Can't Moms Be Human Anymore?

The power of the mother-daughter connection keeps catching me by surprise. I didn't know we would stare at each other for hours after she came out, I didn't know my boobs would squirt milk just thinking about her, and I certainly didn't anticipate this next round of attachment.
09/24/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Transitions are not my thing. I knew this fifteen years ago, as I prepared for a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps. I was what I think you'd call, in layman's terms, a total frickin' mess; angst-ridden, physically ill from all the stress and convinced I was going to die because, for some reason, I'm certain that every new life phase includes my untimely demise. Now I'm a mom, and it's my turn to help my kid get through her biggest transition to date: starting kindergarten. How's it going, you ask? Well, I'll tell you: It stinks, for her and for me.

My kid's anguish began in earnest about six weeks ago, when she realized she'd soon be saying goodbye to her preschool friends. Holy moody, Batman. The tiniest thing set her off. If I didn't take her with me to get milk from the fridge, she cried. When hubby and I hugged without her, she cried. Bedtime was miserable, and she had trouble separating from me before school. Weepiness became the newest member of our family.

Initially, I welcomed her struggle. In fact, I'd even say I was a little excited about it, because I saw it as the first of many transitions in her life she would successfully navigate. My job, as I saw it, was to stand on the sidelines and convey to her that she has the strength and resources to get through this challenging experience and emerge stronger for it.

At least that's how I envisioned it going. But the reality quickly became a lot more befuddling. I needed to give her space or risk being too much of a Helicopter Mom, stunting her emotional development and not letting her feel pain, which will eventually prohibit her from feeling a deep sense of satisfaction in life as an adult. But if I went all Tiger Mom on her, then I'd deprive her of a secure attachment to her primary caregiver, leading to major adult insecurity as she realizes she's more than a robot programmed to achieve success. Too soft, too tough; it felt like I was the Goldilocks of modern parenthood. What the heck is an already confused mother to do?

Muddle. Apparently, my best option is to muddle through our generation's popular parenting approaches. On the one hand, I'm firm and consistent. When she crosses the line, I give her a time-out to reinforce boundaries. But I'm also making life a little easier on her. She's doing not one, I repeat, not one after-school class. No ballet, science, karate, violin, French or any other genius-inducing activity. And since she misses me so much, at night I let her sleep with a tank top I've worn during the day. This, I've discovered, is a big no-no among my peers. "Wendy," another mom recently informed me, "as your friend, I have to tell you I think you're making a huge mistake." Thanks, buddy.

If you agree with her, you'll definitely read me the riot act when I tell you I took it one step further: last Wednesday, at my bedtime, despite my hubby's protests, I didn't crawl into our bed, I slid into my daughter's. Oh yes, I did, and somewhere in Boston Dr. Ferber shuddered. After a particularly rough day, she needed her mommy, and I knew that sleeping next to her for one night would comfort her. In the morning, I would assure her that this was a one-shot deal. So I went right on in there, put my head down on the pillow next to hers, and snoozed. And it worked -- the next day she was calmer and happier.

Meanie mom critics, I know: Big mistake. I've ruined almost six years of training her to self-soothe. She needs to buck up and recognize that she can independently confront life's inevitable obstacles. But she's human, and so am I. The power of the mother-daughter connection keeps catching me by surprise. I didn't know we would stare at each other for hours after she came out of me, I didn't know my boobs would squirt milk just thinking about her, and I certainly didn't anticipate this next round of attachment and desire to comfort her -- even as I gently nudge her further out of the nest. My mother's instinct says to be right there, physically, so that's what I'm doing.

Yet even as I defend my choice, doubt abounds. Am I letting her feel enough pain on her way to independence? How much is my screwed-up relationship with my mother impacting my parenting decisions now? We're all familiar with the story: Selfish Baby Boomers divorce after years of unhappiness, the children get tossed aside and as a result, those kids over-parent their own offspring. But what I'd like to know is this: How does it end? With a grown child like me, who believes transitions are as scary as death, or with a child like my daughter now, who clings to mommy to get through anything new and ambiguous?

Even with all of this confusion, I do know this: I don't want to be a Helicopter Mom and I don't want to be a Tiger Mom. So I'd like for us to come up with a new term I can get behind. It should encapsulate how a mom like me is trying to stuff tough love, compassion, and consistency into baggage that is already well over the weight limit with the neglect and abandonment of my own childhood. It should be one that helps me parent my kid in a way that leads her to respond less fearfully than I do to life's ups and downs. Hmmm... let me think. How about Human Mom?

If creating a whole new parenting philosophy sounds too challenging, try convincing yourself -- and your 5-year-old -- that last week's slumber party won't be repeated. At least this month. Maybe.