A few weeks ago I was at my wits' end with my daughter, and I vented to an online group of women friends. I needed to know, as mothers often do, whether my child’s behavior was alarming or simply annoying but age-appropriate. My ladies came through for me with empathy, insight, and solid advice, and my parenting crisis passed−but not before I spent a day questioning why I ever believed I could be a good mother.
I have never found parenting easy or intuitive. Dealing with the good and the bad, reconciling enjoyment and exasperation, was more difficult than I expected. When Grace was four or five, I mentioned this to a friend, who told me she believed it was her responsibility as a mother to be affected by her child, positively and negatively. I took that to heart, because she is a smart woman, a psychologist who counsels college students, as well as a thoughtful, deliberate mother. I decided to stop trying to tune out my child’s tantrums. Instead, I let myself feel my frustration, anger, and helplessness, to sit with those feelings and process them and let them go. In doing so, I was also able to feel empathy, something that was missing before, and I began to engage with my daughter on her own level, or closer to it. We were better after that. I was a better mother and she was a happier kid. I thought it was over.
It wasn’t over, of course. At seven, she still goes through phases, or relapses, of raging for reasons I only occasionally understand. Now, however, she’s more articulate and persistent, and both of us have bigger feelings around these conflicts. If I let myself feel whatever emotions arise every time she throws a tantrum, I would be too overwhelmed to find any empathy. So I wonder how much I should take in, when every squeak of protest or cry of discontent cannot be given full attention.
I’ve adopted a triage approach. If she’s frustrated by homework and throws her pencil and crumples her assignment, I try to work through to empathy as quickly as possible. If she hits the dog and refuses to put on her shoes because there isn’t time to put her hair in a ponytail before school, I honestly don’t care right in that moment. Later, I might wonder if something else was going on with her that I missed, some deep fear or insecurity that I don’t love her because I said no to what probably seemed to her a fairly small request. And that’s where my friends come to my rescue and assure me she isn’t a sociopath, that kids her age don’t differentiate between big crises and small ones the way adults do.
Still, I keep searching for ways to prevent the next meltdown.
I awoke two weeks ago to news of the Connecticut elementary school shooting. Grace wasn’t home, so I did what I suspect many people did that day: I sat in front of the TV, crying. From initial news coverage to a late night interview with one traumatized, exhausted little girl, I took it all in, even though it was too much to take in. My imagination led me to awful places: the kids’ last moments of terror; the scene that must have greeted the first responders; the parents who weren’t allowed to see their children’s bodies. I wallowed in my sadness and anger and crazy helplessness, and I never tried to tune it out or look away. To do so would have been selfish, I thought, and disrespectful to those who had lost loved ones.
I wanted to hug my daughter and tell her I love her and snuggle on the couch watching endless episodes of her current favorite TV series. I wanted to listen to her chatter through each show and watch her dance to the music at the beginning and end. I wanted to be present and engaged−to show her, rather than tell her, that she is more important than work or Words with Friends or any other distractions. More than that, I wanted to erase all the times I felt her anger hadn’t warranted my empathy, like that morning I didn’t care she wanted a ponytail. Because what if that had been the last time I saw her?
I don’t usually sink so completely into tragedies, yet there have been a few times I’ve spent days watching the news, unable to look away: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina (when Grace was just a month old), the 2011 Norway shooting. I come away from these immersions shaken, disoriented, and discouraged. I am most affected by disasters that involve human depravity or indifference. I cry over natural disasters, too (the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster), but I’m more likely to succumb to news of catastrophes that might have been prevented, those where someone is to blame. They allow me to be simultaneously horrified and angry, which is more comfortable than being just horrified. But I always wonder how much horror is the right amount to take in, how much anger I should hold.
And, along with everyone else, I wonder how we can prevent the next tragedy.
The first time I left the house after 9/11, I went grocery shopping. I felt connected to everyone around me, even though I didn’t know them. It seemed we all had the same expression, the same rhythm to our movements. No one was rushing around with self-importance. Strangers made eye contact and tried to smile at each other. I was temporarily comforted by a sense of community based on grief, fear, and maybe a little gratitude that we were okay. I hadn’t felt lucky until I went out into the world and felt that loose connection with strangers.
Some people are able to feel real gratitude for what they have, not because they live in a bubble of ignorance or compare their lives to those less fortunate, but because they empathize with those who have very little, or who have lost everything. They feel others’ pain without letting that pain overwhelm them. They are happy in their own lives, and they go out into the world and try to change what they can. These people, I believe, are good at appreciating the balance between ugliness and beauty in the world, between destruction and rebirth. I admire these people. I aspire to be one of them. For me, however, it has become too easy to focus on the tragedies, the injustices, the destructive nature of humans. I know how lucky I am in my own life, but I’m weighed down by all that is wrong outside, in the world, because I rarely look for what is beautiful there.
For now, I long to shield Grace from the worst of the world, but still help her to appreciate her place in it. She’s too young now, but eventually I want her to learn how much to take in and how to balance the bad with the good. I remember my friend’s advice and think how much healthier it feels to be affected by my child, both negatively and positively. If I could do the same on a much larger scale−if I could seek out beauty in the world to temper the cruelty−I might be able to teach Grace to do the same.
A few nights after the Sandy Hook shooting, my husband and I went to a Hanukkah party. It was the first time I’d left the house, and I was still raw. I planned to stay only briefly, but what I found there, among good friends and their families, was a completely different sense of community than what I experienced with the strangers in the grocery store after 9/11. I hugged my friends hard and told them I loved them. And then I realized I had been selfish to consider staying at home, wallowing alone. We needed each other and needed to celebrate the holidays and our friendships so we could cope with the shock we’d all been feeling. Just as my friends and I have always helped each other muddle through parenting crises by sharing our experiences, we helped each other that night by sharing the pain of the past few days, along with love and laughter and a lot of food and wine.
We need to share all of these things because we will never prevent the next tragedy, any more than I will find a way to prevent Grace’s next tantrum.
Years ago I was in Crested Butte with a group of people celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. We were up late, talking and sipping excellent tequila. At one point, the birthday man remarked (and I’m paraphrasing here), “When you get right down to it, the only thing that really matters is love.” It was one of those moments I will always remember, because it was honest and simple, yet profound. Connecting with those we love is the true salve for a world of beauty marred by horror, joy tainted by suffering, and, of course, happy childhoods peppered with tantrums. It’s not just about taking in the ugliness and the beauty, but sharing both with people we love.
I should watch this movie at least once a month.