, and as I heard a kid who had made high honors for fifteen out of fifteen quarters of high school actually vocalize the opinion that she was a “loser” based upon which schools said no.  I felt even worse as I considered the extent to which I was responsible for her despondency and feelings of hopelessness.  How many times did I tell her, in the months that comprised Hanna’s College Admissions Adventure, that she was the consumer and that no institution of higher learning – ivy-covered or otherwise – would ever know enough about her to make a truly fair assessment of who she was or as to her potential?  Apparently, not enough.

I love this child so desperately.  She is my baby – a precious, unexpected, thoroughly sublime surprise who must have known how much we needed her.  In 1998, Michael and I made the heartbreaking decision that our family would have to be complete with two children (as opposed to the three we had always imagined) because of our uncertainty at that time as to what type of care our younger daughter, Allie, who had just been diagnosed with autism, might need in the years ahead.  That decision notwithstanding, Hanna joined our family in March 1999, and the joy she has brought to us ever since has always felt like something of a miracle to me.

That she was, from the moment she first drew breath, the easiest and most accommodating child ever to have been born was an added bonus, but with Hanna – finally – I felt like the mother I had always hoped to be.  There was none of the first-time-parent anxiety that Caitlin, to her great credit, endured with such gentle and forgiving grace, nor the despair and terror and exhaustion that being the parent of a child with special needs occasioned.  With Hanna, it was different.  I was endlessly patient, creative, and wise, and I was far more concerned with being the parent she needed as opposed to the parent I thought the rest of the world thought I should be.  With Hanna, I pretty much got most things right, which is not to say that Hanna is a “better” child than Cait or Allie, just that she had the benefit of a mother who had gained greater insight, made better decisions, and was a lot less uptight.

And so, knowing that I so thoroughly botched this college application thing – perhaps one of the most important milestones of a young person’s formative years – is mortifying, and painful, and deeply upsetting, because I should have known better – in all honesty, probably DID know better – but did all the things I wasn’t supposed to anyway.

Michael, who is a lot wiser and less prone to navel-gazing that I, has listened to me castigate myself about all of this, and has asked me what might have gone differently if I hadn’t made all of these unforced errors?  Would she have gotten into more or better schools? Would she be any happier with her decision? Probably not.  But she might have felt less stressed, less overwhelmed, less bad about herself.  And that’s what bothers me the most.

In September, Hanna will matriculate at Mount Holyoke College – the choice of her older sister, my alma mater as well—and I know she will be spectacular.  I’m hopeful that this last year of her life will grow dim in her memory and that ultimately, all she will recall will be how much she loved her college experience.  I know she will do well in the years ahead, and I’m confident in her ability to rise to the challenges she will face as she makes her mark on the world.  I am also hopeful that she will forgive me my frailties and come to understand that if I have been less that I should have been, it is because of my inability to comprehend a college admissions staff that fails to see all that she is and will be.

We call her Puddy, or Beanie; we called her Wiz-Biff when she was little, because that’s how she said her middle name back then.  But Hanna Elizabeth O’Connor is not a mere trifle.  She may have a mother who probably needs inpatient psychiatric care, but she’s a woman of fierce intelligence, conviction, and fortitude.  She has much to show us.  I can’t wait to see what she does.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s