Yesterday, around dinnertime, I decided I was the worst parent on the planet.
I do believe feelings are noteworthy at all times. And, after a slew of rapid fire, gone-crazy texts to my husband, he finally replied with a profound, “Stop It,” reminding me how unproductive these feelings can be if not married to 1) facts, and 2) a brain. (P.S. I was also the worst spouse there ever was.)
Have you ever been a fly on your own wall, watching yourself parent? There are so many moments when a situation speeds into chaos while you’re at the wheel. Your fly self says, Ooohhhh wow, this is bad. Crash and burn bad. I’m quite positive I am crushing my kid’s soul, but I just have to get this one last comment out because this child is driving me mad.
Shutting your mouth in these moments is like trying to keep hot lava from rolling downhill. You will inevitably think, This is not gonna end well, but will feel unable to stop it.
On my worst and best days, my parenting résumé is short and simple: I don’t know what I’m doing.
I’m not saying I don’t know the good and right ways to behave and speak – I know plenty of those things, complete with effective responses for a multitude of challenging parent-child scenarios.
But parenting quips can be so brain-only, can’t they? Our best how-to books don’t have a relationship with us or with our child. Their advice can be valuable but can also miss the heart of things, rarely factoring in our deepest hopes and fears – our internal promise to do it all differently than, or the same as, our parents; our regret of not being able to have do-overs; all the ways we feel so ill-equipped and powerless in the face of our child’s unique and intense struggles. Head knowledge just never makes much room for the demanding emotional complexity within our stories, for the ways all those hopes and fears want to steer our behavior and relationships.
Simply put, parenting takes a healthy mix of brain and heart, along with boat-loads of help. There’s a whole lot of glory that comes down the line, often right before a whole lot of excruciating pain. Then, you rinse and repeat, because just when you think you’ve got it, the floor will drop out. It’s no wonder parenting can make us feel so smart and so dumb all at once.
That said, this was the focus of yesterday’s parenting fail: My nine year old daughter battles anxiety, and sometimes (e.g. last night) I make it exactly 1,000 times worse. I cannot tell the parts of the story that belong to her, but I can speak about some of them from my perspective.
I’ve learned she has a busy brain. It’s fascinating and creative, but also a carnival ride that dizzies her into exhaustion. Those closest to her become just as disoriented watching her go ‘round and ‘round with no one at the control box to shut it down. Who in the world can REST on a tilt-a-whirl?
“I don’t know why my brain does this, Mom,” she cries to me. “But it won’t stop.”
I don’t know why, either, but as any parent would, I hate watching my child suffer. And I don’t know who to blame for it because life is ever layered and always spiritual. I have blamed myself. I’ve blamed her dad. I have blamed evil, then I’ve moved on to God. I’ve blamed family stress, genetics, busyness, and “type-A-personality-just-like-her-mom.” It could be all of these things or none of them. Truly, I only want to know what to blame so I can chase it down, wrestle it into submission, and send it away.
My lowest points are when I blame her. She puts her head in her hands often, frozen by the simplest of decisions. Her dizziness boils over into tears; mine explodes into critical outbursts.
“You need to stop doing this to yourself,” I say. “You just need to LET IT GO!”
With that, I twist her internal knots even tighter. Her eyes plead with me about it. Mom, they say, I know I do, but I don’t know HOW.
When I get honest, I see it in myself, just as I see it in those I counsel: Anger is almost always a secondary emotion, often one of fear’s most clever hiding places. In truth, an exacerbated, “Just stop!” is not my heart’s deepest cry to my daughter. It is so much more vulnerable:
You are looking to me for help, but I don’t know how to help you.
If I were to own that out loud, even to myself, where would that leave us?
Somewhere along the way, I told myself it would mean she’d be utterly alone and abandoned in her stormy inner world. Somewhere along the way, I told myself it’d mean I would be a disappointment as a mother – a broken, resented failure.
And somewhere along the way, however covertly, I also told myself I was her savior.
I told myself I was her savior.
I told myself I was her savior.
There it is. I told myself I was her savior.
Speaking this again and again feels like the steady unraveling of a lie, the kind of spinning around in circles that ends with a longed-for escape to freedom. It’s a stunned relief to finally name what has been squeezing the life out of me, out of us.
I am not her savior.
Lately, the still, small voice has been whispering something like this to me, and only now is it beginning to make sense: You cannot keep her from suffering. She is going to suffer, but this suffering is where she will find Me. You must not rob her of the discovery and experience of My presence. This is not about you, but you can still be with her.
You can still be with her.
Still be with her.
Be with her.
Last night, after texting with my husband a bit more, I walked down the hallway and peeked into my daughter’s room. She was still awake, still stuck in worry, an hour past her bedtime.
“Hi,” I said.
I climbed into her bed and slid to a higher place, one that made it possible for me to cradle her. I opened my arms. She nestled right in like she’d been waiting for me all along.
She spoke first. “I’m sorry if I made you frustrated.” Oh, my beloved, I thought. This is not yours to make right.
“I am frustrated, but not with you, honey.” I pulled my breath in deep and then pushed it out into relaxation. “Wanna know why I’m feeling frustrated?”
“I’m frustrated with how impatient I can be. I’m frustrated with the way I treat you when you’re feeling this way. I am sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s ok that you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.”
She burrowed her head in and thanked me. ”Nobody’s perfect,” she said, echoing my common words. Then she smiled. “But maybe someday we’ll be perfect. You know, like when we’re in heaven.”
I wondered if this was her heart’s desire for me, or for herself. Either way, I remembered how quickly we equate perfection with relief.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be perfect,” I told her. “To be honest, I’m not sure I ever want to be.”
She asked me why.
“Well, ‘cause then we’d be God, and I don’t want to be God. I think I’d like to keep needing God instead.” I began to sense something like peace, something like what comes when we trade fixing for loving.
I made a final declaration. “I love you, I’m right here with you, and you’re not alone.” I put my arm firmly across her chest and kept it there, sure to make my presence known, sure to challenge any heaviness inside. “It’s gonna be ok.”
I felt her body settle. She breathed in and out, slow and steady, and then she fell asleep. I held her as the Comforter held me. Together, we found our rest.
After a short while, it occurred to me that tears had been rhythmically falling over the sides of my face and into my hair. They had come with quiet ease, there to wash over and through my worry lines like living water.