Holiday breaks are a great time for me to learn new things about parenting. As an introvert who has crafted her life to include working at home with no other companion but the dog and the occasional lunch or coffee date if I feel like it, having my kids and my husband home all day every day for two weeks feels a bit overwhelming.  Add Bubba’s family to that for one of those two weeks and you can be sure to find me ‘meditating’ at the sink as I do dishes a few times a day. It’s the one place where I know my kids won’t come near me for fear of being asked to help clean up after fourteen hungry family members.

I won’t bore you with the details, but here are a couple tidbits I picked up over this year’s break thus far:

1. The use of superlatives is altogether unhelpful.  In particular, I am referring to the words “always,” “never,” “everyone,” and “nobody.” I am just as guilty as anyone else of using those words to make a point, but the problem with them is that they are rarely true and they serve to escalate the emotional intensity of any situation rapidly.  When my kids come to me claiming that “nobody ever includes me in ________,” or some such notion, my first tendency is to dispute the claim and point out all of the other times that she has been asked to join in the fun. It may be true, but it certainly isn’t helpful. Generally the best thing I can do in that situation is to acknowledge hurt feelings or frustration and ask what their preferred solution might be.  

Those words also have the added effect of convincing us that things are worse than they actually are. In my case, when my kids tell me “everyone hates me,” I have little else to go on. While I think it is highly unlikely that each and every single person around them wishes them ill, I don’t honestly know if it’s true, or even if my kid really believes that it is. But sometimes, if I’m not fully paying attention, I take them at their word and then I get all wound up in the belief that it’s true. The more I react to those kinds of statements, the more I reinforce for my kids that I believe what they’re saying and that’s how destructive patterns get laid down. When we all start buying into the always/never/everyone/nobody stories, it’s a dangerous time.

And so, I have asked my kids not to use those words about each other or their friends or family, especially when emotions are running high. It gets me wound up, it winds them up, and we all go down the path of darkness and gloom on a false belief.  They agreed to do their best. And then they busted me when I did it the next day, whining that NOBODY EVER offers to help with the kitchen clean-up after dinner. I guess they took the new rule to heart.

2. The use of apologies, especially parental ones, is incredibly important when it comes to trust-building. I don’t recall the parental apology being a thing in my childhood and I have yet to talk to anyone from my generation who does. When my dad was dying, he told me several times how sorry he was for certain things that he did or said when I was a kid and I can’t even begin to say how important and meaningful that was to me.  That said, I often wonder how different all our lives might have been if we had learned to apologize to each other early and often.

I was in my thirties before I fully realized that my parents were human beings and always had been. During my childhood, they subscribed to the school of thought that said you didn’t back down to your kids, didn’t show a chink in your armor, didn’t let ’em see you sweat. While I often questioned my parents’ wisdom and choices, I never thought of them as fully fallible human beings who might be unsure of themselves as parents. It never occurred to me that they weren’t 100% sure of what they were doing. It certainly occurred to me from time to time that they were evil or hated me or were hell-bent on making my life miserable, but I never considered that they could be just making mistakes along the way. Until I had kids. Then that reality hit me full force.

I started letting my girls know from the beginning that I am human, mostly for selfish reasons. I didn’t  want them to expect too much from me, so I made sure they knew I was doing my best, but would be mistake-prone until I figured things out.  The best way to let them know I was fallible was by apologizing when I really messed up. When I freaked out disproportionately and screamed at them, I came back later to say I was sorry and tell them how I wished I had dealt with the situation. After falsely accusing them or punishing them without all the facts, I would later admit my mistake and ask for redemption. Now that they are teens, this policy is paying off with trust. Not only do my girls know it’s okay for them to mess up and lose their cool, but they know how to apologize for it as well.  I know parents who balk at admitting their mistakes to their children and I understand how hard it is, but I have to tell you that there are not many more powerful ways to connect with your child on a truly authentic level than to let them know you’re sorry for hurting them. Even if I feel like my girls have over-reacted to something emotionally, the fact is that perception is reality and if they don’t trust me to empathize and acknowledge their feelings, they aren’t likely to come to me with other emotionally charged topics.  Apologizing is a small price to pay for keeping the lines of communication open. And, fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve had enough fights with my kids to have had lots of practice saying I’m sorry.  I can tell you that it gets easier with time and rarely (I can’t say “never” anymore) has there been a time where they didn’t apologize right back.

