Planned Obsolescence

This post appeared at Bookview Cafe in 2014.

A billion years ago (actually 24) I worked as a ghost-writer for a psychiatrist whose specialties were 1) working with women with serious psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar depression, etc.) who were the mothers of infants, and 2) infant depression (you will be unsurprised to know that they are frequently linked). About the time my older daughter was six months old, I quit–having my nose that deep into psychiatric dysfunction in infancy meant that every time my daughter hiccuped I was afraid she might be going into a decline. But during that time I learned a lot about psychiatric theories of infancy. Paul (the doctor in question) had a theory that one of the things adaptive (that is, healthy) parents do for their children is to “preview” upcoming developmental markers. For example, a father holds his infant up on her feet for a moment, letting her feel the weight on her feet and see the perspective that will be hers when she learns to walk.

At the time, with a six-month-old in the house, I wasn’t sure that this held water, although I did a local news segment where I was the mother demonstrating previewing for the rapt interviewer. But after all these years, and two kids, I’m a believer.  And the really big thing that I think parents preview for their kids is parental obsolescence. Because if you do it right, what you’re training your child to do is do without you.

When we were living in New York City and my daughter was seven I let her go to the corner store to buy milk by herself, for the first time. Before you call Child Protective Services–we had rehearsed this; when we went to the store together I would give her the money and let her carry out the transaction. We drilled on street crossing. And that day (unbeknownst to her) I shadowed her to make sure she was crossing the street safely, and that no one scooped up the morsel of adorableness that was my child. Four years later, when she decided she was able to meet a friend and take the subway to school on her own, I did the same thing, watching to make sure that she was paying attention and had her wits about her.

A few years later we moved to San Francisco and her younger sister started wanting to walk to school on her own; I went through the whole routine all over again. By the time she started middle school she was confident about her ability to navigate the bus trip to her school (and back again).

All this previewing and letting out of the tether is not without its anxiety for the parent. Every time one of my girls tasted a new sort of freedom–overnights, going to the movies with friends, driving, getting home on her own after a party–I really wasn’t off duty until I knew that she was safely home. Because I may be letting out that rope, but I’m still at the other end.

Of course there are aspects of previewing that are neither so anecdote-worthy or appealing to the kid.  Keeping track of a bank account? Maybe not so interested in learning about that, Mom. Until she is.  My older daughter went into a panic at 15 because she didn’t know how to rent an apartment. A few years later we followed after her, giving her a nudge here and there, and muttering cues, there to help but not muscling in to take care of it all. I’m thinking about this a lot because my younger daughter will be heading off to college in three months. Unless a piano falls on her head. Our job, the last eighteen years, has been to gradually let her see a vision of a world where she’s doing it all herself–while being near enough to help if it’s necessary.

It’s an interesting balancing act. I don’t anticipate to ever be completely off the hook, parenting-wise, not while there are telephones and email and ichat and whatever other avenues of communication may yet appear. I actually don’t want to be completely obsolete.


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