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.