It is increasingly difficult not to feel lucky that I am white, that my children are white, that they are girls who are not likely to incite fear because of their size and their race and their gender. Somehow, it feels horrible to think that way, to feel relief that, while we may as women and girls suffer some indignities and challenges, at least we don’t have to worry about an overzealous response to a real or imagined crime.

The girls and I have talked off and on in the last weeks about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City, all of us baffled at how a group of impartial individuals could come to the decisions they did. I am careful to acknowledge that I don’t have all of the details and I can’t judge the  outcomes or the people without having first walked in their shoes, but it doesn’t keep us from feeling despair about what these incidents are doing to our communities.

I have resisted doing much research because I don’t believe it will give me any vital information that I don’t already have and I suspect that if I did discover egregious errors such as are being alleged by many, especially with regard to the Ferguson case, it would only lead my heart to ache more.

I am sad that the takeaway from President Obama’s response to the Ferguson grand jury decision was his encouragement of the wider use of body cameras by police officers as a way to build trust between communities and the police.  If I told my girls that I trusted them, but I was going to put video cameras in their bedrooms so that I could capture footage of them at all times, I doubt they would believe my expression of trust. I think that the president is correct in his assertion that the breakdown is the lack of trust, but in order to have a trusting relationship, there has to be a relationship and it is there where things have broken down.  If there is no sense of commonality, no investment in each other, we cannot hope to combat the fear that exists on both sides of this equation. If there is one shared goal, that is where the conversation needs to start and stay grounded. Yes, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions, and in that respect, perhaps body cameras have some place in the solution, but first there has to be serious work toward preventing altercations that result in physical violence.

In an interview with NPR, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who works with the LAPD to overcome trust issues, Ms. Rice talked about how many of the police officers she interviewed expressed fear of black men. While she says those officers don’t “experience that as a racist thought,” it absolutely screams racism to many in the black community and that very real fear often translates into overzealous physical contact with black suspects.  Addressing that fear has to be the first step in relationship building. Understanding varied viewpoints and coming together around the common goal of safe communities is a much better strategy than arming police with body cameras. Especially in the case of Eric Garner, there is no guarantee that video evidence will lead to accountability or trust. In fact, if there are more cases where the video evidence seems clearly in favor of one story over the other and the decisions made fly in the face of that evidence, we risk causing even bigger rifts in our communities.

Ms. Rice cites one program that “brought LAPD officers into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities together,” as being particularly effective. That is because those efforts clearly endorsed a common goal and unless we begin there, we have little hope of effecting positive change.  It is time for civic leaders and police departments to step up and talk about the fears that lead to this kind of violence. Because police officers are put in harm’s way nearly every day, it is important for them to acknowledge which fears are grounded in reality and which ones are not. Because they are trained to react in a split second, they need to know which instincts to trust and how to draw on alternative methods of conflict resolution before making a decision that will have ripple effects for us all. We need to put more resources into finding common ground than we invest in body armor and cameras and the justice system. Moving forward with conversations and positive acts within the communities where there is deep mistrust of the police department will go a long way toward building bridges that we can all stand on together.

