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How to be a guard rail

Guest post by Tess Miller. Life Coach at Wings Unfolded, LLC


It was true, as foretold by older friends and family members, that becoming a parent would be life altering, and expanding. As my elders would share wide-eyed tales of their own adventures in parenting that changed them forever, I would wonder exactly how my own metamorphosis would look. What would be the stories that unfold over my kid’s lifetime that will shape and mold me?

For the past 13 and ½ years, I have had the honor of holding the title of Mother to a now tall, clever, creative, and determined person. At the age of 4, frustrated at not being able to “skip” for a dance class routine, my child practiced, crying the entire time, until they could do it. When they turned 6, they were determined to wear cat ear headbands as their signature look for the rest of their life (they don’t anymore). And when they turned 13, they let us know they were gender fluid, asking us to drop she/her pronouns we’d used up until that point and to use he/them instead.

These are some of the eye widening tales I have been collecting on my parenting career so far. What do I mean by wide-eyed tales? They are the parenting stories in which we experienced our biggest shifts, internally or externally. They’re the ones where we learned how to not only be a parent to our children, but also to ourselves.

In the last several months especially, I have been flexing the muscle of inner parenting. We all have this muscle, whether we are parents or not. This is the muscle we use when we have to make tough choices or discern whether to believe certain emotions or beliefs that may be limiting us in some way. It’s the hardest work we will ever do to parent ourselves- WAY harder than parenting our own kids.

Here’s a recent example. My child has body dysphoria. This means that they experience and express themselves as a gender that does not match the body with which they were born. None of us are ready for them to undergo top surgery, and so, we have invested in the best quality chest binders we can find. As with corsets that women chose to wear centuries ago, binders can inhibit a teenager’s growth, and if they’re not mindful of how long they wear the binder, their ribs can start to hurt.

I could be the parent that says, “take that binder off now, because I said so.” Fortunately, we have a fantastic therapist who agrees with my gut that that tactic would only serve to drive a wedge in the relationship and cause mental health distress. So, I tune out society, and take on a role that feels more like those bowling alley guard rails set up for kids who aren’t developmentally ready yet to bowl but want to do it anyway. In other words, I’m here to make sure my kid doesn’t fall in the gutter, knowing that one day, they will be developmentally ready to knock down the door to their life when it’s time.

The other day, I was tempted to drop the guard rail and, if I’m being honest, push my child into the gutter with both hands. That can happen in parenting, I’ve learned. There is tremendous love for the person. And at the same time, you can hate everything about what they are doing or saying. It’s quite a paradox! On this particular day, my child was sharing that their ribs really hurt from the binder and “is there anything else I can do about that?” My stock answer to these questions has become, “I don’t know. Let’s ask your doctor or therapist.”

This wasn’t always my answer. I used to offer all kinds of advice. But what I have experienced is a lot of push back when I do offer suggestions. The response more often than not is “I’ve already tried that. What else can I do?” or “That won’t work because…” You might be able to see why I have taken to deferring to trained professionals. My hope is that my child will at least take their counsel into consideration, even if it’s the same ideas Mom would have shared.

And so, when I mentioned asking the doctor, my child erupted with “This is why I hate talking to you about these things!” (Deep breath) “Tell me more,” I asked. They replied, “You always tell me to ask the doctor, but I’m just looking for advice!” I explain that the doctors know more than I do. To which they replied. “But you always seem annoyed and bothered whenever I ask!” Ah! Now we’re gettin’ somewhere. “I’m not annoyed, just concerned for you. I’m sorry you take it that way,” I say.

And then there was the zinger: “It’s easier for me to talk to Dad about these things than it is you!”

I felt the knife of that statement go clean through my heart. I wanted to drop those guard rails so bad. I wanted to get defensive and yell. I imagined it all in my head for about 3 seconds. And then I remembered again to breathe.

A memory of something a friend said about parenting teenagers popped into my head. She relayed that teenagers need to start pushing parents away because if they don’t, it will be harder for them to leave the nest. And often, if the bond is really close, they have work/rebel a lot harder.

What else could I do in this moment but accept the reality of where my child is developmentally and what they need to do/say in order to lay the foundation for leaving the nest? I began internally parenting myself. This was not about me. In this moment, I need to just be a guard rail.

I acknowledged and validated what my child said. “It makes sense that you would feel more comfortable talking to Dad about your body right now because it sounds like he doesn’t react in a way that triggers you. And please understand that from my perspective, I’m not annoyed or bothered, but I have grown weary of giving you advice that you won’t take. It’s understandable that you won’t take my advice if you’ve already tried what I’m suggesting. What would you think about letting me know beforehand what you’ve already tried so that I can tell you whether or not I have any more suggestions before saying we should talk to your doctor?”

Although there was a little resistance to this, the flames of the moment died down, especially when my kid knew that I wasn’t going to take the bait. We were laughing about something by the end of the conversation.

Years ago, I was listening to an intense podcast about a couple who adopted an 8 or 9 year-old boy from Eastern Europe. This kid had been in an orphanage his entire life and was extremely traumatized by the experience. He became incredibly violent as he got older, making the parents worried he’d end up killing them in their sleep one day. They used all the therapeutic tools they could find and managed to foster healing to the degree that he ended up giving a speech as a valedictorian in college. In his speech, he spoke lovingly about his adoptive parents. When the podcast interviewer asked the Mom if it was gratifying to hear that her son said he loved her, she said, “No.” Flabbergasted, the interviewer asked why. The mom said something along the lines that when they adopted him, it was never out of a need to be loved. It was out of a desire to love. She was a bowling alley guard rail. She managed to get her son down lane without falling in the gutter.

The gratitude I have for the lessons I am learning as a Mom is endless. There will be more challenging moments like this. I’m sure it will be imperfect, and I will make mistakes. But I will keep working to guide my child, and myself, as best I can.

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