I always told myself that if I ever had children, I’d never be one of those awful helicopter parents. My mom and dad gave meand my siblings a long leash when we were growing up in the ’80s on the west side of Cleveland, and the results were decent — none of us lost a limb, or went to jail. We all got master’s degrees. Why, I wondered, were all these 21st century moms and dads constantly hovering and desperate to protect their progeny from hurt, disappointment, failure, sadness, pain?
How silly, I thought. How annoying. How pathetic.
But as I found myself on the verge of tears in bed on Halloween night, I had a humbling realization: I have turned into a helicopter child.
Not long ago, I moved back to California after years abroad. My mom’s memory was getting spotty; my dad, I thought, could use some support taking care of her. Without a spouse or kids of my own, I was free to move into their house and start doing for them what they did for me for so long: cooking, shopping, cleaning, chauffeuring to the doctor and activities.
Those logistics, it turns out, are the easy part. It’s things you have no power over — like the number of trick-or-treaters — that quietly break your heart.
It was Halloween, and I had made a point of coming home before dusk. Dad had spent an hour re-wiring a 2½ foot tall plastic light-up Frankenstein he’d gotten at a garage sale (for $1, he proudly noted). He’d also dug up a plug-in electric black cat from the basement; it now glowed, vaguely purple, next to Frank over the porch. We had a plastic electric jack-o-lantern beaming a toothy smile into the yard. Two more real pumpkins, carved in the kitchen by me and my mom, now sat by the front door, glowing with candles. The touch-and-go reality of her shaky hands handling a sharp knife nearly sent me over the edge. Thankfully, no digits were lost.
Dusk came and my mom got to fussing about the candy for the trick-or-treaters. She and my dad had gone to the store, and came home with Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops. (Candy cane flavored, which I could only assume was some marketing genius’ way to sell the same bag of candy from Halloween all the way through Christmas.) She arranged the Pops carefully around the perimeter of a plastic bowl, heads down. The Rolls were arrayed in the bottom.
I put on a witch costume. My dad had bought it for me on a whim at the local American Cancer Society resale shop (perhaps his favorite store of all time). The $9 made-in-China velour dress with spider web motifs fit me perfectly. Much to my dad’s delight, I had been wearing it most of the day, including while on business at Stanford University.
As dusk fell, we went out to the porch. Dad took pictures of me, and mom in a black top hat, and the glowing Frank, and the pumpkins. I grabbed a bottle of prosecco, arranged a plate of cheese and crackers, and went back out to the porch with mom and dad to wait for the kids.
Back in Ohio, we’d get hundreds of costumed munchkins knocking at our door. But I knew we weren’t likely to get many visitors. We live in a good neighborhood, but our house is sandwiched between two apartment buildings, where no one seems to give out candy on Halloween. Our house is a bit of an orphan.
As the sky darkened, we waited for little ghosts or goblins scurrying down the street. On my way home from work, I had seen trick-or-treaters just a few streets away — mini Spider-Mans and butterflies scampering down the sidewalk. Come on, I thought, just send a few of them down our block, so my parents can get a few fleeting seconds of joy, checking out the costumes and offering them a treat.
We waited. Cars zoomed past. Adults on their way home from work strode by briskly, not looking up from their glowing phone screens. A nearly full moon rose above the apartment buildings across the street.
As we waited on the porch, I tried to keep up the Halloween spirit. I called my sister in Houston, and put her on speakerphone, asking how many trick-or-treaters she had gotten. Twenty-five, she said. I told her about our pumpkin-carving, and porch decorating, and asked her to send photos of her own front yard, which I knew she had festooned with gravestones and ghosts. My dad reminisced about taking my brother and his friend Mark trick-or-treating in Ohio. “It was snowing,” he said. “Everyone had to wear coats, and it was hard to see anyone’s costume.”
Tonight, by contrast, was a beautiful California evening for trick or treaters. About 60, clear. Not a cloud in the sky.
I poured a second glass of prosecco. Dad refilled the cheese plate. Still, no trick or treaters. Finally, two kids on bikes passed the house. “Are those customers?” my dad asked expectantly. We waved. The kids pulled into the driveway. They bounded to the porch. To say they were under-costumed was generous. One, about 12, had a cheap mask propped on his forehead. The other, perhaps 10, was just in a black hoodie and black jeans. “What’s your costume?” I asked. “I’m a ninja,” he said, unconvincingly.
No matter, there were kids on the porch! My mom tentatively grabbed the candy bowl, and began explaining what Tootsie Pops were. I urged the boys to pick from the bowl, and they each grabbed one. “Take more,” my dad said, and they double-dipped and bounded off into the night.
We went back to sitting. No one else came. The periwinkle sky turned black. I pulled up my phone and started showing my mom photos of kids in Halloween costumes on Twitter and Instagram. Her favorite was three young African-American girls, dressed up as the badass 1960s female NASA staffers from “Hidden Figures,” a movie I’d taken her to earlier in the year. To those girls, let me say thank you. You made my mom’s night.
The clock moved toward 8 pm. No more customers in sight. I gently suggested we go have dinner. When kids come, they’ll ring the doorbell, I said, praying that there would be more kids to ring the doorbell.
I microwaved some spaghetti. We turned on the World Series. The doorbell never rang. I went upstairs to finish some emails. My parents retired to the living room to watch PBS. In the morning, I would wake up before them, and pack up evidence of last night’s letdown. The Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops would go back in their bags, and be stashed deep in the cupboard.
I knew my folks’ disappointment would be fleeting. It was no big deal. Tomorrow, we’d do something else, and it would be forgotten. But somehow, I felt sad to the point of tears.
The universe should not be allowed to disappoint old people who just want to give kids candy, I thought. That night, all I wanted was for a few kids to come up the porch, to show off their outfits, and let my grandchild-less parents dote on them for a few seconds. After all, they’re 76 and 77. How many Halloweens did they left have in them?
At least helicopter parents, when they fail to protect their children from some minor injury or disappointment, can tell themselves that the unpleasant experience will build resilience or some other bit of character in their maturing offspring. Traits that would help them through all the trials and tribulations that come into every life.
The same, though, does not hold true for helicopter children. My parents have built all the resilience and character they’ll ever have. They don’t need more trials or tribulations to make them better people. They really just want kids to come trick-or-treat, and give them Tootsie Pops.
This is not the only way I’ve become a helicopter child. I’m now back-channel emailing the more tech-savvy of my parents’ septuagenarian cohort, arranging phone dates with old college roommates and sending emails to their former colleagues, suggesting get-togethers.
When the ladies from my mom’s garden club write her a birthday card, it’s me nagging at her for days to send a reply, even going so far as to find a card, sit her down at the kitchen table, and help her practice writing out a reply on a notepad before transferring it into the fancy Papyrus card with handmade fabric flowers and glitter on the front.
I struggle sometimes, like parents do, between letting my folks do things for themselves and just doing things for them because it would be more comfortable, or more effective, or more expedient. Yes, my dad’s still gamely trying to keep up with his iPhone. But they really don’t need to learn much new to get along. How much should I push them, I wonder?
After all, I don’t want them to unlearn any faster than they have to. I want them to be capable, and strong, and independent.
And I want them to have fun. And not be disappointed.
Next year, I’m hiring some kids to show up for the Tootsie Rolls. They’ll get paid, and a couple of old folks will be happy. Call me a helicopter child.
This article was originally published on Medium.