The Need to Be Needed: One Mom’s Take on Enabling

I was talking on the phone with my lifelong friend, Sherri, as she prepared to head solo to Philly to see her former college roommate. She began to ask the obvious and unanswerable questions many of us “enablers” ponder: “Why I am baking cookies, preparing color-coded food plans and writing a 22-page manual for my spouse on how to hold down the fort in my 72-hour absence?” “Do you think two teens and a middle-aged man will somehow find something to eat and be entertained by without my guidance?”

It’s tough to stop enabling. I recently dropped my 22-year-old daughter off at the airport to depart for a job interview in our nation’s capital. After what she believed to be the “gazillionth” time I asked her if she had her photo ID, clean underwear and a game plan of how to get to her hotel, she kindly reminded me that she somehow managed to stay alive and maintain a decent GPA “down under” in Australia for a semester.

cbb29I realized this, but I also recall the first time my young adult children flew sans their mom. In addition to almost missing their flight — due to a pregame beverage at the airport lounge — Lauren, my oldest child, could not fit her carry-on in the overhead compartment. Maria took matters into her own hands and began removing clothing items (mainly thongs) and throwing them over passenger’s heads to their middle sister who was valiantly trying to keep up the appearance that she was not related to either one of them. When I picked them up, they couldn’t stop talking about their big adventure. They were confident and empowered.

I often refer back to the moments of independence and strength in my life when I need a boost of confidence (Here’s more on my thoughts about “girl power“). Yes, getting through my cancer journey was tough, but I also had a sense of accomplishment after studying abroad solo — and being brave to hop on a bus during the hot summer months in Rome with people who have an aversion to deodorant.

I remind myself of this when my exuberant maternal urges kick in. If I save my children from every failure, I deny them opportunities for growth. My daughter Lauren, a new home owner, was somehow under the belief that there was a magic leaf fairy. She received a leaf blower and extension cord for Christmas. When I open her fridge and see a Red Bull, a Snickers Bar, a thawed out frozen pizza and a Bud Light, I resist the urge to lecture her on nutrition. OK, I did end up buying her a crockpot, some veggies and a chicken in a moment of Mom weakness, but it was she who rose to the occasion. I could hear the excitement in her voice when called to tell me she remembered to take the pizza off the cardboard before baking it and that she actually made a healthy dinner the night before.

Part of the difficulty in letting others fend for themselves is that it feels great to be needed.

I think part of the difficulty in letting our kids, coworkers and family fend for themselves, is that it feels great to be needed. I believe there is a balance that we must find between rescuing the people in our life, which inhibits their development, and being helpful. I must admit, I am still a work in progress. After decades of being the mom who constantly “gets ‘er done” for her offspring, I am attempting to make them do things for themselves. I am passing on my knowledge of how to get hair out of a shower drain and how to use an iron to those around me and trusting that they will rise to the tasks at hand. So when my international student asked, “Merri’ where is the crispy bread?” I showed her how to use the toaster.

Miraculously, I’m discovering that I am still wanted as I am becoming less needed. There is a secret place in this cancer survivor’s heart that fears that my children may one day have to live without me. Instead of enabling them by “doing”, I will strive to enable them by being a loving and patient parent who above all believes in them and trusts in their abilities. This “enabler” will celebrate their independence and rejoice knowing my children will rise — even without a color-coded instruction manual.


Mary Helen Darah is an award-winning columnist who has appeared in numerous publications in the Toledo area and beyond. Her column, The Mother of Mayhem, publishes on ProMedica HealthConnect the first of each month.