A recent development made me wonder whether I’m a helicopter mom.
My son spent an entire week at The Cowboy’s ranch in the lead up to Christmas. It was the longest unbroken time we’d all spent together, and some remarkable changes were apparent in my son. For example, where Alexander once insisted he would always be only a city boy, this time around he donned his ranch clothes with excitement, and even told us one afternoon that he would like to own a ranch someday.
That said, the week wasn’t perfect. There was one incident that set me and The Cowboy against each other, another reminder that in some ways we were still worlds apart in our approach to raising my son.
It was afternoon, a bit cloudy, with a snowstorm in the forecast. The ranch owner, Kerry, and his family were visiting from Houston, with their own little boy. David was about my son’s age and, like my son, had very little experience with ranch life. (The Cowboy manages the ranch.)
The two kids had hit it off, playing Xbox and throwing a Nerf football around like old pals. When Kerry suggested the boys go off in search of Billy the Kid’s gravestone (which Kerry had crafted himself) out by one of the windmills (about three miles from the house), the boys jumped to the task with excitement. Off they went, together, on their own.
At first, I thought nothing of it. Then I noticed the clouds growing darker and heavier as they rolled in over the hills, and the air temperature plummeting. The storm was moving in. A blizzard. I began to worry. What if the boys got lost? The ranch is 10,000 acres of untamed wilderness, surrounded by other ranches that were much the same. There were coyotes and mountain lions out there. What if my son fought with that other boy, had a tantrum and ran off to pout, and couldn’t find his way back? My fertile imagination raced with ugly possibilities.
Kerry decided to go off in search of the boys, in one of the ranch pickups. The Cowboy, sensing my unease, told me this, but it did little to reassure me. My heart began to race as the enormous snowflakes started to fall. I remembered the family story about my grandpa Conant’s brother Johnny, who’d frozen to death in a storm very much like this one, on my family’s ranch in New Mexico, some 75 years before. My grandpa had found his body the next day, next to his frozen horse. Johnny had been a ranch kid. He’d known how to survive in a place like this. My kid? Not so much. What had I done? How had I let him get into this situation?
“They’ll be fine,” The Cowboy told me, as he watched my worried face from across the room. He read me in an instant, knew exactly where my mind had gone. I knew from his expression that he was braced for me to disappoint him. He did not approve of how I was handling things, but I was too upset to care.
PANIC OR PARENTAL CONERN?
I tried to smile, tried to believe him. But my mother’s instinct caught me by the gut, and twisted. For ten years I’d been charged with protecting this child, once too fragile to even hold his own head up. Ten years, almost entirely on my own. To now be faced with the possibility of him freezing to death because I hadn’t thought to keep him inside, because I’d been careless enough to let him go traipsing off into the storm with nothing but an Old Navy parka—it was almost too painful to imagine. I gathered myself up, and went to sit on the front porch, where The Cowboy couldn’t see me. I fought back tears. I wrung my hands. I bit my lip in anger, with myself. I sat there, scanning the distances for any sign of my son.
Soon enough, Kerry’s son-in-law Matt came over from the hunting lodge, where they were all staying. He suggested we also head out looking for the boys. He shared my concern. The Cowboy came out then, and heard our plans. He seemed mildly perturbed, and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t share my worry. Didn’t he love my son? Didn’t he understand how inept my kid was in a place like this? What was wrong with him? As I walked toward the SUV to go with Matt, The Cowboy seemed annoyed by me.
“Panicking won’t help anything, dear,” he told me.
“I’m not panicking,” I snapped, but I knew he was right. I was panicking. And so what? I had a right to panic. This was my only child, the love of my life. My everything. My heart was racing. My face, which would never make me much of a poker player, broadcast my emotional state.
The Cowboy shook his head mildly at my expense and walked back to the house, his body language telling me he wasn’t happy with me. At all.
Off we went, Matt and I. Within ten minutes we came across the boys with Kerry, in the pickup. I felt incredible relief. My son was fine. More than that, he was giddy with excitement for having found Billy the Kid’s “grave.” Back we all went to the houses. My son went to the lodge with his buddy, to play video games, blissfully unaware of any anxiety in his mother.
