caregiver, childhood

Mother’s Touch

The hardest thing to do is to do nothing at all.

I was reading an article about medicine, medical care, mental health, and psychotherapy, and the motto of ‘first do no harm’ which is part of the foundation of medical ethics. The Hippocratic Oath contains the phrase “abstain from doing harm” and the idea is that not all intervention does good for a patient. I’m – somewhat obviously – not a doctor. In my professional life I do quality control, and in part that means making very sure I do the best I can, because someone down the line is trusting me with their life to have done it right. But this was not what I was thinking about as I was mulling over the concept. Over the years, as a mother, I’ve been the first line of medicine for my kids. From dispensing kisses for boo-boos, to the infamous hand on the forehead ‘you don’t have a fever, you can go to school!’ it’s always been my philosophy that time heals best in most cases. Turns out, this is also the case in professional medicine, too. But it’s so easy, and so tempting, to meddle because then at least you have done something. It’s hard, and risky, to take a hand’s off approach.

As a mother, and remembering when I learned how to ride a bike, I know that there are times you absolutely must let go, step back, and watch them wobble off into the distance. It’s the only way they will learn. Oh, I worry. I worry they aren’t doing it right, they are going to crash, they’ll get hurt, and then there will be a trip to the ER. And statistically speaking that is a probable outcome. What is even more likely, though, is that they will fail if I do not let go. If I do not stand back and do nothing. If I continue to intervene in their lives, meddling to try and keep them safe from all harm…

Because it is through risk, and experience, sometimes hard and painfully won, that we grow. Having been raised by Biblical principles, I’m reminded of the metaphor used there: a furnace to burn away the impurities and leave only the solid gold. Ok, let me clarify something. I don’t (and the Bible doesn’t, either, contrary to popular myth) mean sin=impurity here. We all have character flaws, and that’s what is meant here. Learning to become the strongest, best person that is possible, through the forces of life experience. But you also have to be self-aware enough to learn from the pressures of life that flambĂ© your soul.  My children will never be the best they can be if I shield them from the fires of failures.

Which is really hard. I still see them as babies. Little, helpless people who needed, really needed me. Human infants are utterly dependent on their parents to keep them alive long enough to be able to care for themselves. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to be a parent. It’s hard, frustrating, tiring, exasperating, expensive, half the time you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing… it’s also possibly the single most rewarding thing you can do in this life. When your kid comes and spontaneously hugs you, tells you they love you, brings you something broken so you can fix it and see the smile appear through the falling tears… So here’s the difficult bit. It’s rewarding on a visceral level to take care of your child. Being a human shield between them and the vicissitudes of life can easily become your raison d’etre. Especially for mothers.

And sometimes? it’s the wrong thing to do. What that 18 year old really needs is for you to take away the protection, and let them wobble off into the sunset to live or die. Ok, maybe that’s too dramatic. They need to learn how to live on their own. And that means that mother’s touch is precisely the wrong thing at this time. Even though it does make you feel better to help them. It’s not helping. It is doing them harm when you enable them to continue to depend on you, at a time when they must learn to depend on themselves. It might hurt you, transiently, to watch them fall, get up, dust themselves off, and carry on, but bite your tongue. They’ll be running and leaping and achieving great things on their own power given the time to develop those muscles, just like they did literally as a toddler. You had to let go then, and you have to let go now.

The hardest thing to do with your child as they become an adult is to do nothing at all.

Sigh. I’ll keep reminding myself of this frequently in the upcoming months, years, I’m sure.

4 thoughts on “Mother’s Touch

  1. It is much harder to watch your older child leave the nest than to watch the toddler take her first steps and fall on her well-padded little bottom, because the consequences of mis-steps and failures are so much more severe. But it does have to be done, and hopefully in a few years you will be rewarded with fully functioning, capable adults. You never stop worrying about them, though!

  2. I am learning the pleasure of letting them take charge and be the expert, deferring to their skill or knowledge in certain areas.elf

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