The Universal Notebook: Confessions of a helicopter parent

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You should have seen my daughter Tess when I mentioned to her not long ago that when Robert Peary, destined to become the great Arctic explorer, graduated from Portland High School and went to Bowdoin College, his mother rented an apartment for them to share in Brunswick.

Tess looked stricken as the color drained from her face.

“You’re not going to move to Brunswick!” she declared.

“Well, with Brunswick Naval Air Station closing, there are going to be a lot of good real estate deals,” I replied, stringing her along. “And it might save us some money on room and board.”

Poor Tess. As the youngest of our three daughters, she’s essentially been an only child since Hannah and Nora went off to college and out into the world in 1999 and 2001. On the plus side, she’s moved in on her older sisters’ room and possessions. On the other hand, she’s probably been smothered by my attention.

Though I hate to admit it, I have been something of a helicopter parent, one of those protective, involved fathers and mothers who is always hovering nearby, ready to help out whenever necessary (or unnecessary). It doesn’t help that Tess is the athlete of the family, either. Hannah and Nora warned her years ago not to play any sport that dad could coach (such as softball or basketball), but she didn’t count on dad becoming the secretary of the local soccer boosters and manager of her premier soccer team.

I have tried not to live vicariously through her athletic accomplishments in soccer, track and lacrosse, but it’s hard to say where paternal pleasure and pride cross the line into cathartic over-identification. As I have said too many times, there is nothing I would rather do than watch my daughter play. Her speed and grace and beauty never cease to amaze me.

Tess worries that, both because I’ve been so involved in her young life and because I often write for the Bowdoin alumni magazine and frequent the Bowdoin library and museum, she’ll have to be looking over her shoulder all the time for the Old Man. So I have taken an oath not to show up on campus next fall unless she has a soccer game. Even then, I plan to be less conspicuous than I have been in the past, pacing the sidelines, following the action, unable to relax unless or until a game is clearly in hand.

When Tess goes off to college in the fall, Carolyn and I will be left alone here at home with the dog and the cat, empty-nesters disconnected from the Yarmouth schools after 22 straight years. Around graduation week, a lot of folks started asking me how it felt to have all my girls grown, was I looking forward to having them all out on their own? Absolutely not.

Frankly, I do not understand – more to the point, I do not approve – when some parents talk enthusiastically about their new-found freedom as empty-nesters. No more school functions to attend, no more games to watch, no more being tied down by the school calendar. But there’s nowhere I want to go and nothing else I’d rather do. I love it when the girls are home. I like their friends. I like having young people around. I’m not looking forward to the freedom to be alone at all.

Though I was 32 when our first daughter Hannah was born, I don’t remember what it was like not to have children in my life. Or maybe I just don’t want to remember. It wasn’t all that great. I love being a father. I love watching children play and grow.

So, I’m pretty sure you’ll still find me on the Yarmouth sidelines next year, watching and cheering other people’s daughters as they play and grow. It’ll probably be a relief not to be so heavily invested in the outcome, but it won’t be the same.

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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.