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50/50 and the Smother Mother

This past weekend, Josh and I went to see Moneyball AND 50/50 on the same day.  Just to clarify my nerdiness, we bought the tickets to both shows at the same time, and I made a big deal of exiting the theater by one step, pivoting, and walking back in again so the ticket taker could tear our next tickets.  The only other time we saw two shows in one day was when we left Shrek 2 so incredibly pissed that we had wasted our time with the movie that we went in to see Mean Girls, which was fantastic… in comparison.  Perhaps if we had seen Mean Girls first, we would have left and seen Shrek 2 in anger.

I loved the writing in 50/50,* loved it to the point where I will probably buy the movie when it comes out on DVD**.  It was the sort of film where you wished you were watching it with the script in hand so you could highlight all of your favourite lines.  I guess that is what I look for the most in a movie or in a song — not the visuals or the sound, but the way the words form together.  What is said.

It’s a comedy… about cancer… based on the experience that writer Will Reiser had when he was diagnosed with spinal cancer.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a version of Will (now called Adam Lerner) and Seth Rogen — who is Will Reiser’s real life friend — plays a semi-fictional version of himself.  Somehow the movie works, pointing out the absurd in the same way that… let’s say… A Little Pregnant points out the absurdity in infertility.  Infertility and cancer are not funny, but in the hands of a gifted writer, we can have the release that comes from laughing while you’re crying.

The relationship that resonated the most with me is the one between Anjelica Huston (his mother) and the main character, Adam.  At one point, she turns to his therapist and says something along the lines of “I smothered him because I love him.”  It was one of those uncomfortable, gulp-worthy moments because… I am a smother mother.

It’s not something I particularly want to be nor is it something I don’t want to be, but I also don’t know how to control it AND remain true to myself.  I am an effusive person without infertility and pregnancy loss nudging me in the direction of extreme gratitude.  I am the type of person who tells Josh and the twins daily that I love them, and I don’t say it as a thoughtless toss-off ending to a conversation.  I mean that I tell them each in a mindful way every single day that I love them.  I think it’s one of my best traits — though it’s obviously an offshoot of my extreme anxiety, the one that brings to mind 1,000 terrible what ifs daily.  My “I love yous” in that sense are practically a vitamin.  I tell the person as well as the universe how much I love them in the hopes that it somehow protects them — protects both of us.  But it’s also that I never want people around me to wonder: if I love you, I’ll tell you.  I’ll hopefully also show it through my actions, but I like things spelled out for me, so I spell them out for others by telling them in no uncertain terms that I love them.

I don’t think I’m a helicopter parent because I’m quite willing to let my kids make mistakes and learn from them.  I’m not the type of person who is going to swoop in and fix things, though I’m happy to coach from the sidelines.  Sometimes that coaching is to put on their big girl or big boy underroos and speak up for themselves.  But still, I smother — and I know I smother — because that is who I am by my very nature.  I am a please-don’t-let-me-go sort of person.  I have already spent nights crying thinking about them leaving one day for college and they are only in first grade.  If Josh didn’t ground me, I could see myself moving to wherever they go to college, and yes, I already have made myself sick thinking of the idea that they could go to two vastly different areas.

The thing is, I live my life without regrets.  That is, I try to live my life without regrets because it is the only way I feel comfortable.  We have run up against a lot of other people’s desires for our children, and my life is a series of weighing them against my what ifs and making informed decisions.  We chose their school, their camp, their synagogue, their extracurricular activities all under this umbrella of where we can predict the least amount of possible negative outcomes.  Because it’s life and accidents happen, but if we’re already worried about car crashes, let’s say, with a particular person, I would have more regrets if I squelched my what ifs and put the twins in that car than if that very same crash occurred with another driver.  It’s about living with myself, about respecting my own intuition.  And yes, my intuition is sometimes wrong.  But it’s also sometimes right.  And the only way I can live without regrets is to follow that intuition.  Accept the consequences of following that intuition, knowing full well that it pisses off people along the way, but also knowing that anyone who really has my back also accepts my irrational what ifs; my strongly honed intuition.

