Susan Groner became an empty nester sooner than she expected when her teenage son begged to go to boarding school an hour away. After spending 17 years as a stay-at-home mom of two, volunteer and occasional marketing consultant, she found herself pondering her next chapter.
“I have the benefit of the retroactive crystal ball, because now I see my kids as pretty together, functioning human beings,” she says. “All the things I worried about were worthless, and such a waste of my time and energy.”
Sue’s kids are in their twenties and thriving in college and grad school. Meanwhile, she’s relocated from Bedford to New York City, where she enjoys going to events and co-working at The Wing.
“I wish I had me 10-15 years ago,” she says. “But I didn’t and not having that was part of the impetus to start The Parenting Mentor.”
“If you could see what your four-year-old was going to be like as a young adult, and see them as a really healthy, active, functioning, kind human being, all the little things that you worry about you wouldn’t have to worry about,” she says.
It was at this point in our conversation that I got a little emotional thinking about how much pressure we put on ourselves to keep our young kids safe and healthy. To get them to eat, put their shoes on and wash their hands. And then we worry about what those battles are doing to them and what the stress is doing to us.
“Maybe just say, ‘you know what, either I accept my kid getting up and running around in between bites or they eat separately,’” she says. “Maybe dinner time just isn’t this wonderful, beautiful thing right now.”
Sue points to the example of tantrums, when our immediate impulse may be to try and stop a meltdown in its tracks. Instead, she encourages us to see our children’s outburst in a more empathetic light.
“Look what they’re going through right now,” she says. “They are so upset about something that this is what they need to do to show me how upset they are.”
It’s easy to forget that our kids need to develop coping skills and learn how to regulate their emotions, and it’s “unrealistic for us to have expectations on little kids that are unfair” she says.
Sue remembers vividly what it was like to worry that her children’s social behavior in kindergarten was indicative of their ability to make friends later in life.
“I was one of those stressed out, anxious moms thinking that how my kids were, at that particular moment in time, was a reflection of what they were going to be like as adults, which is crazy, you know.”
When you look at it objectively, or after the fact, it’s clear as day. But in the moment, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of mom guilt and feel anxiety about our role in shaping their future.
“We need to step back and look at our kids and say this is a human being,” she says. “This is a person with their own thoughts and ideas, and likes and dislikes, and feelings.”
In Sue’s case, she watched her daughter blossom from a young girl who preferred to call the shots to a young woman who now takes trips to Paris on her own.
“I wish someone had said to me, ‘it doesn’t matter—stop projecting your concerns about your child as an adult on your little child,’” she says.
“It’s not our job to make our kids happy all the time. That is a huge, huge burden that we put on ourselves.”
Sue believes that “all of that comes from a really wonderful place of love,” but “it’s the bad evolution of the maternal instinct” acting up and signaling “to protect my child from imminent, life-threatening danger.”
Trying to juggle our own emotional rollercoaster while helping our kids through theirs is a tall order. Fortunately, she says, we can work through our feelings together.
“The more that we as moms express how we’re feeling to our kids—whether it’s the frustration because you can’t find your phone in the moment, or something happened with work and it’s really bringing you down, or you were supposed to go out and the babysitter canceled—you need to be saying to your kids, ‘I’m really disappointed. I was really looking forward to going out with my girlfriends tonight.’”
She says that when they see that 15 minutes later you’ve calmed down, they learn “she felt disappointed, and then she was fine. She felt frustrated, and then she was fine. She was sad and then she was fine.”
“Then they start to see, oh yeah, these are normal feelings,” she says. “Adults have them. Kids have them.”
The other trap Sue sees parents fall into is what she describes as an “engineering project” where aspirations focus on achievement vs. skill development.
“Ultimately, what do you want for your child?” is a question she asks her clients. In response, she often hears, “I want my child to excel. I want my child to be as smart as they can. I want them to use their full potential. I want them to do well in school. I want them to value education. I want them to be physically fit and eat well,” and “the list goes on and on and on.”
“My theory is wait a minute, what if we work on raising kids who are resilient and self reliant with good problem solving skills and good coping mechanisms,” she says, “as opposed to being proficient on the piano. Those are the kids who are going to go into the world and be happy because they’re going to be able to deal with whatever comes their way. They’re going to know that no matter what happens, they have the tools to deal with it.”
Perhaps the most compelling reminder of all is that these intense years with our children are fleeting.
“I do think it’s a healthy way to look at life in terms of chapters,” she says. “As you know, 18-20 years is not that much of your life.”
“A lot of people feel their reason for being becomes their children,” she says. “And then when they’re not needed anymore—and that not needed part happens when your kids are at home, too—you feel useless. I did not want to feel that way,” she says. “And I never did.”
Sue was fortunate to take the cue to shift gears in her own life, as her children became more independent.
“Whether your kid is three, or 13, or even 23, everyone continues to grow and develop and evolve. I mean, I still am,” she says.
When emotions are running high and our worries are spinning out of control, we can pause and appreciate the opportunity we have to watch what emerges for our children—and ourselves.
“It exciting to look at our kids who are little, and say, ‘well, I’ve got the privilege to watch these little human beings develop,’” she says.
“I’m going to sit back as much as I can and just be there for love, and I’m going to see how they start thinking about things, and developing what they like, what they don’t like, and how that changes. What they’re interested in, what they’re not interested in.”
“And that it’s all okay,” says Sue. “It’s all really good.”