I became a helicopter mom in the first grade. Okay, obviously I did not become a mother in the first grade, and we all know there were no helicopter moms in the 80’s, but the foundation was definitely laid that year. My destiny was determined by a series of unfortunate events and a skewed sense of reality.
You know how you have those weird memories of your childhood that are just a perfect snapshot, detailing every tiny nuance? If you ask me to provide that amount of detail about what I had for breakfast just this morning it would be impossible. Ask about the first grade Christmas gift exchange party of 1983, and I’ve got you. I think I’ve recounted parts of this story before, but my perspective on it has certainly changed over the past few years.
My first grade year started with Ms. Pam. She must have been pretty pregnant already, because by Christmas she was out on maternity leave. Miss Kelly came in as a long-term sub, and I’m just now realizing that these are the only two teachers I ever had that went by their first names. It must have been their youth. A short time before the holidays, I’m sure there was some announcement about a Christmas party complete with gift exchange. I remember drawing names for a fellow student to buy for, and the rule of a maximum price tag on the gift. I’m 99% sure my mom and I did the shopping the night before the party. I have no idea what I bought my classmate, or even Miss Kelly, but the gift for Ms. Pam is etched in my brain forever.
We wandered the aisles of Walmart for quite a while, searching for the perfect gift for Ms. Pam. I remember my mom asking me repeatedly how much we were allowed to spend on the gifts and my response being somewhere between $.50 and $5. I don’t know. It was certainly difficult to find something suitable in that price range. I’m sure I had the details wrong, whatever the number I came up with, because I just remember it being quite the ordeal to find that perfect gift. Finally I found a tiny red candle that was in a white ceramic dish and smelled strongly of cinnamon. I think it had a lid with a heart or angel on top of it, but that part’s a little fuzzy. I remember being really excited to take it to the party and bestow it upon my teacher. I think she was the first pregnant woman I really knew, and she was magical to me.
The next day at the party, once all the gifts were exchanged and kids were bouncing around on sugar highs, I overheard the two teachers talking in concerned teacher voices. Being the ever curious child I was, I listened in to the conversation without their knowing. After hearing bits and pieces of their chat, I realized they were talking about me and the gifts I had brought to the exchange. Ms. Pam had received some very generous gifts, that even my six year old brain had deduced were NOT within the set price range- a handmade baby blanket being the one that stands out most. They were questioning my homelife and wondering what was going on and the stability of my family.
Well into my adulthood, whenever I recalled this memory I would get the same pit in my stomach. I felt embarrassed- less than the other kids, and that same red hot feeling of shame would wash over me. I hated those teachers. I hated them for making me feel like my gift was less than the others that they received. I hated that my mom wasn’t at that party when so many of the other moms were, and that I was left to just feel those feelings all alone. Later, I hated that she didn’t know the details and expected a six year old to know and how that ended up causing me a lot of hurt. And I still hate the smell of cinnamon candles.
A few years ago, when I looked back on that conversation between two teachers, I realized that they weren’t gossipping about a kid who couldn’t afford to bring a decent gift for the teacher. They were having one of those conversations that concerned adults do when something seems off about a kid. They weren’t aware that I had misunderstood the rules of the exchange and told my mom that we couldn’t spend more on the teacher. They picked up on the fact that my mom, who was working no less than two jobs to support our severely messed up family, was most definitely not in tune with the goings on in the first grade. They saw past the precocious teacher’s pet and found a hurting little girl who was living in a world of alcoholism and abuse from a dad that wasn’t fit to care for a child, and a mom who was working so hard to put food on the table she didn’t have a clue about much of anything that was going on in my life.
Something happened to me in that stupid party, and for years and years of class parties and school events without a parent in sight after that. As seems to be the case with much of my generation, I swung so far in the opposite direction it might have become a little unbalanced. When my kids entered school, I was present for every single possible moment. I was working part-time, but I made sure that I was always there for every meet the teacher, class party, ice cream social, drop-off-to-pick-up moment. I would break laws to make sure I was one of the first parents to the pick up line and that no child would ever be forgotten or picked up late on my watch. Once I went to work full-time, I made sure Jim was on the same page. I would call him (and still sometimes do, much to his annoyance) to make sure he didn’t get so busy in his day that he lost track of time. When they were in daycare, I was a mess. I was neurotic to the point that I eventually quit working full time and became a work from home mom. The decision wasn’t consciously made because of my issues (Jordan really struggled in daycare,) but I’m pretty sure my neurosis did not help my children in any way. Once I was a full-time mom I volunteered in classrooms, chaperoned field trips, dropped off forgotten items, brought in birthday lunches and cupcakes, provided the BEST teacher gifts for every holiday and teacher appreciation day, did much of the work on science fair projects and on and on and on. I got a little better in middle school, but I still volunteered more than the average parent. And then somewhere along the way, I just got really tired.
More recently than I’d like to admit, I realized that my behavior was just not okay. My kids don’t have the ability to grow if I don’t let them out of this tiny little pot I planted them in. They don’t live in a home where dad is abusive and mom can’t manage to take on any more responsibility. They are nurtured. They have security and stability. They just need more room to grow. Now I fear that my hovering tendencies have done too much damage and they will never leave this nest fully developed. Whenever I want to claw my eyes out in frustration that they seem unable to fully take responsibility for much of anything, I blame myself on a whole new level. Mom-Guilt is the actual freaking worst! Somehow we will all find our way through this, of that I am ultimately determined, but I’ve got to tell you- this really really sucks. Find a balance people. As early as you possibly can- find a freaking balance somewhere between that little girl at the gift exchange and wherever the heck we are right now. 🙂