Wednesday, January 1, 2020

When Band-Aids and Popsicles Aren't Enough: On Fixing Our (Almost) Adult Children's Hurts

With more than two decades of parenting under my belt, I can safely say that the worst pain a mother can feel is to see her child suffering. (This may certainly be the case for fathers, too, but as I am not a father, I will not speak for them.)

The pain our children experience throughout their lives can be physical or emotional - I'm sure like me, most of you have lived through both. We all know those blood-curdling screams that come from a child after he bumps his head while learning to walk or skins his knee after crashing on his bike. As moms, our hearts leap into our throats and we go into momma bear mode, consoling, wiping away tears and making it all better with a band-aid and a Popsicle.

If your child has ever experienced serious physical pain and injury, like mine, you still go into momma bear mode but without that comfort of knowing you can make it all better. There's this moment when you are literally paralyzed because you cannot, in fact, make this pain go away - and it's fucking awful. It's at this moment that you realize - if you haven't already - that you are powerless to abate his physical pain - and subsequently yours. All you can do is be calm, comforting, and make sure he's getting the care he needs to heal him - care you cannot provide.

"Being powerless to abate his physical pain - and subsequently yours" is a statement I make after the realization that sometimes - many times - I try to make my children's pain "go away" not only for their benefit, but to quiet my own feelings of sadness and powerlessness of witnessing said pain.

This leads to the subject of our children and emotional pain. Some parents - probably the "better" parents - understand from day one that their children are going to feel sadness, disappointment, rejection and despair. They understand these are powerful emotions that shape a child and provide him with the resilience he needs to get through this thing called life.

I was late to this game, and I'm still kind of on the bench, understanding what's happening on the field and maybe coming in for a play or two but not quite consistent enough to be a starter. You'd think after all this time on the team, I'd be better.

But I'm learning, through trial and error. My error was definitely spending too much time saving my children from these critical emotions they needed to feel by "fixing" things for them. And believe me, it was a struggle. You forgot your book at school again??? One side of my brain tells me that the only way he'll learn to remember his book is to face the consequences of forgetting it. The other side says he's only human and kids make mistakes and he already has trouble in that subject and doesn't need the added pressures of getting a zero for that assignment.

Jesus, I'm such a pussy sometimes. But that has been the dichotomy in my head EVERY SINGLE TIME something like this happened - no matter what the scale. And it wasn't until my kids got older that I realized by saving them so many times, they didn't have the tools they needed to save themselves, nor the ability to work through the emotions caused by consequences that I was no longer able to help them avoid.

In the last six or seven years, I've realized that I did this "saving" not only to erroneously keep them from feeling negative emotions from consequential situations, but to save myself from feeling negative emotions - the emotions that come when a mom can no longer fix the hurt with a band-aid and a Popsicle.

I really don't know what's worse, honestly. Listening to your son cry out in pain from a hospital bed or listening to your son sobbing on the other end of the phone when he's thousands of miles away. You'd think it would be the former, right? Because one is "more serious" than the other? I'm not sure.

It is very easy for me to feel completely helpless when my children are experiencing emotional "trauma" - and I use the word "trauma" pretty loosely to describe those gut-wrenching feelings that some struggle with more than others - sadness, heartbreak, despair, worthlessness, anxiety, helplessness ... People like me (and most of us) who have experienced these emotions multiple times in our lives have the ability to look back on the past and learn. I remember feeling sad after a relationship ended but thinking, "Remember when that one relationship you had ended and how devastated you felt? You got through that and this isn't even as bad. You got this." Older people like us have the luxury of knowing that for the most part, what we are going through sucks but it's not forever. Even having depression I know that there's a cycle involved and for every set of down days there will eventually be some good ones.

I know this not only from experience, though, but in how I was raised. Whether my parents meant to or not, they certainly didn't spend a lot of time helping me through my negative emotions. On the one hand, that was a good thing. I grew up to be very independent and never really relied on anyone else to "save" me. On the other hand, I've learned that I tend to invalidate my emotions because they weren't really recognized as a child. Again, no fault of my parents - they were and are amazing - that's just how it was and how a sensitive child like myself just grew up to be a sensitive adult trying to figure out how to recognize and process her own emotions.

Which is probably why I have such a hard time watching my kids suffer. I know what it's like to feel alone in those negative emotions. But I'm slowly learning that it is not my job to FIX them - it's vitally important for them to FEEL them and work through them on their own.