  1. Don’t assume that just because your niece/granddaughter/friend is a teenage girl, she is interested in watching your children for hours on end while you go drink wine with the rest of the family and get a break. She may well enjoy spending time with your toddlers playing games, coloring and watching Frozen for the 437th time, but she also enjoys being part of the adult conversations going on. That’s how she learns to interact with adults and her opinions are important for the adults in the group to hear as well.
  2. Please don’t ask her where she wants to go to college and what she thinks her major will be (or any other questions related to that, including what she wants to be when she grows up). If she wants to talk about those things, she will bring them up on her own. Generally, though, this is a great source of stress for many girls in high school – they spend a lot of time thinking about their future and being told that their high school grades matter a lot when it comes to where they will go to college – they don’t need more pressure during their holiday break.
  3. Please don’t ask her if she has a boyfriend, especially if you do it with a certain tone of voice or a wink and a smile. Again, if she wants to talk about her love life, she will bring it up on her own. Intimating that you are truly interested in this aspect of her life will either feel incredibly personal and a little too familiar (even creepy) or it will put her on the defensive wondering whether you’ll follow up by telling her she’s too young to be in a serious relationship.
  4. Don’t comment on her wardrobe or physical appearance before you ask her how she is or tell her it’s good to see her again. In fact, unless she has a new haircut (or hair color) or a pair of boots you want to try on because they are so awesome, it might be wise to abstain from talking about her physical appearance at all. Girls get so much reinforcement from the world that their looks are of paramount importance that if you want to connect with them on a personal level, it would be really great to talk about who they are and what they’re interested in.
  5. Don’t comment on her plate. Don’t point out that she is eating mostly carbs or five desserts or avoiding the greens at the table. Again, teenage girls are so conditioned to think about food that spending a holiday with people who love them ought to be devoid of any of that nonsense. Trust me, anything you say will only make most girls feel badly about themselves.
  6. Don’t offer your advice unless it is specifically solicited. Much of what these girls need is a compassionate ear and your comments about “when I was your age…” aren’t tremendously helpful in general. When you begin talking about what you think without being asked, they feel judged and belittled and are not likely to open up to you again. Listening carefully and keenly will endear you to her, I swear.
  7. Don’t make back-handed comments about her phone or tablet use. Girls this age are committed to their friends like nothing else and it’s important for them to feel connected to them. It may  make you uncomfortable to see the glow of the screen on her face for most of the day, but unless her parents have an objection, your sarcastic judgments about how much time ‘kids these days’ spend with technology will not help her relate to you.
  8. Do not compare her to any other teenage girl, real or fictitious (or you when you were a teenager). There are far too many opportunities for girls to measure themselves against the photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities and come up short, or to weigh themselves against the unbalanced information their friends and cohorts post on social media and find their own lives lacking. These girls are all individuals and just because there might be another ‘ideal’ teenage girl in your life or your mind doesn’t mean they aren’t great, too. Get to know them, you might be surprised.
  9. Don’t, don’t, don’t belittle or make fun of their interests in music or movies or books. PLEASE. I’m begging you. Think back to when you were a teenager and you loved KISS or “Sixteen Candles” or thought that comic books were the best thing since acne medication. They have a right to their own tastes and if you want to connect with them on a genuine level, you should ask them questions (honest, not sarcastic or snarky ones) about why they love “The Fault in Our Stars” or have that enormous Justin Bieber poster on the ceiling above their bed. 
DO: 
Listen. A lot. Ask open-ended questions about what is going on in her life (not her favorite subject in school – ask her about the most fun she has had in the past week). If she complains about school or friends or the stress of the holidays, listen. 
Invite her to do something with you that she enjoys doing, even if you couldn’t care less about it. If she senses that you are truly interested in who she is as a person and willing to spend time with her on her terms, she will be grateful and engaged. Better yet, ask her to teach you something – the lyrics to her favorite song, a goofy dance kids her age are doing, or anything else she is particularly knowledgeable about that you are clueless about. She will feel empowered and intelligent and you just might have fun together.

Often, as I wrestle with a parenting dilemma, the ghostly voices of my parents come to me. Often, we have entire conversations in my head. Most of the time, I win. That is a function of age and defiance and some therapy over the years, I think.

Today I pondered the role of punishment and consequences versus empathy and compassion. I thought about whether the most important thing is to STOP a particular behavior or to let my children know that I used to act the same way because I used to feel the same way. I wondered whether acknowledging the intense emotions raging inside my girls might help to decrease their effect or at least provide a balm. I recalled learning that my strongest feelings were to be hidden and not used as an excuse for bad behavior and also that it was very important not to get caught doing something your parents didn’t want you to do. I learned that hiding both my emotions and my actions was better for everyone involved unless I was feeling giddy or euphoric. I think I decided that I would rather tolerate some minor bad behavior that “could lead to something more” in my father’s words and commiserate with my children, let them know that I see what they’re up to and that I think I know why. Give them an opening to acknowledge and air their feelings instead of poking them down that deep, dark hole. When I came to this resolution, the silent dialogue Dad and I were having while I brushed my teeth this morning abruptly ended. I think he saw my point and decided it was silly to argue.


“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” Josiah Charles Stamp

Ahh, personal responsibility. We are a nation enamored with the concept. We are also enamored with the notion of individuality; individual freedoms (to a certain extent), individual rights, individual responsibility. We expect people to clean up their messes if, for some reason they haven’t managed to avoid making them in the first place. Unfortunately, we don’t always provide them with the tools they need to do either of these things. And therein lies the rub.

