As a psychotherapist who has treated many mothers over the years, and as a mother myself, I’m fascinated by the history of maternal identity. How do American moms think about their role in raising their children, protecting them from harm, and helping them become well-adjusted adults? I’m seeing signs that the current pandemic is triggering a change in that identity, away from the “helicopter parenting” of the past 25+ years.
First, some context. In the 19th century, parenting was mostly authoritarian. Children were seen and not heard, doing lots of chores, always putting the family’s needs first. Most women didn’t worry about their kids’ emotional health, just their physical survival in a time of rampant child mortality.
The first half of the 20 century brought the Freudian revolution. Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts about adult disturbances and intrapsychic conflict didn’t offer a blueprint for parenting, but they got mothers worrying that they might give their children “a complex” if they did something wrong.
Benjamin Spock’s 1946 bestseller, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, launched an era of more active child-rearing – repudiating rigid toileting practices and feeding schedules in favor of positive experiences that allowed each individual child to lead the way. Over the next few decades, middle class American moms began responding to their children’s cues and parenting in more flexible ways.
By the early 1990s, the rising trend was “helicopter parenting” – a stronger focus on ensuring good grades and college admissions. Mothers worried more than ever about minimizing all kinds of risks, big and small – from drug abuse and teen pregnancies to skinned knees at the playground and heartbreaks at the 8th grade dance.
But in 2020, powerless against the pandemic’s devastating toll, I see mothers losing faith in their ability to shield their kids from any sort of harm – physical, emotional, academic, or social. Many are worrying about hanging onto their own jobs or trying to stay productive while working from home. Some are also feeling stressed out about their food supplies or their own elderly parents. And though it was always difficult to work while raising kids, the new challenges of homeschooling and isolation-induced anxiety have raised the bar dramatically. My patients are reeling from the sudden shift: instead of feeling like they can (and should) fix any problem for their kids, many are feeling like they can’t fix anything.
“COVID makes me feel powerless as a parent,” Colleen* said when her daughter, Emily, a college junior, opted to remain halfway across the country, close to campus and her research lab. When Emily began feeling stressed and experiencing chest pains, her mother begged her to see a doctor. But she became angry, saying she was busy and it was hard to get a telemedicine appointment. The more her mother pushed, the more Emily resisted. While her symptoms eventually remitted, stay at home orders made Emily feel isolated, and she began lashing out.
In our sessions, Colleen agonized over whether to helicopter in to relieve her daughter’s misery. She lamented that Emily rejected offers to visit and shot down suggestions about finding ways to socialize. It all came to a head during one especially heated FaceTime exchange, when Colleen pleaded, “You can’t be alone all the time. At least meet friends in a parking lot. Stand six feet apart.” Emily threw her hands up and yelled, “Please stop! You can’t help! You can’t fix this!” When they hung up, Colleen retreated to her bedroom and cried over her helplessness. “It was as if mothering as I’d known it was gone forever.”
These sorts of questions about how involved to get rang true in my own home, where my teens had also been struggling since the onset of the pandemic. I had always prided myself on being helpful – listening, understanding, guiding, and stepping in when necessary. I’d tried not to hover, but had been active and present, seeking tutors or fighting for medical specialists. I encouraged my kids to fight their own battles, to get back up when they stumbled. Whenever they faced something they couldn’t handle and asked for my help, I was there.
But recently, amid closures and cancellations, it has become harder to help my teens cope. My suggestions and empathy often aren’t well received. I can’t protect my kids from a potentially lethal virus, or even fix their disappointments or repair losses they’d suffered. That strikes at the core of my identity as a nurturing and protective mother.
I’ve been worrying lately about the re-opening now underway: Will the virus come steamrolling back, forcing a second round of school and workplace closures? Can our already fragile economy handle this additional stress? How many more lives will be lost to the pandemic? The only certainty right now is uncertainty, which takes its toll on people of all ages.
While my high school-aged son has adapted, taking on household challenges like figuring out to snake a backed-up sink and reboot the WiFi, my daughter has had to deal with mounting losses, including an early return from college and the loss of a coveted summer internship. Despite repeated suggestions of walks, TV time, cooking, and reading material, my every outreach brings an angry smack-down. After each K-O, like a boxer on the ropes, I head back into the ring. My job as a mother is to show I care: survive the attacks and set limits while being present and loving, and help her integrate painful emotions, without rushing in to resolve the difficulties.
Following a particularly charged weekend, I found myself questioning my approach. Feeling terrified that months of disappointment and isolation had taken a permanent toll, I considered arranging a telehealth consultation or booking online meditation classes for my daughter. Would she ever be okay again? Would I?
After we started venturing out, first only for necessities like groceries and doctors’ visits, then for socially distanced visits, I noticed that tensions appeared to be settling. My daughter found a virtual research position, brought home stellar grades, and practiced social distancing without being reminded. When a new challenge arose – her school cancelled all in person classes and on campus engagements – she cried bitterly, and I worried that her already negative outlook could not survive another blow. But within a day she’d contacted friends, taken virtual tours of off-campus apartments, and proposed a plan to use savings to offset rental costs.
It was then I knew that amidst the deprivations, losses, and challenges of the past few months, I’d been given a gift: a unique opportunity to get to know my children in ways that might have eluded me had daily life been as frantic as usual. Seeing my teens on a daily basis, shepherding them through their fears and bleakest moments, I’ve had the privilege of watching them build resilience and strengthen their inner reserves.
Parenting through sadness, fear, and adversity has shown me that I can’t fix everything for my kids, and that’s okay. After watching them in action over the past few months I know that they are equipped to handle whatever comes their way, and I no longer feel a pull to repair every single thing that goes wrong.
Hearing echoes of this same theme from patients, neighbors, and friends, I think we’re starting to see a new version of maternal identity, winding down the era of the overly obsessed helicopter parent. After living through so much loss and disappointment,I can’t imagine seeing moms stressing out nearly as much about excessive screen time, a B on a report card, or too many snacks between meals. Involved mothering won’t go away, of course. We’ll still have huge investments in the health and happiness of our children, and we’re not going to ignore them when they need help. But I think we’ll bring a more balanced perspective to the post-pandemic world. Call us backseat moms.
*These are composite portraits. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect patient privacy.