Which all comes down to this fact: I am the opposite of a free-range parent (or, rather, I’m a free-range parent only within the confines of my intuition, which is based on past experience, gut reactions, reading between the lines, and interpreting behaviour).  I smother.  And I do so out of love.  Out of this intense love — the sort that builds when you think the person is never going to arrive.  But seeing Adam’s reaction to his mother’s behaviour on the screen made me gulp, made me squirm in my seat.  And it also made me ask myself where do I go from here: how do I deny this side of me which is such a deep part of my personality?  Which has a good side even though it has an annoying side as well?  How do I stay on the correct side of the smothering line?  Where it’s just enough and not too much?

At the end of the day, I don’t think there is a right way to parent.  I think there is only a right way to parent your particular children.  I am wary of parenting experts who tell you what you should or shouldn’t do because they are making those statements in a bubble, without knowing your circumstances or how your children react to your parenting techniques.

Therefore, I don’t think being a smother parent is solely a negative thing just as I don’t think that being a free-range parent is a positive thing.  I think there are a lot of crappy free-range parents and a lot of fantastic smothering parents.  I think there are people who use and who abuse attachment parenting, the family bed, baby-wearing and every other thing we have felt the need to slap a name on in the past decade.  The only thing I am against is people being a proponent of a particular parenting technique whether it’s bottle feeding or breastfeeding; Ferberizing or no-cry sleep training and saying it’s the right way, the best way.  Because it may be for one child, but it certainly can’t be for all children.

I gulped not because I think it’s a terrible thing to smother your child; but because I never want the twins to feel like it’s a chore to be with me.  I want them to grow up, and by default, that also means that they must grow away.  But I hope that I get to enjoy with them a relationship much as I have with my mother, which is one part friendship and one part mentor and one part I-will-always-be-your-mommy.  And yes, she always has told me that she loves me, made sure she looked into my eyes and kissed my head.  I know how that has made me feel over the years.  And I only want that for my children too, staying on just this side of the smother line.  Of not stepping over into Anjelica Huston’s character’s land.

Maybe that’s why I get uncomfortable when people tell me that I’m a good parent: because there is that smother line and I could always step over it.  Because I don’t necessarily see myself as a good parent but more as a work-in-progress.  By which I mean that I think I do a pretty good job as a working parent in the same way that I do a pretty good job as a working writer, and I’m basing that on the feedback I get from others as well as how I feel about myself at the end of the day.  But I don’t think of myself as the best parent in the world any more than I think of myself as one of the literary greats.  I just try to raise the kids to be mindful, kindhearted individuals, and I try to write books that transport you for a while away from your day (or maybe give you insight into something you’re trying to process in your life).  And that’s pretty much all I need to feel like I’m coming out ahead.

* I also loved Moneyball and recommend it, but I found the ending so profoundly sad.  There were the feel good moments — for instance, I bawled when Hatteberg hit his homerun — but the ending left me feeling so empty for Billy Beane.  This was perhaps not the feeling you were meant to leave the theater with since no one else seemed to be vacantly processing the way Billy Beane saw his life.  So maybe that was just me.

** Will Reiser, on the off-change that you’re reading this because you happened upon it in this day-and-age of Google alerts; I truly thought that it was some of the best writing I’ve heard/read in a long time, and I don’t use that compliment lightly.


1 Sarah { 10.03.11 at 10:59 am }

I have a feeling the old me would really enjoy 50/50, but ever since my little sisters cancer diagnosis I just stay clear of cancer movies. They just feel too personal now 🙁

I am actually commenting though to tell you that I also really though Money Ball had such a heart breaking ending! Yea, I take my sports movies to seriously (Rudy STILL makes me cry every single time) but it was just sad to me. I don’t follow baseball, so I was really
Hoping it was him that lead the red socks to their title. And just left feeling… Sad for him. But I loved the movie.

2 a { 10.03.11 at 11:26 am }

When I was pregnant, my neighbor said “roots and wings – that’s what you give them.” I ‘d say you’re good on the roots, and the wings will come because you’re not going to stand in the way of their success.

3 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 10.03.11 at 11:31 am }

I’m in the non-smothering camp. The adult children I’ve seen who actively choose to have their parents in their lives (live nearby, see them voluntarily and regularly) all have non-smothering parents. There are smotherers whose kids stayed close by inertia or because they were caught in a spiderweb, but most smotherers’ kids I’ve known ran screaming as far as they could get at the first opportunity, myself included.

