I Hereby Renounce My Role as Facilitator
I’ve played many roles as a mom, but I’m letting my children sort themselves out now
I spent the better part of the 2020–2021 school year trying to facilitate things for my sons. This included, but was not limited to: Outdoor Stuffed Animal Zipline, DiMarco Family Olympics, and Best Christmas Ever. I had decided to approach the few things still within my control with unmitigated focus. I took it upon myself to smooth every pathway and offer every opportunity for my kids.
As a clinical psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health, I have historically been opposed to parental facilitating. An adherent of parenting writers like Lisa Damour, Julie Lythcott-Haims, and Jessica Lahey, all of whom speak of the need to raise independent kids who learn to cope with failure, I believe wholeheartedly in letting children figure things out for themselves. But I seem to have forgotten this in my desperate attempt to compensate for all the pandemic took from my sons.
Of the many issues I tasked myself with, two stand out. My older son started in a brand new (and much larger) school in the fall and complained of feeling lonely, as the kids were basically confined to one classroom and unable to socialize. I spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to figure out how to fix his problem, persistently encouraging him to reach out to friends. I suggested safe outdoor playdates (during the bitter New Jersey winter). I continually extolled the virtues of FaceTiming with friends. All of these suggestions were met with withering tween eye rolls.
There was also the constant boredom. We were among the lucky ones to have in-person school all year long. But school ended at 1 p.m., so my boys had many afternoon hours to kill. At first, they played together well but after a few months in, they began complaining that they had nothing to do.
I’m not one of those moms who’s particularly good at coming up with kid games, but damn if I didn’t try. I brought out all the board games (which my sons now refer to as “bored games”), Legos, and Hot Wheels. I ordered the STEM kits that come by mail. And didn’t anyone want to bake with me? Or write a story with me? Or help me with a puzzle? (Nope, nope, and no way).
After months and months of fruitless facilitating, both the boredom and the loneliness issues eventually resolved themselves without any intervention from me.
Towards the end of the school year, my older son started walking to and from school with a kid who’d recently moved into a house near our own. On this walk, my son met a bunch of new kids who quickly became his new circle of friends, which changed his whole demeanor around school. I should note that this walk was arranged by the kid’s dad and my husband. I had nothing to do with it.
And the boredom? The warmer weather and return of baseball pretty much took care of that. The other day, my sons were entertained by a game of their own devising, involving each of them flinging rubber bands. We’re talking about hours’ worth of fun in the baking heat, with minimal supplies and no intervention from me (save for my occasional participation to rescue a rogue rubber band).
The rubber-band game worked because it came from my kids’ own brains, not from the brain of their hopelessly out-of-touch mother. In fact, every time I made a suggestion for another activity, it was clear to all involved that I was trying too hard. My kids saw my strained smile as I attempted to convince them — and myself — that mom’s improvised outdoor slip-n-slide was even remotely comparable to the slides at the water park we were supposed to visit.
Instead of helping me seize control, my facilitating just made me more aware of the limitations of what I could actually control. I couldn’t force fun or socialization or anything else on my pandemic-weary kids.
The facilitating didn’t work for me, either. My kids’ well-being was on my mind on a near-constant basis, crowding out work and other relationships and leisure pursuits. Instead of bingeing some nonsense TV after my kids went to bed, I was texting other moms to engineer playdates and reading everything I could about the pandemic’s toll on kids’ mental health. Professionally, I was continuing to write and speak about the need for maternal self-care, but personally, I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching.
Until now. As of this writing, I am officially resigning my role as facilitator.
I will no longer task myself with smoothing out all the bumps (Covid or otherwise) life puts before my kids. As my brief stint clearly demonstrated, taking great pains to engineer plans will not help my kids (turns out the parenting experts are 100% right about that). And it will actually hurt me, compromising my ability to take care of myself and thus my ability to take care of my kids.
You’ll still find me doling out advice and encouragement and extra rubber bands. But I’m not taking on the responsibility for entertaining my kids all day or helping them make friends or fighting their battles for them. I’m going to let them figure those things out for themselves. As I’ve always known I should.
Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D. is a New Jersey and New York State licensed clinical psychologist and writer specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and stress, with a sub-specialty in working with mothers of young children.
Dr. Dobrow DiMarco’s writing on maternal stress and anxiety has been featured in Motherwell, Motherly, Pop Sugar Moms, Psychology Today, Scary Mommy, The Washington Post, The Week, and Today Parenting, as well as on her own blog, DrCBTmom.com. She is the author of Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood — And Relax Into Your New Self.