When I was a junior in high school, I wanted to pierce my nose, and I had my parents’ support. I talked for months about the possibility, slowly convincing myself that a jeweled stud was just what I needed. When the day came to acquire my new nasal accessory, I was afraid. Sitting in the car with my mom, right in front of the door of the piercing studio, I tried to talk myself out of the idea. After a few minutes she grabbed my hand and told me, “Take a deep breath, you want this, let’s go.” She was right. I walked in the door, accomplished what we were there to accomplish, and moved forward with a stud in my nose and Mom’s voice in my head.
To say my mom and I are close would be an understatement. We bleed into one another’s space, our presences intertwined, my face echoing her features. It’s an intangible connection I cannot entirely explain. It wakes us up at the same time in early morning, even if we are towns apart. The text messages buzz in right after I send a thought of light her way. I’m grateful her influence seeps into my bones, my life force, my smile. However, much to my dismay, I cannot simply follow on the heels of my admired forever. This little girl must grow up.
Some people separate from their parents in college, in early adolescence, or even earlier should life demand self-definition and separation. When I consider what that separation looks like without arguments about curfew, moving across the country, or traumatic events, I sometimes get stuck. It can be gut-wrenching to experience the unanticipated joys and the struggles of coming into my own way of life while remaining in a positive relationship with the forces that shaped me—my family, my hometown, my definitions of community. For me, this evolving process actually involves drawing upon and applying my mother’s mantras daily.
As I have navigated my post-college years, I have felt alone and unsure in this journey of self-individuation. While the details of my journey may be unique, the process and struggle of negotiating emotional separation is quite common. I recently read an article that linked “helicopter parenting” to depression and anxiety in college students. The article explains that in bubble-like settings where over-involved parents and teachers create easy-to-follow decision-making processes, these blossoming young adults jump through hoops with flames of glory.
However, when those voices telling youth what they should accomplish disappear in new environments, regardless of the prestige of the university, young adults tend to fall apart. The article reports that kids on college campuses are having identity crises and put so much pressure on themselves to manage it all. They lose sight of which way is up, and in that tunnel of chaos lose a serious sense of themselves. The premise of the article struck me with pins in the heart as I, too, experienced a significant amount of anxiety in college, leading me to drop out of my idealistic liberal arts school to attend a state university closer to home. “Dang it,” I thought to myself, “I can relate to that feeling of lost.”
However, I didn’t relate to the sections in the article about the pressure hovering parents put on their children to achieve according to the parents' own agendas. My mom was never one to nag me, to make sure my deadlines were complete, to overschedule or monopolize my time—no, no, those choices were all me. When I was in high school, my parents paid me to receive a B so I wouldn’t stress myself out over achieving high grades. It only happened twice (and much to my chagrin those two times), as I preferred to over-manage my calendar and stay on top of deadlines and assignments rather than put $50 in my pocket. My mom gently reminded me on a regular basis, “For heaven’s sake, stop working so hard. You are enough.”
College, for me, was not the idealistic experience I had anticipated at age 18. Academically I thrived. Socially and emotionally I was challenged and pulled to breaking points when I consistently asked the question, “Who is Katie in this new space?” For years I had looked toward my grades, my friends, my faith, my accolades, and my family to define me. For the first time I was removed from most of those qualifiers; I was anonymous in a way that was refreshing and paralyzing all at once. I made phone calls home on a daily basis, slowly transitioning to every other day by my senior year. Connection to home, and to my mom, remained important. Separation may have taken place physically, but emotionally I remained immensely connected. When I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live, or which groups to get involved in on campus, or which part-time job to take, I would always seek my mom’s counsel. Her words often ended the conversation with a reminder: “Just give it a try. You can always quit if you don’t feel it’s a positive fit.”
It has been four years since I threw my black cap in the air and earned a degree. I have had five jobs and lived in three different cities. I got engaged, postponed a wedding, planned a wedding, and said “I do.” It took months for me to trust myself enough to be where I am. When I am antsy and anxious, I pace and pace in my head, trying to force solutions. I am learning I can find peace by instead telling my brain to stop working so hard. All of this change and second-guessing myself on the journey to adulthood (that’s a thing at 26, right?) has been followed by the whispers of my mom’s voice in my head.
She is my champion, my constant supporter, and my encourager. It amazes me, when I am quiet and in the midst of decision-making, how much I ache for her approval of my decisions. This is often perplexing, because her approval has never been denied to me. However, I’m suddenly realizing that I am the only one who has to deal with my choices and define whether or not they deserve approval. Perhaps the helicopter flying over is me, begging and pleading with each whirring blade to trust in myself as I take responsibility for my life and separate in healthy ways from the person who was so key in providing me with guidance, identity, and acceptance.
These days, I carry my mom’s voice with me as I wander into the woods of adulthood. I repeat over and over her mantras and expand her truths to remind myself that I have enough experience and wisdom to make my own decisions. I take the advice she gave me when I was 16 and say, “Take a deep breath. You want this. Let’s go.” And as life continues to present options upon options of opportunity to turn me into the someone I want to be, her voice reminds me, “Just give it a try.” We still speak almost daily, but my nagging for her input is slowly waning. I’m learning how to be an adult in this world that does its best to define me by my accomplishments, while I want to be focused on being. Who I am will continue to change, but today I pause and remember, “I am enough.”
+Want to hear about this journey from the mother's perspective? Read Rebirthing My Daughter by Christine Christman, Katie Huey's mother.