The one time I’ve seen smothering work well was in a similar situation to 50/50 with someone who was paralyzed in an accident. Having his mother live with him and attend to him 24 hours a day while he recovered was actually very helpful. She’d been doing the same thing before his accident, which was weird, but suddenly once he was paralyzed, it became useful and un-weird.

There are ways in which my mother’s smothering clearly held back my development — for example, I cannot ride a bike because I wasn’t allowed to play outside. Most of the ways it held me back have evened themselves out over time, but not all. On the flip side, my husband’s mother was free range to the point that she didn’t give a shit, so even though he was able to develop some skills that I wasn’t, he didn’t have the certainty of a mother’s love like I had. Given that trade-off, I’d gladly choose my smother mother.

All of my adult life, my mother used to call me every day. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. 90% of the time, I rolled my eyes when I saw her number on caller ID. It was absolutely a burden, and I really didn’t have that half an hour or more per day to spend on the phone, but I did it because it made her happy. She knew to some extent that it was an imposition, but that was the only way she knew how to be. Now that she’s gone, there are so many times I wish that the phone would ring.

4 Sharon { 10.03.11 at 12:31 pm }

I really agree with your statement that no one particular way of parenting can be right for all children. I mean, it only makes sense; we are individuals, from birth on.

I imagine this fact must present particular challenges when parenting twins. On the one hand, we have the feeling that we need to be “fair,” which often translates into treating both equally. But on the other hand, what’s right for one might not be right for the other.

(BTW, both these movies are currently on my “to see” list also.)

5 Erica { 10.03.11 at 12:43 pm }

I’m on the smother end of the spectrum, too. I’m already fighting it tooth and nail, but it’s not easy. It sounds like you are aware of when crossing the smothering line may be a bad idea, and I suspect this is the sort of thing we become wiser about knowing with time and practice. I hope so anyway.

I really want to see 50/50, but that number makes me cringe and want to hide under the bed since it’s also the survival stat given to most CDH babies who are diagnosed before birth. And I’m guessing part of what the movie is about is what a damned tease that number is, precisely calculated to maximize hope and fear. Maybe I’ll rent it in a year or three. Or maybe I’ll see it sooner because it looks funny enough to bear and because it sounds like it may be one of those movies that lets you feel less alone in the universe.

6 loribeth { 10.03.11 at 1:44 pm }

I would like to see 50/50, but dh says he can’t stomach it. His mother and four of her six siblings all died of cancer — four of them between their 50th & 60th birthdays (which is right where he’s at right now) — so I think it’s just a little too close to home for him.

7 HereWeGoAJen { 10.03.11 at 5:18 pm }

I wonder how much of your parenting comes from your children though. Maybe they are children who need your style of parenting. I got lectured on my parenting today at the mall, by someone who knows nothing about me and was totally wrong, and I got me thinking that I am a slightly different parent than I thought I would be because of the child I ended up with.

8 Esperanza { 10.03.11 at 7:48 pm }

I wouldn’t worry much about being too much of a smother mother until you know that that kind of affection is not what your kids want. Some kids thrive on that kind of affection. I think I would have. My mom was the opposite (she didn’t have parents to show her affection and I don’t think she really knows what it looks like) and she always made me feel like I was smothering her. I hated that. So maybe your kids will like it. And if they seem overwhelmed, you’ll learn how to step back and treat them they way they want you to. In the meantime, shower on the love. At this age I don’t think you can give too much.

9 {sue} { 10.04.11 at 1:40 am }

I just finished writing a post about my evolution into a more free-range parent. I agree with everything you wrote – my kids are a work in progress and I am a work in progress. And what they need from me is constantly changing. I’m just following my instincts. “a” summed it up very well… roots and wings. I’m still working on roots with my younger children, but I’m seeing the need for wings with the older ones.

10 jjiraffe { 10.04.11 at 2:35 am }

I agree with you about “Moneyball”: the ending was hollow. Where was the big victory, professionally with her career or the title of World Champion? Because I overthink everything, it made me think the end was a metaphor for the possibilities/impossibilities of achieving the American dream when there are massive Yankee and Red Sox team structures helping the rich to win, unfairly. Or maybe, you know, the end was just a bummer.

