I am a person who is uncomfortable sitting with an emotion in myself or another for a long period of time, especially if it is one of the more “negative” emotions – sadness, fear, frustration, etc. Sometimes I can hunker down with anger, but hanging out there can be destructive to myself and others. I understand that anger is actually a secondary emotion so I am using it to cover a more painful feeling when I get stuck there. Other times anxiety overtakes, I am no longer present or able to meet the needs of my children in that space.
As a parent, this struggle to tolerate my own feelings spills over into becoming a challenge to be with and in support of my children when they are expressing their emotions. It is a temptation for me to be more about “shutting it down” and making it stop rather than supporting them through it. This week I am getting a lot of practice in that uncomfortable space – I am trying to see it as a chance to learn and grow rather than a hassle and bother. One of our girls is overthinking and really struggling to do a task that is important for her to accomplish. Something that usually takes about 1-2 minutes to accomplish is literally taking hours. It is taking an emotional toll on her and me. But in reality, this is a great time for me to practice being in the uncomfortable place – pushing past my comfort level and learning to tolerate both my own and her emotions through this process. And also a great time for a child who tends to stuff and deny feelings to practice expressing them.
I am learning that the more mindful and honest we are with ourselves and our feelings, the more we can give the same gift to our children. The desire to dismiss emotions and say “you’ll be fine” too quickly teaches our children that feelings are not ok. A rush to reassure someone sends a message that we can’t tolerate whatever is being expressed. Repeating this over and over will lead to children who become adults that deny, repress, shove aside….and there is plenty of information and research out there on the toll this takes on the mind and body.
So this week, I am working to be grateful for this specific challenge in the life of my daughter. I am trying to sit well past my comfort zone in the strong emotions that are being expressed – both internally and by my child. Even though there are times when I feel like I might jump out of my skin, I can hang in there. I don’t have to shut it down. I think this will be a growing and connecting time. And as we sit side by side in discomfort, it may even help both of us to expand our comfort zones.
It was the dinner hour one day last week in the Wilson home, and our 8 year old daughter seemed particularly bouncy. As we attempted to settle in, it became apparent why she had a little extra energy running through her body. She passionately began to share that during school that day, her class had participated in a “code red drill”. My mind flashed back to early elementary school days when my school had fire drills and a couple of real live “bomb scare” evacuations of the school. Unsettling. Something about our precious 8 year old describing how all of the children in her class had to take cover in a place that would put them out of the line of sight (code word for fire) of anyone peering through the glass window of their classroom door made my heart sink. Corners, under tables, all bunched together. I could not fully let my mind’s eye go to a scene where this drill could become reality, though it doesn’t take a lot of imagination as I interact with the daily news.
As if their hearts needed to redirect after such sober matters, they moved onto lighter topics. Suddenly we were discussing what would each of our daughters do if a boy wanted to marry them. Their dad puffed out his chest a bit and said something to the effect of “bring them to me”. This led into discussion of the different girl friends and boy friends dad and mom had in the past – lots of kissing questions ensued. And then our talk jumped back to what to do if someone wanted to marry one of them and they did not want to do so. I suggested that if this happened, they should dial up a “code red” and 4 men over 6 feet tall would come running – one of the many gifts and advantages of having 3 grown, tall brothers and a daddy.
On Monday, I was responding to a summons to appear at our county courthouse for jury duty. My name had been called and I was sitting in a courtroom with 36 of my peers waiting to see who would be called to serve. In this setting, I lived my own “code red” moments. A text came in to a mom seated next to me reporting that several area schools had been placed on lock down, my children’s school among them. The far-fetched code red drill of dinner conversation seemed to be happening and I was truly grateful that they had practiced. To add to the stress of the moment, the babysitter that I had arranged to pick up my girls after school texted to say that her high school was on lock down and she wasn’t sure she could pick up our girls. You can’t just get up and walk out of jury duty – a contempt of court charge will likely follow. My husband was not reachable. Several deep breaths and a 15 minute break later, contingency plans had been made, friends filled in gaps, a vice principal explained that the girls’ school was taking precautions but the students were not on full code red procedures. The lock down situation did resolve, our girls came home and reported at dinner they had another code red “drill”- thank you awesome school staff for protecting young hearts and minds- and all was ok in our little world. On that day, I was not forced to explain that an ex-husband had shot his ex-wife in a nearby parking lot and been hunted for four hours until he was found dead, of suicide. But I do pray for God’s grace and care on the three newly orphaned children and their family members who are left behind to deal with a big code red situation. God have mercy.
