I’m a good nurse. Maybe not so much the warm and cozy kind of nurse, but certainly a comforting one. And I really excel at taking charge of the crisis at hand.
This may or may not always be appreciated. Personally, I think my instincts are pretty good, but you’d have to ask my children to know for sure. Lord knows I’ve spent many an hour and #allthemoney at our nearby urgent care, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice. Hopefully, my kids have (mostly) experienced me as a comfort to them when they are hurting.
A safe place to run to when knees are scraped or tummies are upset or body temperatures rise with fever.
I’m confident I haven’t walked this out perfectly, but I think I have managed to be (mostly) present for them when they are hurting and unwell.
It’s okay. You can ask them. They all know their first therapist is on me.
Here’s the deal, though: I do much better with their physical injuries or illnesses than I do with their emotional pain. If one of them is angry, withdrawn, sullen, sad, lonely, bored, or whiny…well, my patience for meeting them in those places can be pretty thin.
The truth is, when it comes to emotional pain, I am often only as good at comforting my children as they are willing to be comforted.
I’m not putting this dilemma on them. It’s my issue, not theirs.
Okay, I’ll admit, I have at times put this on them.
We had our fair share of “Go to your room until you’re calm, dry-eyed and done whining, and THEN we can snuggle and I’ll comfort you and all will be well again” moments.
I’m not proud of this.
I also see how my own childhood shaped my perspective on pain, the expression of pain, and the resolution of pain…in turn causing me to repress my pain and attempt to repress theirs.
I’ve worked hard at noticing this in myself and then – when I do notice it – shifting to a different posture for them. A posture of love, compassion and kindness. One that allows them space for what they are experiencing.
I know what I’m supposed to do to do this. I’ve read all the books. I’ve sat under all the teachers. I’ve done SO MUCH freaking therapy.
But those damn feelings often still scare all the good sense out of me.
It’s very difficult to hold in my awareness my own fear and discomfort while also opening myself up to warmth, presence and patience on behalf of my children. I am still prone to lean hard into thinking and to push away emotion. It often feels like my arms aren’t big enough or strong enough to hold #allthethings at the same time.
But I’m getting better at it.
It’s tricky stuff. It’s like working out…only with your heart.
A feelings workout, if you will.
And I hate working out.
But parenting is not for the faint of heart.
I think the crux of the matter – at least for me – is that I often feel threatened in the presence of emotional pain – mine or someone else’s. And when I feel threatened, I tend to shut down.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that when I feel threatened, I tend to use one easy-to- access emotion to contain all the other much more intimidating and difficult-for-me-to-hold emotions.
Now, when life is fairly balanced and I’m managing #allthethings pretty well, I can move through anger and into some of the other emotions associated with the moment. I can be sad. I can be excited. I can be frustrated. I can be disappointed.
But when I’m stretched and tired and struggling extra hard with chronic pain – or when I’m trying to wrap my head around a global crisis unlike anything I’ve experienced before (Yes, I’m talking to YOU, COVID-19) – well, then it is much more challenging for me to identify, embrace and move through all the big feelings that are surging within me.
Interestingly enough, our ten-year old son, David, also expresses all of his difficult emotions by summing them up into one, easy-to-access emotion.
Bless him. He may have inherited this from his mother.
I’m not saying that he did. But maybe.
When he’s frustrated, he’s mad.
When he’s disgusted, he’s mad.
When he’s disappointed, he’s mad.
When he’s sad and hurting, he’s mad.
And while – if I work very hard – I can have some success containing my anger within my own self, David is (yet) unable to do that. Instead, he spills his anger all over whoever might be closest to him.
That’s usually me.
And guess what? When #allthethings get to be too much for me, my anger rises to meet his anger… and it’s not pretty.
It has been ridiculously hard to teach my child how to move through anger to the myriad of other emotions available to him when it has never been a skill I had for myself.
David is also autistic, which often makes it that much more difficult for him to communicate what’s actually going on within him. So instead, all that he is experiencing comes pouring out as unbridled rage.
