We are standing in front of the refrigerator, just like we do every morning. He’s wearing firetruck jammies and I’m wearing my favorite floral nightgown. The refrigerator light glows into the dim kitchen and bounces off the top of his dirty blonde hair.
“Do you want red yogurt or yellow?” I ask, stifling a yawn.
“I want red,” he tells me.
I know the answer already; it’s always red, strawberry until there is no more strawberry, at which point he’ll settle for banana. I lean down to open the bottom drawer full of yogurt cups and juice boxes, but he stops me.
“No, I do it!”
I roll my eyes, remind him that we don’t talk to mommy that way, step back, and let him exercise his tiny independence. He sets the yogurt cup on the table and opens the drawer full of plastic bowls. He grabs his own bowl, his own bib, and climbs up into his booster seat at the kitchen table. I pour the yogurt into the bowl, snap his bib, and playfully dip the spoon into the yogurt. He looks at me, noticeably annoyed.
“No mommy, I do it!”
I watch him pile a small mountain of yogurt onto his spoon and carefully lift it to his mouth. He manages not to drip and licks his lips in triumph. His second yogurt mountain falls on the way up, and yogurt splatters on the tray.
"Uh-oh!" he exclaims, "What happened?"
I smile, and wait.
"Mommy, please help?"
My oldest son just turned three and wants to do everything himself. He wants to be the one to close the drawers and open the cabinets, the one to turn on the light and turn off the fan. He wants to be the one to flush the toilet, to put the ice cubes in his cup, to put his toothbrush back where it belongs.
Should I ever dare to help with anything, I am immediately reprimanded by my own flesh and blood.
“No, I do it!”
We are working on how to exercise our independence without being bossy, but separate and apart from that: when did my child decide he no longer needs me?
I suddenly find myself merely accompanying my son on his daily adventures, lurking in the corner, watching him figure out how to do things and make decisions, how to put the puzzle pieces of life together in the correct combination. It’s like I woke up one day and my son was half as tall as me, choosing his own socks in the morning and identifying alphabet letters on cereal boxes. I'm simply dumbfounded. Where did my baby go?
I’ve been reading my non-existent parenting manual to figure this part out. How much independence should I encourage? How much help should I offer? When should I insist on calling the shots? When should I let him call the shots? When do I offer help? When do I let him figure it out?
This is our dance every day, waltzing between independence and dependence. Back and forth, back and forth, he doesn’t need me till he needs me.
So I stand, and I observe, and I secretly roll my eyes because it takes him seven minutes to go to the bathroom. But this is part of it, of being a mom, of raising children and teaching them to fly. It starts early, and we’re never ready, but here we are. Today I’m letting him pee by himself; tomorrow I’m letting him drive by himself. All of it is terrifying and messy and every other day I second guess my decisions.
If I constantly do things for him, how will he learn to do anything by himself?
If I don’t offer to help, what if he grows up never needing me?
I don’t know how or when to tip the scales. I don’t know when to say, “Let me help,” vs. “You can do it.” My child is only three years old and every single day I am presented with dozens of opportunities to choose one or the other.
I want my kids to be self-sufficient, to be free thinkers. I want them to work hard, to have their own families, to grow up to be functioning people of society who—dare I dream—somehow make the world a better place. I want them to feel safe and secure and confident in knowing that I love them and would never abandon them in an hour of need, whether they’re three years old or thirty.
Isn’t that the whole point of this parenting gig? We want to raise our children to be independent adults, but to also never forget that we will always be here for them if and when they need help.
I want to be a life vest for my kids—the thing they wear every time they sail, just in case. I want to be the thing that makes them feel safe, secure, able to float, able to fly. I pray every day that their boat sails just fine, off into the sunset on top of crystal blue water. I’ve taught them how to sail and I’ve taught them how to swim but sometimes shit happens and a storm comes out of nowhere. And in that moment of panic, when the clouds turn grey and the thunder rolls, I’d want them to grab that life vest with all their might, to say a prayer, to cling to the love wrapped all around them.
I’d want them to need me.
I’d want them to reach for me.
I'd want them to depend on me.
Let me be clear: I am not the thing that saves them. We have a Creator for that and He is the only Rescue Boat. But sometimes we need to float for a few minutes before we're rescued, and maybe that's my ultimate responsibility and privilege as a mom. I'm their mother—their unrelenting encourager, their most dependent support, their warrior on earth, their trusty life vest.
Life vests can take some getting used to. When you first put one on, it feels bulky and stiff, awkward and cumbersome. It’s tempting to just take it off and stuff it under a towel, even though you know it’ll be useless there.
But the thing is: once you wear a life vest long enough, it becomes second nature, almost like a second skin. It moves with you, keeps you warm, provides an inherent sense of protection. Pretty soon you don’t even notice it at all…..it’s just there, silently doing its job, while you do yours.
So for now, for today, I will teach my kids how to swim. I will teach them how to sail, how to float, how to fly.
But most of all: I will remind them, every chance I get, to always wear their life vest.