It happens every year. The week before school starts, slight depression and bluesy feelings set in. I thought about calling this post “back to school blues”, but that wouldn’t be terribly authentic – I love routine and as a mom who has not worked for pay in a long, long time, I enjoy the quiet and flexible time during school days to pursue a variety of responsibilities and interests. Going to the grocery store alone is my preference. A more orderly house feels good and even folding laundry in silence is often a treat. So, what am I actually feeling?
It seems that summer is a time to relax and more thoroughly enjoy my children. This particular summer started off with some very challenging days, but it quickly moved into a great mix of day camps, chilling and chatting at the neighborhood pool, periodic breaks leaving the girls with a trusted babysitter and some really fun family and vacation time. When we addressed and pursued a rhythm of activity and downtime that works best for our family, it turned into a wonderful oasis between more hectic and stressful school days.
Truthfully, one of the biggest mental hurdles when thinking of school starting up is making lunches. What is so terribly distasteful about having to think up, shop for and pack up those little containers?? This disdain has led to an inner dialogue – “is it time to have the girls start making their own lunches?”, “how truly awful and unhealthy are those school lunches anyway?”, and how can we be creative in handling this little thing that so often turns into a big thing around our house. Our oldest son swears that I made him pack his own lunch starting in around the 2nd grade….
So, on these last few days of summer as we pack up all those fresh new supplies into the backpack, I look forward to a little more order around the house, accomplishing a few projects that have been on the to-do list for years, and basking in the solitude of an empty house. But I will miss serving breakfast at 9 or 10, showering at noon, putting the “hurry up, we are going to be late” phrase to rest, afternoons and evenings that involve no homework and most of all, eating lunch all together around the table.
PS Writing this led to a very fruitful conversation with my girls. We reached a compromise. Based on our schedules, Monday and Wednesday, I will pack the lunches. Tuesday and Thursday, it is their turn. On Friday, we’ll spring for the unhealthy school lunch. After this negotiation, our older daughter said to me, “why are you all about lunches, Mom?”. I shared with her that it was funny to say, but it was one of my bigger stresses about school starting. She looked at me with great sincerity and said, “Really? I thought it would be about our education or something like that”. Good point.
It started as a fairly innocuous dinner conversation about my hair – coloring my hair that is. I do that about every 10 weeks and this was that day. Our older daughter was checking it out up close and noted that she couldn’t see the gray any longer. This moved into a discussion on how long I would color my hair. I said something about wanting to keep it up while young children are in our family. Our younger daughter requested that I do it at least until they were teenagers. We chatted a bit about wrinkles and the options for addressing those and then the conversation took a turn.
Around the corner of talking about parents aging, in the hearts and minds of these daughters, is the often present theme of death. Deeply imprinted on our girls’ hearts is a fear of losing a parent. We have had countless conversations of “what if” – Mommy dies and Daddy doesn’t, Daddy dies and Mommy doesn’t, both die and….you get the point. They want to know specifics about what will happen to them, who will care for them, how in the world would we manage this thing? It is a consistent fear in their young, impressionable hearts and minds and often a topic of conversation.
This was certainly not a focus or repeated conversation that we had with our sons. There are probably several reasons for that. One may be that we did not encourage the same depth of emotional expression that we do now. But a professional once told me that “typical” children do not allow themselves to go there. I don’t think our boys spent a lot of mental or emotional energy in this sphere. Yet for any adopted child, the scenario of losing a parent – to death or some other force – is not theoretical or “could happen” stuff. It is a part of their story.
From my observation, at a very young age, this knowledge is present at a cellular level. They KNOW that the loss of parents is well within the “could happens” of life. It has in fact happened. And as they grow cognitively, they know this truth of their own story on an even deeper and often more confusing level. We have friends who have indeed lost a parent, and I’ll never forget the day that the reality that a child can also die entered their realm of possibilities. Despite a desire to shelter them from these pains, that isn’t possible or healthy. Walking a line of being trustworthy and truthful and meeting their great need to feel safe is a tricky one.
So, my response on that day was that it is unlikely that I die soon, but if that did happen, Daddy and I have plans and provisions in place to take care of them. We have family and friends who would step up and in to help us through. At the end of the dinner, our youngest said, “Mom, keep coloring your hair, and everything will be just fine”. If it was only so simple.
