Have you heard that story about the man watching the butterfly as it tries to break out of its chrysalis? It’s a short story, and you can read the full version here, but what eventually happens is this: after watching the butterfly struggling to break free for some time, the man decides to help by cutting open the chrysalis so the butterfly doesn’t have to continue exerting itself, to continue spending so much energy emerging from its enclosure. His intention was to assist this beautiful creature in its transition. However, the unintended result is a tragedy – the butterfly emerges with weak and unformed wings, never able to fly.
To reach its full potential, the butterfly needed to struggle so it could strengthen its wings and live its full butterfly life.
I’ve heard this story several times before, and when I came across it again recently, it pulled me up short, the moral of the story resonating with me in a much more significant way than it ever had before. I saw myself in the man, and my sons in the butterfly. With both of my boys now in the beginning stages of their own emergence, transitioning from the warm and protected life of our family to the larger world outside of it, the parallels are clear, including the man’s eagerness to help. The lesson is also clear: struggle is an essential part of growth.
Unfortunately, that’s not an easy lesson for this particular parent.
Last week my oldest son and I were researching and talking about the colleges he may want to apply to. He was focused, but kind of quiet, not really “leaning in” to our conversation or the web sites we were exploring. So, I asked him what was up, thinking maybe he wasn’t excited about the schools we were looking at or he was confused by something. He paused for a moment, and then slowly responded, “I don’t know how I’m going to make this decision. I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake and choose the wrong college or the wrong major.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I silently berated myself because I should have seen this coming.
My son, this almost-man, has always been a careful, even reluctant, decision maker (taking him to a toy store to choose something for his birthday was a form of torture for him when he was younger), so I have become accustomed to stepping in and offering my opinion and guidance in these situations to help move things along and minimize the discomfort. That day last week was no different. Making suggestions, laying out the pros and cons (at least as I saw them), listing the factors to consider – I jumped right into the void and did what I have always done: I reached for the scissors.
And now I see that I need to stop doing that.
I need to let him struggle, to figure out what’s important to him without my input or interference. I’ve written recently about the need to trust that things will turn out okay, and now I am realizing that patience is an important part of trust. Not only do I need to give my boys the freedom to set their own priorities and make their own choices, trusting that they have the tools they need, but I also need to let them do it on their own schedule, even (and especially) if that includes some struggling and uncertainty.
This sounds simple, even to me, and is likely obvious to other parents who have done a better job of trusting and being patient than I have. In all honesty, though, this represents a significant shift for me, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy. When I was growing up, I often felt that my parents didn’t care much about what was going on in my life, and I don’t recall that they played any role at all in the decisions I made through high school – class selections, test prep, clubs and sports, and college choices were all on me. When my boys were born, I consciously decided to do some things differently than my parents did, but it’s possible that I “over-corrected” on some things.
Looking back over the years since my boys were young, I see that backing off and leaving some space is something I should have done more of. I probably should have stayed out of the toy aisle and let him ponder his options on his own, allowing him to build more confidence in making his own choices. Yes, selecting a college and a major are much bigger decisions than a birthday gift selection, and parents do have a role to play in these decisions, but I need to be in the passenger’s seat (or maybe even the back seat), not the driver’s seat. I need to trust that he can figure out his own lists of pros and cons, prioritize the things that matter to him, and make his own spreadsheets of school information. As of today, I’m putting the scissors away and recommitting to my own transition – becoming a more trusting and patient mom who can enjoy looking up and watching her boys flying high on the strength of their own wings.
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. She is now pursuing her long-held interests in research and writing, and recently completed her first book about college admissions for homeschoolers, “From Home Education to Higher Education“, published by GHF Press in 2017.
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon here, and I had quite a few things I wanted to get done today. I just realized that I won’t be crossing even one thing off my “to do” list, though, and I couldn’t be happier. Instead, as I write this, I’m sitting on the couch, stroking my son’s head as it rests in my lap. He has a cold and is feeling miserable, so we’ve decided to spend the day snuggling, drinking tea, and watching movies.
Afternoons like this used to be much more common when the boys were younger. I was an “attachment parenting” mom, and physical closeness was a big priority during their early years. Even as they have grown older we are still a physically affectionate family, but it’s just not the same. And now that this son, my youngest, will be heading off to boarding school this Fall, I am fully, painfully aware that the daily hugs and regular, casual check-ins that have become part of the fabric of my days will be much rarer. So, any ideas of productivity are easily set aside today as I soak in this precious time together.
I used to think that raising little ones was hard, but I’m finding that parenting older ones is even harder, at least for me. When they were young there were certainly lots of challenges – sleep deprivation and the need to be constantly alert to choking hazards and other potential dangers was tough. I always knew what to do and felt like I could protect them, though; I was in control of circumstances. Now, however, I am not, and the struggle to find the balance between maintaining a close connection and making room for their increasing need for independence is an even more difficult challenge.
And it doesn’t help that I’m prone to worry.
After more than a decade of practice, the pathways in my brain that give me the ability to imagine every possible worst-case scenario for any situation have become deeply-entrenched. Not to brag, but I have developed a type of x-ray vision that enables me to see all the possible dangers that lurk around any corner my boys might turn. You name the situation, and I can deliver a list of possible problems and harms that can come from it, everything from simple embarrassment to heart-stopping physical calamities.
My worry game is strong.
I am convinced that letting go of our children is one of the hardest challenges life presents us. It is a kind of paradox, actually. How do we stay attached, loving and caring for them every moment of every day, and yet unattached so as to provide the space they need to find and follow their own path in the world?
I think it comes down to trust. Trust that we have helped instill in them the confidence and skills they need to meet the challenges coming their way; trust that their choices are the right ones for them, even if they are not what we might choose; trust that they will still come to us when they need us, knowing we will always provide a soft place to land. And also trust in ourselves, that we can find the sweet spot between attachment and independence.
I have my work cut out for me. Cultivating trust in place of worry will not be easy, but as I look forward to these final months with both of my boys still at home, I can clearly see that this will be an important part of the process. Not doing so would stall the healthy transformations we need to embrace and make the transition even more difficult for all of us. So, I will rise to the challenge, focusing on developing a greater sense of trust that my boys will find their way in the world, while also trusting that, on days like today when they need me, they will find their way back.