I have often mused that if there was a recovery group for control freaks, I would be its fearless leader. “Hi, I’m Kathy, and I’m a control freak.”
National, International or Galactic, I could lead them all. Because I was in charge of the world — or at least the small cosmos of my family — micro-managing down to the most minute detail.
Until that bubble burst and I realized I could control nothing other than myself, my own decisions and my own reactions. That day a new world opened up for me, although I readily admit that every so often I slip through a trap door to that former place.
It was our son’s substance abuse and the realization that I couldn’t fix it or “make him stop” that did it. I realized I could only control my own reactions– which I have learned is most effective when the approach of getting out of the way and allowing natural consequences to take place is also followed.
Of course, it’s always easier to see this in someone else’s situation rather than one’s own, but the recognition of it in others is also a help in implementing the lessons I learned.
Not too long ago one of the dramas of a control freak mother playing victim unfolded right before my very eyes. It could have been me not all that long ago…
I could so identify.
“Jeannie” arrived at the health care facility where I was working after dropping her younger son off at basketball camp. Her older daughter was babysitting and took her kindergarten-aged sister with her, and that left only her oldest son, a junior in high school, asleep at home.
Just before eleven Jeannie frantically started trying to reach her son to make sure he was awake. She had enrolled him in a college level math class because she felt the teacher at his former school hadn’t done a good job teaching. He hadn’t gotten a good grade and didn’t understand the math, but it was absolutely the teacher’s fault.
“Doesn’t he have an alarm clock?” I casually asked.
“Yes, but he might not hear it, so I’ll just call him to make sure he’s up.”
I had been there, done that — and learned that it only led to massive anxiety and headaches on my part.
When more than a dozen phone calls had been unsuccessful in determining whether her son had left the house or not (“Hopefully he’s up, maybe there isn’t reception; he has to go to class…there’s a test today…”) she finally called the neighbor to see if his car was still in the driveway— which would answer the question about whether he had left for class or was still asleep.
“He was up till five this morning, I had a feeling he might oversleep,” came the next statement.
“Why was he up so late?” I questioned.
“He was doing his homework, but he didn’t start till eleven, but he’s on steroids for his asthma, so he has a hard time sleeping.
What my recovering control freak ears heard were multiple rationalizations and excuses for his lack of responsibility, which were confirmed when she started fuming to herself that he had no difficulty getting up for football practice.
When her neighbor called back to confirm that his car was still in the driveway, she feverishly went to work to decide how to wake him up from her remote location at work (where productivity was way down). Calls to her daughter and husband followed, in which blaming words started to fly.
Her daughter wouldn’t go to the house to bang on the door, and her husband blamed her for not being personally present to haul her son’s self-induced weary body out of bed. More arguing with her husband followed, and the blame game continued.
She finally reached her son, who refused to go to class because he was already late.
“What will his consequence be for missing class? I asked.
“Consequence?” she asked pausing before responding that she had half a mind to not let him play in his ball game that evening, but her husband wouldn’t agree, so in all likelihood there wouldn’t be a consequence.
“He has to take and pass this class,” she offered as I simply continued to listen.
“Why is that, and by the way, who’s idea was it for him to take the class?” I answered.
“Well, he’s changing schools next year, and because the teacher did such a lousy job of teaching math this year I decided he really needed to take this class so he wouldn’t flunk out of math at the new school next year.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, it was my idea, he wasn’t too happy about it.”
It turns out they had bought a house in a neighboring town so he could enroll in that school district tuition-free to play on a more competitive football team. It appeared that setting him up in his third school in as many years so he could play ball on a winning team was the primary motivation.
But her oldest son wasn’t the only one calling the shots and getting his way in the family.
Conversation revealed that her youngest daughter has an upcoming appointment with the Pediatric Dentist because she doesn’t brush her teeth.
“What do you mean she doesn’t brush her teeth?” I questioned.
“Well you know, things unravel by the fourth child, she keeps eating after dinner and I just can’t make her brush her teeth.”
“Nicole is my fourth child, and she brushes her teeth twice a day,” I noted.
“Well, she just doesn’t listen to me,” Jeannie sighed.
I remained silent and thought about how I could encourage my friend to shift the balance of power, responsibility and entitlement in her family. Or things would only go from bad to worse…trust me, I know.
But perhaps most valuable was the lesson it held for me; a lesson of how slippery the slope back to micromanagement and control freak mode is for those of us who are wired that way and love the illusion of the perfect family—and get really uncomfortable with the embarrassment our kids might cause us.
There are natural consequences to all decisions, and sometimes they are really hard. But our kid’s behavior will change as parents consistently parent and don’t abdicate those roles in favor of excuses and a life on easy street for their kids.
It was a valuable reminder to me to hold firm, love and allow natural consequences to take their course while managing my own behavior.
Have you had similar epiphanies? When have you had to let go — and what happened?