I went inside the main house, and approached The Cowboy where he sat at the computer in the kitchen. He was clearly still steamed with me. I tried to figure out why. I tried to explain that it is a mother’s nature to worry. That he didn’t understand it because he’d never raised a child.
WHAT IF THEY’D DIED?
Furthermore, I told him, I was hurt that he hadn’t seemed to think it important enough for he himself to go looking for the boys. What if they’d died?
The Cowboy responded with characteristic frankness. Who, he asked me, did I think was the one to tell Kerry to go looking for them in the first place? It had been The Cowboy. He’d been the only adult watching the sky, and he’d started the search by sending the man who knew where the grave marker was. Furthermore, he told me, if he’d known my son might tantrum and run off, as I feared he might, The Cowboy would never have let him go in the first place.
“I know what the sky means out here,” he told me. “That’s why I was the one to notice it half an hour before anyone else. I sent Kerry because he knew where they were.”
“I didn’t know,” I told him. “You didn’t tell me.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you,” he said. “It all goes back to trust. Do you trust me to have your best interests, and Alexander’s, at heart, or not? You still don’t. You still don’t think we’re a team. It’s still you and Alex against the world.”
He then told me that he had been kenneling up the dogs when we’d come back because he, too, was about to set out in search of the boys.
“Your mind always jumps to the worst possible conclusions, dear,” he told me. “That has to stop.”
MOTHERING OR SMOTHERING?
I defended my position, growing angrier. After all, this man was criticizing me for worrying about my child! Or so I thought. He told me it wasn’t my concern for Alex that bothered him. Rather, he said, it was the way I panicked. The way I always panicked. The way I overprotected. The way I went from zero to a hundred, emotionally, the way I got worked up when the situation required a calm head.
And then, he hit me with a doozy. “You are unnaturally attached to that child,” he told me. “It’s not good for him.”
I argued. What did he know about it? I was a mother. Mothers love their sons. How dare he!
The Cowboy told me love was one thing, and smothering was another. He told me that from his point of view it was obvious that I had been deriving the bulk of my emotional support from my young child for the past ten years, and that it wasn’t good for any of us. Then he told me that my own child had told him as much, the day before, when I wasn’t around. “He says you don’t realize he’s growing up, and it bothers him a lot.”
I was angry. Very. Almost angry enough to leave the ranch. I threatened to. I packed my bags. I stood there at the door, and argued with the cowboy. For almost an hour. It wasn’t fun. But it gave me time to think about what we were doing, and how it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. At all. I took some deep breaths, and tried to regain my composure. I thought about what he’d told me. Could it be true? Could I be an overprotective, quick-to-panic, controlling mother who sucked love out of her child like a leech and wouldn’t let anyone else into our tiny circle of two?
I didn’t like the answer, because the answer was…yes.
WIDENING THE CIRCLE OF LOVE
As so often happens with The Cowboy, he was right. I told him so. He held me in his arms and said that he understood, that it was only natural for me to be this way with my son after having spent a decade being the only person looking out for him.
But time, he reminded me, marched on, and sons grew up.
My boy was nearly 11 years old. He wasn’t a baby anymore. While The Cowboy wasn’t suggesting I stop caring whether the kid got lost in a snowstorm, he was suggesting that I widen the circle of people allowed to look after my son’s best interests, that I stop thinking it’s all on me, that I stop feeling utterly isolated and wholly responsible for everything that happens to my son—that, in short, I let him love my son, too, in his own way, and that I let my son connect with the world and other people without me always standing in the middle of everything.
It hit me just how hard this assignment was for single mothers, particularly those of us with only one child, who’d clung to that child like a life raft through the whitewater emotional rapids of divorce. It had been me and Alex against the world for so long that I’d failed to see the other people in our lives who were looking out for us. I hadn’t trusted them. Most of all, I hadn’t trusted my son.
“Help me do this,” I said to The Cowboy, literally dropping to my knees in front of him, and resting my head on his knee. “It’s so hard.”
He reached out, and took my hand. “I’m here for both of you,” he said. “But you have to start believing it.”