Parenting To The Lowest Common Denominator

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My daughter is almost six, though she will correct you immediately that she is “five and three-quarters” if she hears you say that because she is precise, and detail-oriented, and very much her father’s daughter in that way.

But she is my daughter, too.

A daughter that I was petrified of having, and then elated that I was having – all because of a very tumultuous past I have with my own mother.  And becausewhile my experience with my mother may be unique, I realize that anyone who is the daughter of a mother or the mother of a daughter has a bond that is fraught with all the complications that have been written about, talked about, and psychoanalyzed long before Freud ever uttered the words “Electra Complex”.

All of this, while walking that tightrope of parenting that that cautions against becoming one of the many stereotypically “wrong” types of mother. You can’t be a “Helicopter” mom or too much of a “Free-Range” mom, and the “Tiger” mom is too overbearing yet the “Best Friend” mom is too permissive.

I just want to be her mom – yet I feel that I have failed her to a certain extent in successfully figuring out who exactly that is, and how exactly to execute that role successfully.

Because I am also someone else’s mom.

When she was born, I became a mommy. Sixteen months later, when her little brother was born and we found out that he’d had a stroke in utero – eventually resulting in multiple diagnoses that included Cerebral Palsy and Autism  – I became a Special Needs mommy.

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The two of us went away together this weekend on a four-day road trip we have both been eagerly looking forward to.  Watching her run free, being able to say “Yes, we can go on that ferryboat” because I’m not worried about her trying to throw herself overboard, or “Yes, we can go down all of those big waterslides” because she is big enough and her brother wasn’t there to get upset that he couldn’t go, or “Yes, we can play Skee Ball and Air Hockey at the arcade” because I wasn’t concerned that she might send those wooden balls or plastic pucks flying into the heads of other unsuspecting game-playing patrons, well, it made me realize something with a jolt that felt very much like a figurative slap in the face.

As she stood on the deck of the very same ferryboat I had sailed on during a childhood field trip, as I watched her take it all in – waving to the people parasailing on the lake, eyes twinkling as she listened to the boat playing cheerful tunes on its calliope, face upturned to the sunshine – it hit me.

“We have been parenting to the lowest common denominator.” I told my husband later that night.

We have held her back when it was unsafe or unwise to push him forward.  I have been unable to let go of the vigilance I need to hold onto as his mother and find a way to let loose and sometimes just be her mommy.  It is an occupational hazard among the medical, sensory, and therapy-heavy day-to-day life we are currently living.  If I loosen my stronghold on control, on looking out, on keeping watch, on making sure and double-checking, there’s no saying what might happen. Temporarily loosening my grip on on small hands turns into darting out into busy parking lots, and running downhill becomes a buckled knee or twisted ankle and a trip to the Emergency Room.  Saying “yes” to her, often means saying “no” to him – or forcing him to watch from the sidelines.  Saying “no” to both seems easier – more fair – though I am now seeing that it is the former rather than the latter.

She is cautious, shy, naturally anxious, sensitive and introverted.  She is fine with her father and I going out at night for the occasional dinner with friends or to work events, but worries about what time we’ll be home.  She is happy to play “school” or “camp” or “house” in her room for hours – often preferring long stretches of time by herself. She simmers in her emotions quietly, trying to push them down, worried that if she allows herself to fully feel them, they will somehow wrench themselves from her control and overpower her.  She is afraid that she will not get them back somehow.

She lashes out, then weeps as she apologizes for it.  Afterwards, she relegates herself to her room, emerging a short time later with a picture she’s drawn of you holding hands with her under a blue sky and a bright yellow sun with the words “I em Sorrie” or “I wul be beddur” written beneath in her preschooler’s scrawl.

It is heartbreaking to watch her inborn tendencies towards empathy clash with the developmentally-appropriate Id of an almost-Kindergartner. Having a brother with a potpourri of Special Needs only complicates things further. I look at her and just know that she is shouldering the self-imposed burden of feeling like she has to hold it all together at all times as she watches her little brother constantly coming apart at the seams. 

A version of a line from one of my favorite songs always reminds me of the two of them and describes them in relation to each other perfectly.

She is a china shop…and he is a bull.

He is hearty and she is delicate. He is impetuous where she is cautious.  She walks the perimeter and observes while he makes a beeline for the center of the room.  He will scream when you introduce yourself as she is hides behind me.  I need to give her permission to fly and I need to reign him in.

So how do I find a way to loosen my grip without letting go entirely? How to I find the switch within that allows me to tell my perpetual inner-lifeguard that it’s alright to go off-duty for a little while? How do I parent two completely different children with two very different sets of needs simultaneously and successfully – and safely?

We have indeed been parenting to the lowest common denominator. And that worked – for a time.  Until it didn’t add up anymore. Until the calculated risks that always seemed too high for him, have morphed into a price she is paying for all of the caution we’ve exercised. Until I saw her this weekend, until my eyes were opened up to the limitations we’ve been putting on her.

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And she lost it a few times this weekend. She freaked out, lashed out, cried out. Same as it always is when her fears or insecurities or anxiety overtake her.  But something was different in me.  Instead of clenching up, usually already exhausted from holding on too-tightly to them both, my shoulders were down and I wore an expression of calm.  I crouched down, held her hand, and looked her in the eye.

“Hey, it’s okay to be mad, or sad, or frustrated,” I told her. “You can let it out. I’ll still be here when it’s over. There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me love you any less. I’m not going anywhere.”

And it did pass. And she looked up at me and smiled her shy smile and I squeezed her hand.  And we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t have to. And I had the energy and the time and the patience to wait it out this weekend, to really see her.  And now that my eyes have been opened, I know I can’t go back.  I owe her that.

There will be no more parenting to the lowest common denominator.

She is one quarter of this family.  She is one half of our children.  She is a whole person.

And she counts.

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  1. Cori says

    You could have been my mom. My brother was diagnosed with Asperger’s at a time when no one really knew what it was or how to deal with it. Much of my childhood was spent entertaining myself because my parents had to devote so much energy to my brother. I treasure the rare instances when I had my mom’s undivided attention. Yes, parenting to the lowest common denominator is easy, but I encourage you to try to make more mother-daughter trips. Those times will stick with her. She’ll understand one day why things were the way they were when she was child, but those special times will help.

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