My deep desire is to imprint something new onto their hearts – “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. “ We are on our way, but it is a long, slow journey.
Today, at approximately 5 AM, I turn 50 years old. I’ve had the privilege to walk this planet for half a century. One of my daughters made a card that said, “you are ½ way to 100”. My age would indicate that I might be living in that space between active parenting and delightful grand parenting. When my mom was this age, she already had 3 grandchildren and a number of empty nest years under her belt. There don’t appear to be grand children on my immediate horizon and at this age, I am still very much actively parenting. The pace is somewhat slower, but the job description still fits. It is an interesting space and time in life. My body is slowing and a bit heavier, but my spirit is lighter and freer.
To celebrate this milestone, I’ve spent some time reflecting on a few of the things I have learned in 25 years of parenting. The lessons are numerous and still being learned, almost daily. But it is always good to speak my learning out loud and in front of witnesses. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Each individual child is a unique soul from God. Having the privilege to teach, guide and watch them unfold is one of life’s greatest.
- Children need lots of fresh air and exercise – parents too.
- Some of the biggest crisis times are actually, in hindsight, some of the most intensely important and necessary times of growth for both parent and child.
- When things get too tense or crazy, dance – it breaks the tension and is good for a few eye rolls and laughs.
- No moment (problem, issue, mess up), no matter how overwhelming, lasts forever. Mercies are new every morning.
- The days can be long, but the years fly right by. Savor the moments.
- A slower than average paced life is quite satisfying and leaves lots of time for great conversation.
- Teenagers do grow up and often turn into delightfully wonderful adults.
- I very rarely pray about specifics for my children – I now figuratively place them in my hands, hold them up to God and trust them to his care. I often don’t have a clue what is best for someone else, even if they are my child.
- Hearing “I love you” from a child never gets old, no matter how old they get.
These are just a few of my favorite lessons from the school of motherhood. I hope for many more years of parenting, and someday, grandparenting. I’d love to hear some of the lessons others have learned as a parent or as a child– lessons big and small. Please indulge the birthday girl.
The journey of moving from a parenting paradigm based on fear to one based on relationship and love leads to much soul searching and thoughtful introspection. For many of us, the hardest part is the “looking in the mirror” part that is required. It was a heck of a lot more comfortable back in the day when I could look at my child and his behavior as totally his responsibility. Shifting to a perspective that looks at my own stuff and issues and how I am involved in the fray is challenging.
A good number of us want to believe that for the most part, we are in the right and that others are in the wrong. Our way is best and we have it all worked out and justified. It is so much easier to look at all of life from our own perspective. Self reflection and questioning are tough. Sure, we will make the occasional apology to our child when our behavior crosses into obvious hurtful and out of line behavior. But to truly examine ourselves to see what role we have in our family dynamic and the difficult interactions with those we live with takes some guts. It is a slow process and can’t be done all on one day – in fact, if we go down this path, it is a lifelong journey.
One temptation when there is a child in our midst who displays extreme behaviors is to make that child the scapegoat. The origin of the word scapegoat comes from the Hebrew word azazel. Around the Jewish Day of Atonement, this goat was sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of God’s people. A dictionary definition for scapegoat is “a person made to bear the blame for others”.
The reality is that in a family, we are all intimately tangled up together. The way that we respond to and approach the world affects our children, their felt safety and the way that they respond and behave in the world. If we adhere to an a+b=c formulaic parenting method and one of our kids isn’t jiving with this formula, we often want to cast the blame onto them. How can we ask a child to own responsibility for their own behavior if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves? We are the adults – the burden is on us.
I’ve heard several mental health professionals refer to the “identified client” – code word for “the kid whose behavior is wreaking havoc in the family and got them in my door”. This kid might be identified, but we parents in the mix need to take a long hard look at ourselves and figure out how we need to change and flex in order to lead our families down a healing path. We may not be identified, but we are nonetheless a part of a system in need of change. Some of us need to get ourselves into a therapeutic relationship where we are indeed the identified client. The quicker we are willing to admit our own need for help and embrace the process of change, the better for the whole.
