Helicopter Parent: A Nigerian-American Becoming

I was Junior Varsity cheer captain but I don’t have any photos. I was an exceptional high school student who learned early that my parents were unable or unwilling or both, to care about my extracurricular interests. I grew up early, quickly, carefully and decided to be independent, charting my own path.

If I may be honest, I gave my parents too much credit; my dad for leaving us and my mom for staying.

They both led independent lives, father and mother, one searching for he doesn’t know what, the other, focused on not becoming what “they” said she would. And where did that leave me? I built monuments on the crumbs of wisdom that were repeated to me: Education and God first. Study hard and get a full scholarship. Become a doctor (lawyer and/or engineer optional).

I was decidedly trusting that good things come to those who obey. I sought out achievement in its various forms (academic, scholastic, foreign language, sports) and performed for an audience of one (myself). I cheered myself on, quite literally. I’m not certain when I came to this realization, when I voiced it. But it has been a low hum in my belly for as long as I know.

In elementary school, my parents brought Huggies and a Carvel ice cream cake to my school to celebrate my birthday. I have never been shy about loving the spotlight and this day was no different. I was so excited. I don’t remember if it was a surprise to me at the time but I am certain that I enjoyed flexing on my grade school classmates. I remember distinctly running, not walking to meet my parents. True joy! Compact orange juice-like concentrate AND ice cream cake in one day for my whole first grade class to celebrate me? The sight of my parents carrying the confections to class made me beam with pride. It was a sweet memory of a time I was too young to know we were not well off and would not be for years.

When I applied to middle school, I had to make a poster to apply for the Spanish program at the magnet school. This was a big deal to get into a magnet school. Education was everything but private school was out of the question because, money, and the idea that local middle school did not have a good reputation. Everything was riding on me getting into this magnet school. It promised to have great academics and a free price tag, so while not getting in was an option we considered, it was a distant one. Many of my friends’ parents were super involved in the process. One of my friend’s moms even made her poster for her. My parents, who both worked, all the time it seemed, were satisfied to allow me to ride along with my friend’s mom to attend open houses. I eventually used the internet and books and the library as well as a heap of construction paper and Elmer’s glue to create a poster about Spain. I interviewed well and got in. This might have been the beginning of my streak of independence, (though I’m told as early as two, I was known to do things for myself). It turns out I had a real knack for Spanish. I was a top student, later going on to win two high school senior awards for English and Spanish, minor in Spanish in college where I tutored other students, and even traveling to El Salvador with UMD’s school of education and later the United Arab Emirates with the business school. When I traveled to El Salvador, my mom didn’t even know I was leaving the country. “So where is El Salvador?” my mom finally asked in the airport. Though I had told her where I was going, she didn’t realize it was not in the United States. This was no helicopter parent. El Salvador, one of the more dangerous destinations, was in South America, unbeknownst to my mom at the time. She had lots of practice in letting me be. After all, I’d been applying for things and getting into things as long as she could remember and as long as they checked off the necessary requirements: would further my education and would cost little or nothing, it was a go.

My mom likes to say that she didn’t raise me, God raised me. As a woman of faith, I believe she means this earnestly. But I have long had this low hum, deep down in the miniscule part of my mind that questions the motive, if not the result. Seeing how my mom’s concern for my sister grew apparent, it’s only human nature that I compared our treatment. This has been a sore spot for some time, I reckon. I shared earlier that growing up, I was independent early. The more I did well, the more my parents thought it acceptable to compare me to my younger sister, something she found weighty. “Why can’t you be more like..” “your older sister would never…” I imagine this is common of older siblings so I sympathized deeply with my baby sister and told her quietly that all parents say that and reassured her that it was absolutely necessary that she keep on keeping on. I imagine that’s why she blazed her own unique path of independence.

