The other day my tween daughter made plans to spend an entire afternoon with her friends. She was planning to be gone most of the day. That left my 10-year-old son and me home together with no plans. We quickly scrambled together something fun to do and decided on a 3D puzzle, a movie, and popcorn.
It was a dream day for him—uninterrupted time with me, no sharing me with his sister.
Then a friend of his reached out and asked if he’d like to have a playdate. My son thought about it, looked at me, with worry on his face, and asked if it would be okay if he had a playdate instead. He said, “I don’t mean to ditch you, but I want to play.”
I told him of course he could have a playdate and began coordinating details with his friend’s mom.
In another version of this life, the entire interaction would have been a non-event. He’s a kid choosing his friend over his mom. For me, it was an event. It was a moment to hold onto, a reason to breathe a sigh of relief… which maybe sounds heartless without a bit of context.
My son has a really big metaphorical “mom bucket.” He needs a lot of my attention. He likes to feel connected to me: emotionally, physically, and oftentimes, both emotionally and physically. On the rare occasions I sit down on the couch in the middle of the day, he stops whatever he’s doing and curls up beside me. When I joke that I’ll be carrying him on my hip down the aisle, I worry there’s a little bit of truth in it.
Sometimes I think his bucket is so big because his world got torn apart when he was just four, and I’m the sole constant in his life as his only living parent. I’m his one safe space. Other times I think that’s just who he is. Either way, it’s what he needs right now to feel safe in a world that isn’t all that safe.
The problem is, I can’t simply promise him that I’ll always be there and send him on his way. I’d like to promise that, but the world doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen. It’s a hard lesson my kids and I learned a few years ago.
Instead, I do my best to fill his bucket and to meet his need to connect, all the while finding ways to gently encourage him to venture out. When he resists, I don’t push too hard. My son knows his mind, and he’s very rarely swayed once his mind is made up. I operate based on the belief that he’ll be ready when he’s ready. I believe that giving him a strong foundation will give him the freedom to go do and be one day with the confidence of a person who knows they’ll have a safety net of emotional support to fall back on.
But it is exhausting. More than that, it’s nerve-wracking. Because our ultimate job as parents is to give our kids the tools to live their lives independently, to ensure they one day “leave the nest” with the ability to build and lead a life they love. (And ideally we still get to watch from the sidelines or play a supporting role or both.)
Sometimes I worry I’m failing at that job. When he says “no” to birthday parties or lingers near me during school functions where his friends are running around wild, I worry that he’s not developing the skills he needs to one day “leave the nest.” I worry that my approach is wrong.
And then the other day happened. My son chose his friend.
And he had a great time. I had two spontaneously free hours to get work done and catch up with an old friend of my own. Everyone returned home happy, their buckets filled in different ways than they might have been. And yes, my son asked to watch a movie after dinner. Yes, he curled up beside me as if personal space doesn’t apply to us. Yes, he needed his “mom bucket” filled. But, maybe, the bucket was a little smaller because another bucket got a bit more.
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