It’s taken ten years, a whole lot of therapy for both of us, and so much practice for me to be able to help him identify and express a wider range of emotions. He’s come very far. We both have. And we are grateful – HE is grateful – but we also know that autism will likely always color his emotional expressions. We can’t therapize this out of him (nor do we want to). Instead, we can teach him how to access the array of emotions available to him and then how to communicate them to safe others.
Of course, doing this has required me to expand my own thinking and understanding around these very-hard-to-wrap-my-head-around emotional complexities. It’s also required a great deal of intentionality.
Isn’t it interesting how God takes #allthethings that are hard and painful in our lives and uses them to heal other hard and painful things in our lives?
I’ll give you an example from last night.
As part of our shelter-at-home coping strategy, our family is having a Steele Family Film Festival – Quarantine Edition. We’ve enjoyed many film festivals over the years – held during the kids’ spring breaks, summer breaks, or even in the fall leading up to the holiday season. We take great care with our film choices and have shared many films that have great meaning for us, as well as ones that are just super fun.
Story is the language of our family, and film can be an extraordinary story-telling device.
To start off the quarantine film festival, we introduced David to The Dark Knight series.
I know, I know…It’s dark for a ten-year old. It’s dark for me. But David has a fascination with all the dark things, so we’re trying to steer that as well as we know how.
Did I mention parenting is super hard?
Anyhoo, we started the movie kind of late so we made sure David understood we would only be able to watch part of it before bedtime, but we would finish the rest the following evening.
Despite this prep, he became angry when it was time to turn it off. Of course he did. It’s hard when someone tells you you can’t do what you want to do. That’ll make anyone mad.
But, because David had been shoving down all the feelings he was having about the pandemic, the Dark Knight anger became bigger and bad(der) than what was warranted for the situation.
Like, he began refusing to start his bedtime routine, throwing blankets and couch pillows, writhing on the couch and floor, and growing more furious by the second.
It was more annoying than anything. We’re all pretty much over #allthethings.
This Shelter at Home stuff is no joke.
His frustration over the limits we placed on him collided with his fear over the possibility that he or someone he loved would contract the virus, and then those very intense feelings attached themselves to the great sadness in his heart over the abrupt end to the school year and the loss of connection with his friends.
(Side note: this is my personal perspective on what was happening, for sure; but it comes from years of studying my son, immersing myself in his world and in how he thinks and feels things. I’m a Davy Detective, if you will. It’s quite the gig.)
But despite my awareness of what was really going on with the meltdown, no amount of coaching, directing, soothing (don’t you dare try) or coaxing was changing the situation. Instead, Mark and I found ourselves becoming more and more agitated…and feeling big angry feelings as well.
Thankfully, we managed to stay calm and firm. But David was unable to, and he refused to be comforted or soothed in any way.
This is our normal, friends.
“So what do you do to help him then?” you might ask.
Well, therein lies the problem.
Because the thing is, you can’t really do anything.
It’s a very helpless feeling to be the adult in the room with a hurting child and have nothing to offer that will soothe the child’s pain.
It’s helpless and it’s frightening and it’s very humbling.
Thankfully, I’ve been learning another way.
It’s super hard, though. Like, so very hard.
Because this other way has nothing to do with helping him solve his problem (I can’t) or coming to him with words of encouragement or a comforting touch (Dear God, NO. Do not do this).
This other way is to just “be” with him.
To just be with him in the midst of whatever yuck he is experiencing.
So, I’m learning to sit with him. I’m learning to sit with him as he moves through anger to sadness to grief (which actually feels so much harder than just plain ol’ anger), and then eventually to acceptance.
I don’t know about you, but the metaphor here is screaming at me.
When I can sit down with David in the hard spaces that are thick with emotion – when I can give my presence fully over to him in that moment – that’s when the calm comes.
I mean, not immediately.
It takes time – usually more time than I want to give.
But the calm does come.
And in that moment, I get a glimpse of how good God is to sit with me in my darkest, most confusing and most overwhelming moments – when all feels lost and so far beyond my reach.
And suddenly – when I remember that I am not alone – the calm comes.