What I have discovered, however, is that I can HOLD SPACE for them. I found this brilliant article years ago that gave me a real "aha" moment. I know now this is an actual thing that is widely known, this holding space thing, but at the time it was completely new to me, and changed how I reacted to my children's emotions. I don't know if this is the actual article I read, but it's one that explains it beautifully:

What it Really Means to Hold Space

Basically, it's just being there. Listening without judgment. NOT trying to fix it (this is my nemesis, this "fixing" thing). And it's hard to do - especially when you're on the phone and you're trying to fill the space rather than hold it. As a mom, you want to stop the sobs and the anguish on the other end of the line, and you're afraid of what the silence on the other end means. Sometimes, there's only so many cliches you can say: "I know how you feel." "I've been there." "This too shall pass." In the end, silence is probably better than hearing those empty sentences, no matter how true they may be.

What I've also found is by holding space, I'm allowing my children to work through these difficult adult emotional curve balls the way they should have worked through the difficult child emotional curve balls. Because of me, this process is harder, but once again, I cannot be the answer or the solution. That's not how it works.

Holding space is hard for some moms because we ourselves cannot handle how WE feel when our child is hurting. Once we start to realize that trying to help them FIX it is only to assuage our own sadness, we give them the power to experience the journey and accomplish their own destiny.

I'm writing this now because I need to remember it. I have two, very complex children, both of whom are going through some very complicated emotions. It's SO easy for me right now to try to find any way I can to change their thinking, tell them what I think they should do or how they should feel. It's in these moments I need to catch myself and remember that this is an important, vital piece of their life that will shape who they are becoming. Every situation or period in their life they work through is something they need to be able to look back on with a sense of pride and accomplishment, not, "Wow, good thing Mom told me what to do there."

Holding space is the new band-aid. Acknowledging feelings is the new Popsicle. The rest is up to them, and even though their suffering still gets to me like a punch in the gut, I have a weird sense of peace and confidence that they have everything it takes to get through whatever life throws at them.

Right now, I think that's all they need from their momma.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

For All You Young Moms Out There This Holiday Season

I was going through holiday decorations yesterday and came upon a battered, blue bin of holiday books, VHS tapes, CDs, and yes, even a couple of cassettes. As I looked through the home-recorded copies of "Olive, The Other Reindeer" and "The Tangerine Bear," an ear-marked hardcover of "The Polar Express" and a probably-scratched CD of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer", I was overwhelmed by one thought that I actually said aloud:

You did good, Mom.

It wasn't just the box. Earlier in the day, I asked my oldest, who is coming home for the first time in a year and a half, if he wanted Christmas cookies. This former junk food-loving kid, who is now all about vegetarian, organic and all-natural, said, "Well, maybe just Grandma's cut-out cookies. We can decorate them when we're home, Mom."

The cut-out cookies. The ones my mom made with us as kids that we spent hours decorating, then sneaking from the big freezer out in the garage (found out later she did it too!) The cut-outs she decorated with my kids when I was working and needed her to watch them over Christmas break. The cut-outs we baked and took to the nursing home so we could decorate them with her one last time. The cut-outs my kids insisted we make in the years following, even though I wasn't sure I wanted to.

You did good, Mom.

The holidays look a lot different now - they haven't been the same since 2014, which was a year of many changes, including the death of my mother. I feel like we tried to keep up pretenses and do the same things, but it felt so forced, and not very enjoyable. It was no one's fault - it's just hard to try to keep things the same when they are clearly not.

I really started dreading the holiday season. There was so much pressure yet so much change. I was struggling to find some semblance of tradition when there was certainly nothing traditional about my family. I was tired of feeling as though I HAD to go through the motions just to appease other people. My family was changing, my kids were changing, and I had to change, too.

The past few years have been weird. Last year was the first time I was missing a boy at home, and Facetiming was awkward and just made me feel more wistful. This year we'll be missing one again and it's going to be even harder.

But that box. Man, that box. So many memories are contained in that battered blue bin. Flashes of my oldest at three, standing on a chair in a Santa hat singing along with "Jingle Bell Rock." Two sweet faces licking dough off the beaters and mugging for the camera. Twenty-five straight days of reading "Polar Express" to my youngest before bedtime. A Christmas Story marathon playing in the background on the TV all day long. And those cut-out cookies slowly disappearing from the freezer.

You did good, Mom.

