Michael, my husband, has Cerebral Palsy. While he is able to walk, all of his muscles are contracted, and his movements tend to be broad and imprecise. At a glance, he looks pretty disabled: he is difficult to understand by most who do not know him and some who know him well; his walk leaves his torso rocking from side to side, and his fingers fumble to achieve a solid grasp on whatever he is holding or trying to manipulate
Yet, he is very independent physically; for his seven years of undergraduate and graduate education, most living near but still off campus, he walked everywhere he needed to attend classes, get food, accompany dates home, etc. He may prefer tandem biking to solo biking, but if no one’s around to go on a ride, he’ll bike around the neighborhood for a half hour or hour to get in exercise, air, and some good exploration. He has a black belt in Karate—a fact I had at one point thought, on recalling it, must have been a figment of my imagination, until I saw videos of him in several Karate belt advancement tests.
However, sometimes I find myself—probably like many helicopter parents who probably also have somewhat anxious temperaments—worried about Michael’s well-being and safety. I get anxious when he takes the trash out to the apartment dumpster down the parking lot at night, though I wouldn’t be at all worried to go by myself. I get anxious when he bikes alone: nervous about how long he is out, what roads he is on, how far he is from neighbors who would recognize him if anything happened.
Part of this is from the admittedly vulnerable circumstance of Michael’s CP. It becomes a lot less justifiable when I want to check that every things okay in other settings, or try to micromanage Michael as he completes a simple cooking task, or hope that Michael doesn’t post something on Facebook I know people might respond bitterly to (I myself am fairly thin-skinned when it comes to snarky, attacking, or other ill-favored remarks that Michael deals with regularly as a lawyer). It’s downright invasive when I read over Michael’s shoulder as he writes emails, suggesting alterations or additions in the very moment he is still composing his thoughts.
To be fair, Michael has had his share of anxiety on my behalf, for instance when choosing safe places to live (something I am now more naturally cautious about with a baby on the way then I previously was). We come from different housing backgrounds, so places I have thought were perfectly safe have left Michael in tears over what I consider an almost absent possibility of me being assaulted.
Fortunately, we’ve reached a point where we can communicate both our fears—irrational or overbearing as they may be—and communicate a need for space. As well, both of us have made more of an effort to let the other make their own choices, whether on minor issues of Facebook post wording or on more serious issues of political ideology. But it’s taken some working out the kinks. It’s taken some “exposure response prevention,” a therapy used in treating individuals with anxiety or OCD in which the client spends time with what they are afraid of (for instance, looking at pictures of needles if a client has a needle phobia) in increasing degrees until they can function properly.
However, I don’t think these kind of concerns are unique to me or Michael as a couple. In fact, I think most couples struggle with finding that balance of caring for their spouse and preventing harmful situations (as a couple and as individuals) while still providing each spouse with the space he or she needs: space to make choices, complete tasks, and in other ways engage with the world.
When one of my employers was telling us about her decision to be a stay at home for her two kids at a point in her life, after making that choice her husband told her that he agreed and had been thinking she should do that for some time. When she asked why he hasn’t told her that, he said in essence, it needed to be her choice. She was a great mother, and would be either way, but she needed to come to that choice on her own.
I hope I would have the wisdom and trust to likewise leave such an important decision to my husband. I may feel more comfortable with expressing my own opinions on that issue in my and Michael’s relationship, but I hope I would leave it at that: when we feel like really big choices will have a big effect on our family, it can be hard not to insist or lobby for whatever we think will prevent something we are afraid of.
The thing is, we know that people need agency and the ability to make choices and the ability to take risks. These are very basic elements of parenting that we frequently struggle with—we want to keep our kids from discomfort, uncertainty, or loss. This can come in the form of never letting teenagers socialize away from home, not encouraging shy kids to interact with other children, doing homework for kids (or job applications or college applications). The list is endless and there’s a lot more written on that. Fortunately, the word is getting out, so to speak, on helicopter parenting. More parents are aware of its dangers, despite all good intentions, and hopefully more parents are giving up the control mentality.
But how much more, than, should we respect and encourage the choices of our spouses? Issues that directly relate to compatible parenting practices may need to be worked out, and spouses may need to adjust their expectations or plans, but spouses can keep most choices of belief and activity without jeopardizing family—and trying to subtly or not so subtly make a spouse believe or do a certain way is almost certain to jeopardize the marriage relationship, even if one spouse believes it to be for the good of the other spouse.
3 thoughts on “Helicopter Spousing”
Thanks for posting this. I completely agree that spouses, like kids, need space and independence, and the helicopter mentality is damaging. I would propose one adjustment, though, with regard to the idea that spouses (or kids) ought always to be left to make decisions on their own. (I’m thinking of the story of your employer’s choice to be a stay-at-home for her kids.) That may well have been the right approach in the context of that family, but I think the ideal situation to be aimed at (short of perfect unity, of course) is one where each person would lovingly articulate their thoughts on crucial family issues like that and then come to a decision or compromise together. Especially in the context of child raising, it seems to me that while helicopter parenting is a danger, the reverse danger is equally real–of giving kids unbounded freedom and discretion in important choices where in fact they need guidance, structure, and direction.
That’s a great point; kids definitely need limits and rules! And I think spouses do too, as well. For kids those rules and limits are going to be a lot more top-down in the sense that, at least for the essentials, they don’t get to choose the rules. That’s largely in part because parents and children are not developmentally equal, and kids have different ranges of accountability and real agency at different ages. For spouses, I think there are boundaries that keep both the individuals and the relationship safe, but when one spouse tries to micromanage their spouses political or religious beliefs, personal expression, and ultimately any form of their final agency, that becomes a problem.
In the context of my employer, I believe part of the rationale behind the husband’s choice (which I don’t go into above) was that if she had heard his suggestion, she may have recognized that as a good point but felt a greater sense of loss for the work she would be missing out on, whereas he both knew that she would still be an attentive mom otherwise and suspected that she would come to that choice herself, in which case the loss of other opportunities wouldn’t be as difficult.