Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Hands On/Hands Off Mother


The last week of my Mexican writing retreat, my daughter's wallet and cell phone were stolen from her purse, during a class. And then, because ninth-graders can be cruel, she was blamed. Kids yelled at her, "Well, you shouldn't have left your stuff, even for a minute. You're stupid."

Her dad was home with her, to help deal with the situation and the emotions. Yet sitting in a beautiful garden, with people to cook for me, do my laundry, and make my bed, I felt deeply distressed and helpless. I spoke with my daughter on the phone. I looked up bullying websites. I sent frantic emails to my husband, "Call her counselor now!" I closed my eyes and sent her love. And I fretted yet again about parenting, and how much Hands On to be. Had we actually helped by calling her teachers and her counselor? And I fretted, too, about how much Hands Off to be. Because learning how to live in a world that will sometimes steal your stuff -- and then blame you for being a victim -- is part of growing up.

How do you parent a teenager, how do you raise an independent child without either suppressing her spirit or making her feel uncared for? Maybe I struggle with this because of my own, rather unusual, upbringing. As a young child, my parents were, appropriately, very Hands On, but when I became a teenager, they became very Hands Off.

I was a child bursting with the need for independence, a "free spirit," my dad once called me. He had seen his older sister Lee, born in the late 1920s, stifled by her parents. He'd seen her rebel, elope as a teenager, move to Greenwich Village, and hang with jazz musicians. He'd seen her struggle against the restrictions a young Jewish-American girl from the Bronx faced during that time, and he'd seen the damage to the family.

Maybe I reminded him of his sister. And maybe the era I grew up in fed into this, the hippie "do your own thing," in full force. My dad believed that if he restricted me, I'd rebel so hard I'd never speak to him again. So my parents made a distinct decision to give me as much leeway as I asked for. And that meant Hands Off. Privacy respected. No limits.

At an early age I had almost total independence. From the time I was eleven I hung out with college kids. I acted regularly in productions at our local community college, which meant I observed drugs and drinking and sexual excess when I was very young; those cast parties are still legendary. When I cut classes in high school, I wrote my own excuse notes and my parents signed them, no questions asked. No curfew: if I wasn't going to be home that night, I had to call by 2:00 a.m. so they wouldn't worry. I'd come home from parties drunk and stoned at 2:00 a.m. and my parents would be waiting up, sitting at the kitchen table. "Oh, we're just about to go to bed," my mom would say.

In retrospect, how scary and hard for them to hold to that decision, to let me make my own mistakes and figure them out. To grow myself up.

Mostly, the experiment worked. I got good grades. I stayed engaged. I excelled. I tried things, but was wary. I was taking care of myself, after all. Because I wasn't rebelling against the big parental "NO!" I rarely got as drunk or stoned or sexually wild as my friends who had the limits, the curfews, the groundings.

Only once my mother, never wholly comfortable with this approach, asserted herself when I'd been partying too hard before finals. "You're grounded next weekend." (I was thrilled.)

I think my father knew me well. But I also know that I grew up feeling under-parented.

So how do I find the balance with my own daughter, who bursts at the seams with that same independent spirit? I want for her the same sense of self-reliance I've always had as a result of that Hands Off style. But I grew up in 1970s Marin County, California -- whether safer or more dangerous, it was certainly a different place and time. My urban daughter, until this year, attended private schools, and none of her friends live within walking distance. She's part of a generation of children who are never on their own until they get their driver's licenses. And now she's fifteen and a half, and that driver's license is a mere six months away.

I'm scared by those parties she will attend. The stoned boys, the drunk girls, the kids who will hurt her emotionally, the ones who will threaten her physically. Because I'm still scared by what I did, what her dad, an older-than-me, full-fledged ex-bad boy did. The risks we took, the bullets we dodged -- sexually, chemically. I'm terrified by the bullets we took: we both experienced violence, injury, near death.

My daughter is going out there. She needs to know how to take care of herself -- against bullies, against thieves of her wallet and thieves of her self-esteem. I need to teach her independence. How do I do it? By being Hands On as I've always been? Or by sitting in the kitchen night after night until 2:00 a.m. worrying -- and trusting -- being Hands Off?

How do I trust, how do I hold and soothe, how do I let go?

Ericka Lutz is an author, solo performer, and teacher. Her seven non-fiction books include On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, and her fiction/creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous books, anthologies, and journals. Ericka teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley. She also provides private coaching on writing and writing process to writers and organizations. Her full-length solo show, “A Widow’s To-Do List,” is currently in development in San Francisco. For information on upcoming performances, visit Ericka’s website.

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As always Erica, it will probably be a little of both...the setting of boundaries...and staying up till 2 am..."oh yeah, we were just going to bed." That was pretty funny.
I have a daughter too and I think about this stuff all the time. My parents were hands on and I rebelled. I'm hopeful I can be a bit more hands off and watch, with vigilance, while she finds her own way. Thanks for this.
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