Caution: If we choose to walk this path of self examination and owning our own family dynamic role, a tempting place to sink into is one of guilt, defeat and a feeling of helplessness. The good news is that God puts us together in families for incredibly redemptive purposes. It is never too late to work on relationship. If we will begin to loosen up, look closer at our selves and work to change where needed, it can lead to healing words and actions with our children. Each family member, those identified and those not, has more space to “own our part”. We can begin to accept the grace that comes as we travel this parenting road, the need for a scapegoat will disappear and new life can flourish.
I’d like to be much more of a Carpe diem kind of mom. The kind of mom that truly enjoys being interrupted in my tasks to dance, laugh or offer comfort. A mom who delights in stopping and stooping to meet my child in whatever is most important to them in the moment. A mom that is utterly delighted when my grown child messages me right as I am about to move on to the next agenda item of the day. I am moving in that direction yet I have a ways to go.
Two of our sons are officially grown and have flown the nest– ie they have self supporting jobs, with benefits, and pretty much manage all of their affairs. In this day and economy, this is something to truly celebrate. With one of them, the transition is relatively fresh and almost complete. The other day I was communicating a part of the transition plan and he wrote to me the following; “the emails you begin with “since you are now a grown up” or something to that effect are typically less fun than a 16 year old might expect.” I have been enjoying, smiling about and pondering that sentence ever since.
How many of us spend too much time longing for the future? When we are toddlers, we want to be big kids. When teenagers, we want to be adults. We can wish our child’s life away longing for the next stage. When facing an especially busy or difficult week, we convince ourselves that next week will be different…. On the flip side, we can spend tremendous energy and time wallowing in regrets of the past. If only I had, sure wish I didn’t say/do that – this type of thinking gets us mired and stuck and unable to move forward. Living in the here and now and taking in all that this moment has to offer is a challenge. Yet it is a challenge that I want to embrace.
Each day, each moment in life is truly ripe with possibilities to seize, live and sometimes even savor. When my heart and mind are too focused on the to-do list, the agenda, or the mistakes of the past, I can’t live in the present moment. Yes, our minds must go to the past to learn and the future to hope and plan, but the majority of our time is best spent right in the here and now. I desire to live a much greater percentage of life in the present – as if I am slowly sipping and savoring a glass of fine wine.
PS. Just as I was almost finished writing this blog, one of our sweet daughters woke up and came downstairs. Though the temptation was to put her off and finish my writing, I remembered what I was writing about (!) and went to join her face to face in the present moment on the couch. She shared her dreams, her fears and we got to talk about how love can multiply – how we are all capable of loving more than one person at a time. Sure am glad I got that time to be right in the moment with her. If I had put her off, chances are that particular moment would have slipped away, maybe forever.
A while back, I saw a Humane Society bumper sticker that caught my eye – it said “who rescued who?” Bumpers are a place where many philosophies, beliefs and theologies are proclaimed. That one got me thinking – in particular about adoptive parents of children who come from difficult places. Sometimes from fellow adoptive parents, I hear things that make me shudder inside – things like, “we saved them from this terrible place”, “we can save one more”. Pretty much any sentence with the word save and a child is extremely disturbing.
We are not asked to be saviors and our children should not be looked upon as charity cases who now owe us a huge debt. Any child who ends up in foster care or living in an orphanage should be honored and admired. The spirit and inner strength necessary to survive are admirable indeed. They know a hardship deep down that most of us will never experience. They are strong.
Anyone who has even stepped foot into an orphanage or looked into the face of a foster child quickly knows that a family is where children are meant to grow up and settle. But those who invite these children into their homes and lives must be willing to walk alongside this child through the good and bad, happy and sad, and all the ups and downs of life. If they expect a posture of gratitude from their child all along the way, there will be great disappointment and disillusionment. We have to desire to parent and share all of life together. We can’t set up a savior/grateful recipient kind of relationship. If that is the expectation, then it will surely implode at some point.
As parents we must be mindful and thoughtful about the gifts and grace that our children bring to us. Even, or maybe more accurately especially, on the most difficult days, there is a deep down exchange of life and hope. Parenting calls us to reach way up to God, way down inside and to be better human beings. One of my parenting mentors, Bryan Post, says it something like this – when your child triggers something in you, turn to them and say “thank you for forcing me to deal with my own issues”. I am not going to say that is easy or that I am even remotely “there”, but my heart resonates with this truth.
So who saved who? In my experience it is a mutual exchange of life giving and receiving. We don’t need to be or see ourselves as saviors – that’s God’s business. We need to walk alongside and embrace the full range of life together with our child.