We are a nation that loves instant gratification and thrives on the ability to “keep up with the Joneses.” Hallelujah for credit! Visa and MasterCard give us the opportunity to spend money we don’t have on things we want now. Sub-prime mortgages and “zero down” financing offer us chances to spend money we won’t likely ever have. Our children and grandchildren see the economy collapsing under the weight of such ridiculousness, and hear every day on the news that the economy would rebound more quickly if we just went out and spent more money. Huh? Is it any wonder they’re confused? And how many of them will learn about money management in school? How many of their classes will educate them about saving money and contingency planning? If these classes aren’t available, how many of their parents will be able to talk to them about these things? I remember two of the “life skills” classes I took in high school: Personal Finance and home economics. We talked about calculating interest rates and were taught the proper way to write a personal check in Personal Finance class. In Home Ec, we did a little sewing, a little meal preparation, and one very memorable day, a cosmetics expert came in to teach us the proper way to apply our makeup without creating wrinkles around our eyes. I didn’t feel precisely qualified to manage the finances of a household upon graduation. I’m certain I’m not qualified to teach my kids money management skills based on those two “practical life” classes.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another bill that is aimed at blocking access to reproductive healthcare for millions of American women. They claim that their intent is to reduce the number of abortions (hopefully to zero) in our nation. If this is an attempt to force women to live up to the consequences of their mistakes (ie. premarital or unprotected sexual activity?), I fear that they are asking women to sweep up a mess without providing them a broom or proper instruction on its use. Defunding Planned Parenthood and making access to other facilities where women can get objective, non-biased information about their own bodies is worse than that. It is actively denying them access to the broom and the class on sweeping. How can we expect people to avoid mistakes or learn from them when we don’t offer them information? If we fight against sexual education classes in our schools and rail against birth control, we are expecting people to gain this vital education by what, osmosis? If we don’t teach each other what we know about the more difficult things in life, we can’t expect any change. You can’t hold someone responsible for making a mistake they had no way of preventing.

Individuality is important. Differences are often what creates color and vibrancy in life. But not enough can be made of the power of tapping into a collective base of information. There will always be people who learn best by making mistakes over and over again, but for those who could benefit from the wisdom of others, isn’t it our responsibility to pass that information on?

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This applies to entire cultures as much as it does to individuals. We can’t keep telling generation after generation that we expect them to clean up their own messes if we don’t provide them with the tools to either do so, or avoid those messes in the first place. Rebuilding our economy by asking people to spend more money only props it up for the next generation to overspend again. We will find ourselves right back in the same position, just as we have so many times before. And telling women and girls that they ought not to get pregnant without giving them ways to prevent pregnancy won’t affect the rate of unwanted pregnancy in our country. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but it is impossible to sustain without knowledge.

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” Dalai Lama

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear
evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in
place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are
protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun
violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school
student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple
times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and
turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still
Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I
am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening,
not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am
saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting
until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions
instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout
their lives.
            Two
vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally
wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to
emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that
portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling
strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are
simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To
expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply
unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to
acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we
expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and
we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We
spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to
apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in
history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be
human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within
family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional
challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that
learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor,
we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported
within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The
second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection.
People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling
with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an
individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more
likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through
that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is
much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have
demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and
competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’
both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education
that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the
context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We
may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy,
but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and
rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a
dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with
an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion
and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about
individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is
about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing
physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional
development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention.
What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?

I’ve got something stuck in my craw. And ironically, the song that has been going around and around in my head for the past two days is “Pompeii” by Bastille. Specifically, the following lyrics:

  • But if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    Nothing changed at all?
    And if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    You’ve been here before?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?

Yeah, I’ve been here before. And, yeah, I’m asking myself how I’m going to be positive and forward-thinking about all of it.  Bubba is on board, as are several other folks. We all agree the situation is untenable and something has to change, but the wheels are moving very slowly and if history is any indication, they will stop the vehicle well short of a solution.  Several times in the past week I have noticed my jaw set, my breathing shallow, my thoughts rotating in the same old pattern, wearing a path in my brain.  While we were making dinner together on Sunday night, I told Bubba, “I’m trying really hard not to get emotionally tied to a specific outcome.”

“Why not?” he stopped what he was doing and turned to me. “I think you SHOULD be.”

I was surprised. He is usually the guy who knows exactly what his boundaries are and how to engage with things he can control and disengage from things he can’t. He is always cautioning me that I’ll make myself crazy if I get too connected to one particular scenario in my mind.  His reaction this time only served as a reminder of how long this has gone on without any resolution, that he is just as frustrated as I am that we have acted in all the ways we know how with mindfulness and honesty and concern to no avail.