It doesn't really matter what the holiday dynamic is anymore. I laid the groundwork, and I did a good job. I gave the kids that memory bank that they're never going to lose and, as we make this transition to them having their own lives, they have a good foundation to begin traditions of their own.

So for all you young parents out there baking the cookies and staying up late to put together the toys and dragging them to the Festival of Lights and making the same Jell-O mold every year because it's literally the only thing they'll eat, keep it up. You only have a few years to do this before you're going to be opening that battered blue bin and wondering where the time went. And hopefully when you do, you'll say the same thing to yourself: "You did good."

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The First Day of Lasts

August 17, 2011. First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life.

August 17, 2016. First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life, Take Two.

August 14, 2019. This is it. The last one. Senior year of high school.

Everything I have known as a mother for the past 19 years has revolved around school.

The tears (from them) at preschool drop off. The tears (from me) on the first day of kindergarten. The first time I became "one of those parents" with my camcorder at (insert any school production here) frantically trying to get my kid's attention so he'd smile and wave at me (then mouthing at him to SING THE WORDS.) The first time as a "room parent" watching my kid beam when I walked in the room with cookies and juice. The first middle school project that had us at the dollar store at 8:30 at night to buy poster board because "someone" didn't remember. The first homework assignment forgotten and subsequently dropped off by an overprotective mom. The first homework assignment forgotten and subsequently NOT dropped off by a mom who was finally learning.

The first missed bus. The first time dropping off my kid at o-dark thirty for track practice. The first time picking up my kid after school hours for detention. The first girlfriend. The first heartbreak. The first aced test. The first failed class.

The first, "I need these shoes because they're cool." The first, "Just drop me off here, Mom." The first, "Can I borrow the car?" The first, "You don't understand, Mom!" The first, "I got the job!" The first, "Can I stay out a little later?"

The first "first day of school." The last "first day of school."

I'm a mere nine months away from my 20-year anniversary of being the mom of a school-aged kid, and I don't know if I'll ever be ready to celebrate.

It's not like their high school years were a scene out of Glee. Neither of my kids particularly loved high school the way I did back in the mid-80's. Part of that I believe is because I picked the wrong damn high school, and part of that was, well, I don't really know. Social media. Drugs. Pressure. Economics. Privilege. In fact, this is the first time I've had a senior at home - my oldest finished high school in another state, so my apple cart of firsts and lasts with him was a bit upset. Suffice to say I don't think either of them will attend any high school reunions.

Still, it will be the end of an era for me. My oldest has entered the big, bad world of life and is attending the School of Hard Knocks. My youngest … I'm not sure where his path will lead right now. We're not exactly the kind of people who adhere to that classic perfect family Facebook post about how we're so proud of little Johnny for being one of 47 valedictorians and headed off on a full scholarship to Hahhhvahhhd. But lemme tell you, I'm just as proud of my kids for forging their own path, whatever that might be.

Me? I guess I'll soak it all in and roll with the changes as best I can. We've had some pretty major life changes over the past 20 years. Divorce. A move. Another move. Addiction. Mental health issues. Death. A life-changing accident. Cancer. We survived. I survived. So I can survive this - my baby in his last year of high school.

I once got a great piece of advice from an unlikely source. Back in 1997, I was pregnant with my first son and setting up for an event at a trade show in Dallas. I had hired a photographer who was a big, burly Texas man, complete with the cowboy boots and hat. We were talking before the event and the conversation turned to kids - his grown and mine still in the oven. What he said to me I'll never forget: "I always just enjoyed each stage; I never looked back and wished I could go back. I always looked forward to the next one. That's the key - just enjoy each stage."

That's hard to do. Though I don't know that I would want to go back and do EVERYTHING over again, I do get a tug at my heartstrings when I think about walking up to the school and having my kid run out to see me with his "smiley face of the day" paper clenched in his little fist. Or being home when my middle schooler bursts through the door asking for a snack and running back outside to play with his friends. Or when my high schooler sits down with me to watch Stranger Things even though I have no idea what he did during the day anymore.

The school "firsts" are almost over, but there are so many more firsts to come in these boys' lives. I won't be there for many of them - heck probably most of them - but I guess I'm not supposed to be. It's time to have some "firsts" of my own. What those are I'm not sure - I have a few ideas - and I'm looking forward to them, whatever they may be.

Here's to a year of "lasts" for my senior and me, and a lifetime of "firsts" ahead for us all.