I have a new friend named Emily. Emily is 23 years old, full of life and is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology with a special passion for working with children and families who have experienced trauma. It was so exciting to read an email from her a few days ago communicating news of a grant she received to do research on “resilience in traumatized children”. This small part of her communication speaks volumes:
“Basically: why do some girls come into our program, and thrive, and are able to recover from their traumas and horrible backgrounds and live full, joyful, healthy lives with purpose and stable relationships- and others we just can’t reach no matter what we do? I’ll be giving the girls some assessments (with permission) to measure their overall resilience, and then looking at various factors to see what the girls who did come out as resilient have in common. The ultimate goal is that I’ll find some significant results indicating factors which correlate to high resilience. Hopefully with this increased understanding, Mosoj Yan and other organizations working with street kids with similar backgrounds will grow in our ability to reach these kids and enable them to live the happiest, best lives possible.”
This mystery of resiliency has been on my mind a great deal recently. I’ve been hearing heart wrenching stories of parents raising kids from hard places – being at church, a place where most of us hope to receive compassion and support, and told that their struggling child should be doing better, because look at how well child x,y or z who also has lived through some trauma is doing. This type of comparison is like a kick in the stomach to a parent who loves and lives daily with this beloved child. And the child surely picks up on this comparison stance – this just leads them to feel more unworthy and reinforces a deep belief that they are just not good enough. We can’t do that to children or parents – each individual child is truly a unique soul from God knit together in a one of a kind way. Which of us hasn’t parented or just casually observed two or more children in a family who are different in almost every way – it is the old nature vs. nurture dilemma that is still passionately debated today. I imagine that the answers to such questions are not easily found and highly complicated.
There are so many facets and factors – known and unknown – for a child who has experienced some type of trauma. Many of us only have fleeting glimpses of our child’s story before the day we embraced them into our families. Months or years have passed with daily experiences – some life giving and some traumatic. We have no clear picture of what did or did not happen for them in their early years. Each individual is born with a temperament and the way we respond to and approach the world is shaped a great deal by this part of our being. Some children were exposed to toxic substances in utero. Some did and some did not have a caring person in their lives who took a special interest in them as an individual. And the list of variances could continue. It is a highly complex situation and judgment can be so very painful and harmful. The arrogant expression that we somehow know from afar what another should be doing as they face their own struggles must be silenced. We must honor the stories and experiences of each child and family. There is so much that we just don’t know or understand.
On this day I am truly grateful for the Emilys of the world who are researching and pouring their lives into better understanding the pain and resilience of children. I can’t wait to hear which pieces of the puzzle she discovers.
Something has been bugging me. As I’ve been challenged to open my eyes and heart to more closely examine what I will call a traditional parenting paradigm – the kind that says children must obey at first command and there is a subsequent harsh punishment if they do not do so immediately – something isn’t adding up. Now, I must admit that I did my level best to practice this type of parenting for quite a few years. Like I’ve said before, I just kind of rolled along with what I knew and didn’t ask too many thoughtful questions of myself or those I was looking to for parenting tips.
A major tenet of the Christian faith is that humans have free will. God doesn’t force us to love, follow or obey. Though I acknowledge that there are natural consequences to deciding to go our own way, God rarely, if ever, flexes big muscles and forces us to walk a certain path. Grace is the over arching story.
So why do we insist that our children meet a standard that none of us is able to meet without the gifts of mercy and grace? I am not talking about permissive, anything goes kind of parenting. But why is any kind of “negative” emotional expression immediately deemed as disrespect and something to be squashed ASAP? Why do we seek to control rather than lovingly teach and mold our children’s behaviors? Why do we default to shame and fear tactics to keep children in line? Sure, children who are immediately compliant make our lives easier, but aren’t we trying to model and teach something much more profound to these precious souls in our care?
The myth that we can control anyone other than ourselves is quite prevalent as we look around at the voices and practices in much of the parenting advice world. Control by definition requires a level of fear and intimidation. Is that really what we want – fear based compliance? I have come to believe that there is a much better way- a simple, yet far from easy, way to express this change in parenting perspective is a shift from fear to love. In John’s first epistle, he said it this way. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us.”
I, for one, surely am grateful that God doesn’t use a traditional parenting method with me. I need all the grace I can get.