Memo to Helicopter Mom: You’re Grounded

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Alessandra Bianchi

“Mom, can I help you with anything?”

This, like many questions coming from my 14-year-old son these days, brought tears to my eyes, on an otherwise ho-hum Saturday afternoon.

Two days ago, an oversized FedEx envelope arrived on our doorstep containing his acceptance to the elite boarding school he had decided was his number-one choice.

I have not been the same since.

True, all fall our entire family had been running the gauntlet otherwise know as high school shopping. Between requesting, digesting, Web-surfing and reading all of the schools’ voluminous and glowing literature; scheduling and completing the visits and interviews; writing the thank you notes; and of course, devoting an inordinate portion of Christmas vacation to filling out the applications, you’d think I had ample warning about the sea change underfoot.

But going through the motions is one thing. Opening the fat congratulatory package, complete with eye-popping mid-five-figure tuition, another.

Within minutes of reading the envelope, my younger son was already speculating about which particular features he wanted in the man cave he would devise from his older brother’s vacated room. My son’s three grandfathers called to convey their heartfelt congratulations and pride, and his great uncle asked me to send him the Web link to the school’s inn and golf course. My niece burst into giddy happy screams upon hearing the news, and requested to be one of his first visitors at the school. My husband, an alum of this same school, didn’t do the wave or whoop, but in his trademark undemonstrative way, radiated satisfaction.

Mom, however is a different story.

Everyday tasks—driving the boys to school, folding their laundry (laundry for Pete’s Sake!), making their lunches—all of these formerly soul-crushing pedestrian (and admittedly in our overly traditional house, maternal) duties, are suddenly suffused with bittersweet urgency and sacredness, bordering on the divine. Family dinners, card games, my son’s casual backward glances, his adolescent voice cracks, they all undo me these days. When my husband reads bedtime stories to the boys, and they snuggle up next to him and listen and laugh, it’s all I can do not to tear up and go all wobbly—even when the oeuvre in question is Calvin and Hobbes.

Rationally, I know this is ridiculous. The school is only 45 minutes from our house, and seasoned parents assure me that their rule of thumb–the higher the tuition, the fewer the actual number of days your child is in school—rings true. We will see him far more than I think. Besides, my son just survived the largest applicant pool in this school’s 200-year history, and is among the slim 14% of The Chosen.

Consider the company he will keep: among his potential classmates are a youth ambassador from the Amazon rainforest; a free-climbing German artist who speaks five languages; and a young man from the United Arab Emirates who can solve the Rubik’s cube in 30 seconds flat and who helped build a school in Laos. Enough to make any mother proud, right?

So, why, instead of boasting, do I find myself counting the number of times I can kiss my son goodnight until September, or looking up sappy but oh-so-penetrating lines from poets about the transience of life and youth? “Nothing gold can stay,” intones Frost to me as my son cheerfully tells me jokes while we weed in the garden. (“Mom, what’s a will? A dead give away.”) Visions of Grecian urns and nightingales flutter in my head as I stroll the aisles of the grocery store. This too shall end. My children’s childhood is over!

Sure, my son might be the actual one leaving home, but I feel as though I am the one packing up my former life into a box and having to assume a new identity. Goodbye Helicopter Mom, and Hello Remote/Virtual/Skype Mom. Can I do this?

Driving the other morning, while at a stoplight, I looked over to see a new mom idling in the car beside me. Her eyes, while hazily staring at the road ahead, narrowed and intensified their focus every time she looked up into her rear view mirror. She did this reflexively and constantly, for reflected there was the most important image in the world to her. Thanks to a handy little mirror attached to the top of the back seat, this mom had that most coveted maternal superpower: proverbial eyes in the back of her head, which allowed her to see the face of her child despite the fact that the law-abiding infant was facing backward in her car seat.

Her Pavlovian vigilance brought the new motherhood stage back to me in all of its glory; with the memories of sleep deprivation and dirty diapers conveniently excised. After all, we’re entitled to perfect day dreams, aren’t we? For better or worse, I would have been just the sort of mom to purchase and cherish that little gizmo, had it existed back then.

After lamenting this lost opportunity, my immediate next thought was to wish for its parallel version for new boarding school parents. At this early stage of the game, the hardest part of the whole boarding school thing is the thought of not being able to see my precious son, to instantly capture, at a glace, his mood, his well-being, his being. Call me old-fashioned but Facebook or Skype don’t yet cut it for me. I’m sure I will change my tune. I have no choice, and social media, from what I hear, have irrevocably changed the out-of-sight aspect of boarding school.

And just as that hyper-vigilant new-mom phase of parenthood seems like a lifetime ago, something I am “so over,” I am counting on the Terrified Newbie Boarding School Parent state to become a thing of the past. A chapter of history that I will also be “so over.”

My son is excited to go off and have his educational adventure. Who am I to stop him? By the way, for the record, he solves the Rubik’s cube in 32, not 30, seconds. And while he hasn’t built a school, in Laos, or anywhere, he has built a snow-making machine in our back yard, which turned our lawn white. Currently he’s working on electrifying his bicycle. It involves something called an arduino and a lot of small packages from Turkey and Korea. Now if I can just get him to work on that boarding school rear view mirror thingamabob, I think I can let him go.