And just like that, another school year has begun. A few lingering mosquito bites and a peeling sunburn reminds me of the fun I had during the waning days of summer, but now it is time to get back to reality.
I have dreaded back-to-school season all my life. Summer was my favorite season. I loved the long, carefree days, going to our favorite swimming holes and exploring the woods. As the end of summer approached I always felt super anxious as I anticipated the return to school. This anxiety is baked into my neurology. Years after I completed my formal education, that feeling of anxiety still haunts me as the end of summer approaches. Before I had kids it was as bad, but once they started elementary school, it hit hard again, especially when it came to my son. Each fall I would hope for the best and fear the worst, knowing that his school didn’t understand how to help him and that we were facing another nine months of asking the school to give him the support he needed and them not knowing how to provide that support.
The last few years have not been as bad, probably because both of my kids were finally in situations that suited them, and their anxieties about returning to school were tempered by their excitement about seeing their friends and returning to familiar routines. I, too, felt much more optimistic about their being able to navigate the challenges ahead of them. This September, however, is a different story.
As my regular readers know, my daughter left for college a few weeks ago. While I am excited for her and this new phase of her life, I realize I am having a hard time with her departure. I miss her so much. The house seems so empty without her. My husband, son and I are trying to find our new rhythm while she is away at school. Even the cats miss her.
I am also anxious. I am worried that I did not teach her every last thing she needs to know to succeed in college. I want to help her deal with all the challenges of living someplace new where she doesn’t have any friends. I worry that I have not taught her enough to protect herself from people with bad intentions. I wonder if she will be able to advocate for herself with her professors and peers. I know that kids go to college so they can learn to become thoughtful, intelligent, independent adults and that it is time for me to step back. However, I am having a hard time letting go. I have to constantly stop myself from running to her rescue.
Running to the rescue has been my self-appointed job for the past 18 years. In all honesty, it has been much longer than that, but the inclination has gotten way more intense since I became a mom. I have always felt as though I need to take care of everyone – my kids, my husband, the cats. (Even car falls under my purview!) If someone is having difficulty, I feel compelled to solve the problem. I have always believed that helping other people is what gives me value and so I have worked to make myself the go-to person that everyone in the family can rely on when they need help. While I think being helpful, empathetic and generous is critically important in relationships, I know go overboard. I lose sight of what I need because I continually put other people first. I am not empathetic and generous with myself. I also have the belief that I should not ask for help. As a kid, I am sure that a lot of my anxiety about going to school was due to this belief. I felt like I just had to make due on my own and I carried that belief into adulthood.
In more recent years, I have realized I hold this belief and have put a lot of energy into taking better care of myself, including learning when I need to ask for help. I am also learning to accept that I do not need to run to the rescue every time someone else has a problem. Lastly, I am figuring out that I can be supportive without taking on the work of solving someone else’s problem.
This is great progress. However, I still need to address the fact that I have conditioned everyone to turn to me when they need help. My daughter is homesick and is frequently texting me. She also needs me to mail her a bunch of stuff she didn’t pack for school. My husband is stressed out because our daughter is homesick, has pulled a muscle in his back and needs me to take him to the doctor. My son has your basic, mundane 16-year-old-going-back-to-school needs like buying school supplies, getting a ride to the orthodontist and having his favorite lunch fixings on hand and he is looking to me to make sure all that happens. The cats are also overdue for their annual checkup and the car needs an oil change. And on and on it goes. The worst part is that when I take on these responsibilities, I somehow equate doing so with sacrificing my own needs. I have it wired up as a zero-sum game where I am the loser. And that is when the anxiety kicks in.
I know this has to stop. This is not a sustainable way of living. I need to both prioritize my own care and learn when and how to ask people for help. It is really easy for me to miss the cues that I need help, like when I am feeling overwhelmed or I am frightened of doing a relatively simple task. The more I can pay attention to these signs, the easier it will be for me to realize it is time to get some help. Help can come in many forms. I could do a quick Google search or call a sympathetic friend or colleague. I am learning to be creative with how I get the help I need. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at a problem from someone else’s perspective.
There is an adage that goes something like “A parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child.” While my goal is to derive my happiness from how I live my own life, there is a certain amount of truth to that saying. I want my kids to be happy so it can be very tempting for me to try and fix their problems, rather than letting them endure the challenges and hardships that will teach them important life lessons. By learning to say no at the right times, with kindness and empathy, my kids are more likely to learn how to take care of themselves! And I’ll have more time to take care of myself. And that is good for everyone.