This is my first column of the new year, and so I feel like I should be writing about making resolutions, getting a fresh start, or becoming a whole new me, but I don’t really want to. First of all, I have never seen a resolution through to completion, and it just makes me feel bad when I realize in April that I have only three daily journal entries, have gained 5 pounds, and have yet to finish the scrapbook I started in 2006.
Secondly, I have been a student or parent for about three-quarters of my life, so I run on a school year, not a calendar year. I like to start in September, not January, and end on the high note of summer, not in a post-holiday slump.
It’s not that I don’t have many behaviors I want to change – I do, believe me I do (and my family could probably come up with a few more). Improve my diet, exercise, find greater job satisfaction, compliment more and complain less, and so on. But when I really think about it, the one thing that causes me the most aggravation on a daily basis is my need for control, for everything to be in its place, for everything to go as I plan.
I was always very organized, timely, and proactive when I was just responsible for myself. But now that there are four of us to manage, the inability to keep everything under control is taking a toll on this control freak.
They say we teach people how to treat us, and I have taught my family that Mom will take care of everything. I am the planner, the finder, the fixer, the creator, and supplier for the whole family. And when I can’t plan or find or fix or create or supply, my family complains. Then I get mad at them because I feel unappreciated for all the times I succeeded at these jobs in the past. But I am also upset with myself, because I failed.
While I crave the control, I don’t actually like it. I get annoyed in the morning watching my kids play while I run around gathering clothes, making breakfast and lunch, packing backpacks, and watching the clock. But then I scoff at my son when he wants to bring something unconventional to school. I dread family trips when I am responsible for planning, packing, tickets, directions, snacks, etc. But I get more irritated when the others jump in and unpack my precisely-packed bags to fit in more plush toys or different clothes, or put in leaky, perishable snacks, or poorly-packaged toys that spill little parts throughout our luggage.
So though I resent my job as controller, I also discourage my family from being responsible for themselves. When someone else steps in, instead of praising them for what they did, I often hear myself regretting what I did not.
Why can’t I let go? The surface answer is that by doing it all myself, things are usually done “right” and we avoid the consequences of an incomplete job. But if I am going to be honest and year-end-reflective, I think the real reason I hold on is because if I am not the planner, finder, fixer, creator, and supplier, then I don’t know who I am. If I let my family take care of their own needs, I’ll have to say goodbye to the martyr in me that loves to say, “I always have to plan/find/fix everything around here!” (I don’t like her, but I’m kind of attached.) I’m afraid I may become unnecessary, or even more afraid that if I am free to take care of my own needs, I may have to figure out what they are.
When I look, I see my kids have given me many opportunities to let go. My four year old wants to do everything herself but I often intervene. My son surprises me by maturing past old attitudes and needs that I unintentionally fight to maintain. When I let them go, they do pretty well. Sure they make mistakes, and messes, and forget things, and take their frustration out on me as they maneuver through the learning curve. But I have to toughen up to these growing pains and consider them just steps on the road to freedom – for all of us.
So my goal for 2013 is to learn to let go. But to my family, I won’t call it a resolution. I’m calling it a warning.
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author, and mother of two. She works with individuals, couples, and families, and can be reached at email@example.com.