11 Chickenpig { 10.04.11 at 11:45 am }

Will Reiser wrote this screenplay about himself, his mom, and his friend. His mom may be a smother mom, but if she wasn’t, would Will’s screenplay be a movie today? My mom was a free range mom, and a great one, but the thing that being ‘free range’ IN MY CASE lacked was the self esteem. I think that if my mom had been a little, teensy bit more smothering or helicopter or whatever I would have put my brain and talents to better use. My mom has basically admitted to as much. Instead of pumping us up as much as possible, she often thought it was her duty to let us down easy, and in my opinion that is for the REST of the world to do. I intend to smother my kids at least a little bit, because the rest of the world is harsh. I’ve only got so many years and so many chances to let my kids know how great they can be and to do my best to see they reach their potential, and I’m going to take them!

Rock on Smother Mom! There are so many worse things in the world than loving your kids too much 🙂

12 Hope { 10.04.11 at 5:13 pm }

My mom was a helicopter/smother mother when I was little, but when she saw that it was pushing me away from her, she started changing. It’s been a long, slow learning process, but now things are very comfortable between us. She let’s me pace our contact for the most part. My parents are actually moving near where my DH and I have settled (after being in a different state for years). We’ll see how that goes, but I think it will be good.

I think that as long as you pay attention to your kids cues of when they start wanting more wings and freedom, early smothering doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But I also think it’s really important to let them go and have their own lives when they grow up.

Of course, this is all speaking from the perspective of someone who has yet to experience both sides of mothering. I’m sure my perspective will change once I have living children that I’m raising. 🙂

13 Rachel { 10.04.11 at 7:13 pm }

My MIL is the ultimate smother/helicopter. If it were up to her, DH and I would live in her house. Seriously. It has pushed my husband away from her, but at the same time, it has put me in a bizarre position of having to TEACH him to do things that she did for him for so many years. And sometimes, he resents me for not just doing them…because he REALLY doesn’t understand that it’s not normal for men not to know how to do things for themselves. She has instilled a fear of failure in him so much that he would rather not try.

That being said, my mother was the ultimate free-range mom. Hands off. So much so that it drives me CRAZY to ask for help. Even if I’m drowning. So, obviously there is a balance. And I’m learning to stop resenting people for taking care of their children…because they are children. Just because I did things the hard way doesn’t mean that others should have to learn that way.

Balance is a hard thing to learn!

14 Ellen K. { 10.05.11 at 1:48 pm }

There’s a fine line between free range and negligent, just as there is a fine line between attaching and smothering, and between observing and helicoptering. I don’t really care for any of those labels because I think there’s too black and white.

Have you ever read the “MotherStyles” personality type book, which uses the Myers-Briggs typing system? It’s freaking awesome. I think I first heard about it at HDYDI.com. I’ve taken the test several times and return to this book every time I feel off balance, esp. in relation to other moms. It lists the strengths and weaknesses of each personality type when it comes to parenting. I’m an INFP, so I rock the one-on-one moments and random stops for ice cream, but I’m easily overwhelmed and feel a little (a lot) flighty. In retrospect, my feelings of stagnation and indecision during infertility and moments of alienation from other infertile women make more sense.

15 Ellen K. { 10.05.11 at 1:52 pm }

*deep blush* That should be “they are too black and white” or “they’re too complex to be.”

16 Lori Lavender Luz { 10.05.11 at 5:09 pm }

I must see 50/50.

“the only way I can live without regrets is to follow that intuition” — yes, YES.

We both aim to parent (and live) via intuition. You fall more on the smothering side and I on the free-range side. And, like you on the smother side, I worry about possibly going over the free-range edge, slope that it is.

I’ve been thinking about your post for days.

17 Kathy { 06.10.13 at 3:14 pm }

I have had this window open on my laptop for almost a month and realized I never actually commented on this post, after featuring it as part of my Time Warp Tuesday blog entry last month: http://bereavedandblessed.com/2013/05/time-warp-tuesday-cancer/

I won’t repeat here everything I wrote there, but I will say it was a thrill to finally allow myself to read all of this post, almost two years after you wrote it, because I finally saw the movie 50/50! I go into a lot more detail in my post about what I think about the movie and your post, both of which really resonate with me.

Anyway, thank you for your comment on my blog post about this. I just re-read it and found it especially timely/interesting as I am also reading your new novel Measure of Love which, as you well know, speaks to the choices we make in our lives and how they are our lives and no one else’s to live.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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