Back to my original point: I don’t have any photos of me in my cheerleading outfit. I have nothing to show that I was JV Cheer captain, and certainly no photos of my parents at my sorority ceremony. The same ceremony my mom and I both attended when my younger sister became part of the same sorority. When I was pledging, my mom insisted that I was joining a cult. (She wasn’t completely wrong…I kid. Please don’t burn my pink sweaters.) By now, my mom has little recollection and chucks it up to bad google searches. Relatable content. I pointed out to my mom (who was wearing a pink dress and green scarf by the way, insert eye roll) that she wasn’t present at my ceremony and she simply retorted, “I’m here because your sister invited me, you never invited me”. The details of this are murky. I am not sure I invited her. After all, I was forbidden to pledge, because at the time I had a full academic scholarship on the line. I most likely did not invite my mom, years of invitations gone stale had tempered me away from such folly. “I’m here because your sister invited me, you never invited me.”

How do I process that? Where did the fault lie? On me for not inviting her, assuming that she wouldn’t come? On her for not desiring to be involved? Another stark contrast I remember is when I was sitting at my sorority’s ceremony, with my one guest, a member of my church of the same sorority, at a table with my two childhood friends and their parents. Their parents who I knew well because they spent many years driving us to and fro as my parents relinquished me to their care, while they worked. I cried at the table.

At an open house for one of the colleges I was applying to, one of the five I would later get accepted into with a partial scholarship, (but ultimately turn down to attend my state college on a full ride), my mom and I learned the term, “helicopter parent”. We laughed at how ridiculous it could be for parents to be so tethered to their children even in college that they would call to wake them and check up on them. My mom must have thought it preposterous that a parent of a seemingly grown up student would be so involved. Then the hum. The same hum in my gut when I encountered the phrase again, this time recently, a day before I would write this essay while sitting on the top bunk of my state room in a US Navy carrier while on an underway 100 miles off the coast of Virginia. The same hum in my gut while reading Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” and dissecting the author’s description of confronting the helicopter parents of her first year students.

I wrote, in the margin, what is the opposite of helicopter parent? How do you describe a parent who gives their child complete freedom and independence? Who knows very little about their child’s going ins and outs?

I remember in college I was suffering a bout of homesickness and would call my mom every day. Every once in a while she called me. She would say she knows something’s wrong because she hadn’t heard from me. So lonely I had become that I went home one weekend to surprise her and was quickly chastised for not giving my studies the attention they required. I remember thinking, I thought parents liked calling their kids and having them come home? Clearly, I had been watching too many American sitcoms.

At lunch one day a year or so ago, my mom, my sister and I were talking and my mother was being less than fair to my sister. I decided I wasn’t going to allow that. She was making my little sister cry at the Cheesecake Factory. Cheesecake Factory is not for tears. It was built for joy, I’m certain, because how else can you describe that delectable brown bread they provide? They didn’t create that expansive book of a menu for us to be sitting around it crying. The love shared between my mom, sister, and I is immeasurable, and I believe one of the most important things in any relationship is to openly communicate and correct, in love.

I laid in to my mom and told her what I believed her problem was and that she needs to hold some responsibility for her inactions. I criticized her claim that we were successful because God raised us and told her this was good, sure, but I might not be so proud of that because after all God raised us, which meant she did not. I don’t know if that hurt my mom at the time. Truly, it was callow of me. It certainly felt good to say at the time, unleashing years of being parented by an opposite-of-a helicopter parent. Of having years of good deeds and accolades pile up and being a participant in millions of activities that my parents would never see. Of telling them about this and that or such and such and wishing they would come but knowing already that “I can’t, I have to work” would be the answer. Of seeing all my friends’ parents always in full support. Having them awed by my achievements, and my evident maturity and independence. Of feeling sheepish that these parents would compare their kids to me and all the while I just wanted my parents to make some of these same acknowledgments. To participate in these concessions of my goodness. And never receiving that. At least not in a way that was meaningful.

Maturing quickly has taken a toll. I became a woman, as the saying goes, at a very early age, earlier than anyone I’ve met, to this day. It is lonely at the top, or the side, or wherever it is that non-helicopter parents leave their children to grow.