And yet, I am making myself crazy. His passion and the passion of other folks who have heretofore been quiet and complacent is only serving to reignite my commitment to sparking change. While it feels good to know that I’m not alone, that something is really wrong here, ultimately I have no say in whether things change, and I’m not willing to quit being part of the institution that so desperately needs to change. The person who has the power is a dear friend of mine and I can’t understand why he won’t do what needs to be done, but I can’t force him to do it. I have my suspicions that he is acting (or not acting) out of fear, and my intuition about these things is generally pretty clear. I know what a powerful motivator fear is and I truly understand why he would feel that way. I also have to acknowledge that, despite assurances that the wheels are turning, my faith is quickly eroding.

This lack of power to effect important change in someone else’s life is definitely a theme in my world right now. I had to laugh this morning as it occurred to me that perhaps this is a training ground for dealing with my girls and the life choices they will make without (or despite) input from me or Bubba. Right now, my boundaries are nearly nonexistent and I’m struggling to imagine what they might look like. I am certainly in need of some sort of buffer as I figure out how to be involved with the parts of this organization that are doing amazing work without feeding the part that is toxic and destructive. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the realm of love and acceptance but the cloud of frustration that is hanging over my head is pretty vast right now.

Frankly, I would rather be neither of those things. I’m not interested in being the guy who flattens others, and I certainly don’t want to be smushed face-first against a windshield.  I know there are days when my kids feel as though those are the only two options, though, and you can’t blame them with all of the social dynamics they are navigating in high school and middle school.  But, as the Chief Positivity Officer in our household (well, Bubba’s pretty good at that, too, but frankly, I’m willing to be more in-your-face about it), I’m always looking for ways to re-frame their experience.  When you’re surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight.

Enter my new invention: The Appreciation Board.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy enough to have actually called it that. Nor am I naive enough to have presented it in some sort of formal way. I simply commandeered the chalkboard in the kitchen and altered it a bit.  This is what it looks like now

 I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve’s name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, “Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend.” Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person (or at least that is the story she tells herself), so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn’t suppress the twitches at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn’t expect an instant sea-change.  I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling “Dad” and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up.  This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast.  She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, chuckling to herself.

On Saturday night, Bubba and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don’t want their parents in earshot for.  When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board.  It read, “Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general).” What was so staggering is that it was in Eve’s handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal.  Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family.  Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they’re already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn’t often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling.  Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.

It occurred to me this morning that I’ve spent much of the last three weeks borrowing trouble. I am feeling a little frantic, fairly depleted, and terrifically confused and I have brought it all on myself.

I have been relying on my tendency to be a ‘fixer’ instead of sitting back and owning what is mine to own. To borrow a phrase, I have been “leaning in” far too much.  As a parent, it is difficult for me to separate what is mine from what belongs to my daughters, but every time I get entangled in their stuff, I learn the same painful lesson – namely, that nobody is getting what they need when I jump in and try to make things better.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been fooling myself that I wasn’t really getting involved. Instead of telling my girls what to do, I simply went and did a ton of research and offered up the Cliff Notes versions as potential solutions. I have done a great deal of listening, given many hugs and words of encouragement and left them with strategically-placed notes that I fervently hoped they would take to heart.  And then I have left the room and entered my own head. I have spent hours debating strategies, ordering and reading books that I thought might give me important insight, reached out to other mothers for ideas, and basically ignored all of my own stuff in an effort to help my girls.

I understand that it is important for my kids to experience pain and disappointment and come out the other side.  It is horrible to watch, but as a parent, I know it is more harmful to try and shield them from the slings and arrows of life than it is to let them feel the sting and discover that they will survive despite it.  That much I am clear on.  What I realized this morning is that because it is uncomfortable for me to see them suffer, my agenda involves them acknowledging their suffering and moving on quickly. I want them to take the fast lane to enlightenment, drawing on my experience and knowledge instead of taking the time to form their own, and have an “a-ha” moment in record time. I want their wounds to heal completely within days or hours and leave a scar that will help them incorporate this wisdom into their lives forever. Voila!

Ridiculous.

The other night when I pushed my way into Eve’s room to offer all of the information I had gathered while she was at school, she got angry with me.  She tolerated my 20-minute download, but just barely, and then asked me to leave. My feelings were hurt. I felt unappreciated and instantly angry that she didn’t see how I had sacrificed hours of my day to ruminate, investigate, and collate on her behalf.

