The Dreaded Helicopter Mom
“Don’t cry, Mom.”
The doctor was talking to me. This is the last thing a person on the verge of a breakdown wants to be told. The tears I held back suddenly stung my eyes.
She had just explained their plan to give my son anesthesia and keep him unconscious for 30 minutes while they stuck a scope down his throat. And they wanted to do it soon.
I wasn’t prepared for this news. I thought this was going to be a friendly checkup. I was convinced my husband and I would bring our 13-month-old son to this appointment and be told he was fine.
But he wasn’t fine.
Being a first-time parent is hard. Every time I think it’s really hard I remind myself it’s hard for everyone and this is just the way it’s supposed to be. I learned that when I gave birth and the labor was so horrible, so excruciatingly painful that I kept asking the nurse, “Is this normal???” And she had the audacity to tell me, “Yes.”
Ever since then I don’t like to vent to friends and family too much. And I definitely don’t want to bother doctors and nurses with my trivial questions.
Now I was the one being bombarded with questions. We stood in the office with a team of specialists: a doctor, a dietician, and an occupational therapist. One-by-one they went around the room, asking us every detail of George’s eating habits as Sam and I tried to comfort our crying baby. And all I could picture was my son unconscious on a table.
For months, my husband voiced concerns about our son. Every time Sam said George was “a handful” or “really tough” or “This is not normal,” I pushed back. “All babies are tough. Sometimes George is just pissed.”
But maybe he wasn’t pissed. Maybe he was hungry. Maybe it hurt to swallow. Maybe he’s been uncomfortable this whole time. And here I was ignoring it, saying, “Everything’s fine. Just give it time.”
Actress Casey Wilson didn’t know her 2-year-old son had Celiac’s disease and recalled how she felt before learning the diagnosis:
“I hated myself for the excuses my husband and I would make for our son: ‘He didn’t get a good night’s sleep, his blood sugar’s low, he woke up on the wrong side of the bed, he’s an indoor cat.’ … I jokingly told a few moms at his school that living with him was like living with an abusive alcoholic. ‘I’m terrified of him!’ They didn’t seem to find it funny, and again I thought: I’m having a different experience than most moms are having.”
I never wanted to complain about my son’s moods and tantrums. Rather, I took full responsibility for what I deemed his character traits and told everyone the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. It was easier to make a joke than to admit something might actually be wrong.
When I was a kid playing sports, every time I got nailed by an opponent or drilled with a ball, I could hear my Dad on the sideline yell, “Brush it off, Charlie!” And I did. No matter how small or serious the injury, I brushed it off and kept playing.
In my greatest efforts to not become a helicopter parent, I became a Brush-It-Off Parent instead. I assured Sam, George, and myself that everything was fine or would eventually be fine if we just gave it time. I brushed off his eczema, brushed off his lack of swallowing, brushed off his meltdowns. My fear of overparenting caused me to ignore early warning signs of a problem I could no longer ignore.
I still don’t want to be a parent who stops her kid from bumping his head on the coffee table. But I do want to ask more questions and follow up when something feels off.
Instead of harping on labels, I just want to be a loving mama who is present and trusts her instincts to know when to push and advocate, and when to let things be.
Much thanks to Florian Maganza for feedback on this essay.