Within minutes, I got a text message from her that made me sit down hard.

“I’m sorry I was rude. But I didn’t ask you to do all of that. I have a plan. I am figuring out how to deal with this and you have to give me a chance to do it my way.”

She was right. In running around searching for answers and spending time and energy fixating on how to help my girls deal with the disappointments they experience, I am serving my own need to be useful, to solve a problem, to fix something.  There is a fine line between giving thoughtful advice when it is asked for and projecting my own stuff onto someone else. In my experience, it is always easier to see how to solve someone else’s problems than it is to work on my own.  When I hover over my kids and offer solutions, even if I’m not advocating for one over another, the message I’m sending is that I don’t trust them to figure it out on their own (at least not as quickly as I would like). I am also not giving them the chance to truly integrate the lessons of these challenges into their lives. They can’t remember pain from the scars I carry and as much as I might talk to them about my personal mistakes, in order to learn, they have to make their own.

All of this isn’t to say that I can’t love my girls fiercely and worry about them and offer my two cents. I will also not hesitate to jump in if I think there is a situation they absolutely are not equipped to handle yet, but getting emotionally tied up to the point where I set aside my own life in order to spend hours thinking about how to help my kids is a waste of energy. This morning I found myself exploring several scenarios in an effort to help Lola with something she hasn’t asked for help with and it stopped me short. I have a lot to do today and Lola’s got this. If she doesn’t, she’ll let me know one way or the other, but indulging my desire to have things tied up neatly and see my kids happy is only going to make us all crazy.

I’m going to tell you something you already know: it’s
easier to be angry than it is to feel sad. It is harder still to acknowledge
the fear that lies behind both the sadness and the anger without becoming
entangled in it and letting it take over. 
And the most challenging scenario I’ve yet encountered is when the fear
and anger and sadness spring from incidents that involve my children.  There is a certain intensity to the
feeling, the difference between a freshly-honed butcher knife and the paring
knife you’ve used for everything from slicing apples to cutting bread to
peeling cucumbers. That sharp edge makes all the difference and it gleams in
the light.
Even though fear underlies both sadness and anger, the anger
comes with a drive to act, a sense that I can do something to mitigate or
repair or eradicate. It feels like a positive force, propelling me forward. The
sadness feels like a pit, a low spot in the landscape where I have to just sit
and see my limited view of the horizon for a while. That feels hopeless and
helpless, especially when it comes on behalf of someone else, someone who will
benefit more from quiet compassion and understanding than any action I could
possibly take.  I am much more
comfortable being the Mama Bear, putting out a forearm to block incoming
trouble and uttering a frightening roar because it feels proactive and
empowering. Sitting in that ditch with my kid while she sobs is not so
satisfying.
If I were a caveperson, I would understand. Sitting in that
sad pit will get you eaten. Injury to the soul is of little consequence when
you aren’t sure whether or not you will find a meal or be the meal. And so I
suppose it is a consequence of our relatively luxurious life that I can feel so
acutely the emotional pain of my children and long for a solution that will
instantly make things different, or at least one that will give me the illusion
of control.  But the backdrop of
luxury doesn’t make my heart hurt any less. And reminding my kids that they’re
not the only one this has ever happened to doesn’t make their hearts hurt any
less. It is nice to know you’re not alone, but it sucks to know that you still
have to make your way through the hurt in your own way, in your own time, no
matter how many people have been there before and how many others are sitting cross-legged in that damn pit with you.
And as a mother, it is far more difficult to watch my
children make their way through, in fits and starts, with frustration and doubt
and, sometimes, utter desolation, and know there isn’t a damn thing I can do but
love them and love them and love them until my heart feels like it will burst
with a single touch. As I walked the dog this morning I wished for anger, for
someone or something to project my fears onto because holding this emotion is
exhausting and anger is exhilarating in its power, even if it is often
destructive.  Anger feels
galvanizing, strengthening, and when I go all Mama Bear, I am certain my kids
know I’ve got their backs and it feels good to express it publicly. Telling
them quietly that I acknowledge their pain and sadness and letting them see my
sadness feels supportive but falls flat because it doesn’t have all the
attendant bells and whistles of action. It isn’t necessarily in my nature to choose the easy way out but, man, do I really want to sometimes.