We want our kids to think that we are superheroes. Perfect in every sense of the word and that we can swoop in to save the day at a moments notice. When they are little, this looked like how I'd always envisioned it in my head: being able to superglue broken favorite toys, building forts to protect them from monsters, and drawing just the perfect temperature bath to bring down a fever.
But as our kids grow, this shifts and changes. Our kids realize that there are hurts that we can't protect them from. And then what? What happens when real life sets in and you can't always fix it? They start their own relationships and have their own identities. They go off to school and there are whole chunks of the day that you can't control. People say mean things to them. And that perfect little bubble that mom has always fit in bursts and our kids realize that mom can't always swoop in and save the day with superglue and bandaids. Parenting gets gritty. That's hard.
One of my kids has terrible anxiety. They got it straight from me. Anxiety was a part of myself that I tried to hide all of my life. School made me nervous because I was always worried that people wouldn't like me. For a people pleaser like me, that was a fate that seemed worse than death. Swim team made me nervous because I knew that I wasn't the fastest and I worried that I would let people down. At night I would lay awake and just worry, worry, worry about every little tiny thing that I couldn't control. Because I didn't tell anyone about it, I never learned good ways to cope. As a teenager I coped through eating disorders and tried desperately to find the approval I couldn't seem to give myself from boys who weren't always good for me.
Here's the thing. There are a lot of things about me that I love. I love that I'm empathetic towards others. I'm generally a sunny person. I love people. I think I'm moderately funny. Depression and anxiety don't rule my life. Until they do. And it's hard to think that you're a funny, functional, loving person who sometimes lives in a really dark place because those two camps just don't seem congruent. It's a place that I try not to take up residence in but sometimes we just don't have control over it.
In college it got better. I needed a break from the small town bubble. I needed the space to make mistakes and see other people who liked themselves even though they didn't fit the mold of "perfect". (Y'all, I was the prom queen so I worked ridiculously hard at cultivating the perfect- to the point of utter exhaustion) I get that sometimes the people suffering do not look like the people who are suffering. They sometimes look like the people floating around at the top with their combed hair and size 4 designer jeans. College was like coming up for air. I gained weight and discovered that people still kinda liked me. I made good friends. I met a boy (who is now my husband) who liked the quirky things about me and who didn't care that sometimes I was a train wreck. But there were and still are a lot times where I feel like I have to keep up that facade that life is always peachy.
One of those is with my children. There's just something awesome about being adored by your kids. They think that you make magic just by existing. So I worked really hard at trying not to show the ugly parts of myself to my kids. Even while battling postpartum and post adoption depression I tried relentlessly to make sure that my kids saw a happy mom who had her crap together. I thought that's what they needed. But one of my kids needed me more than she needed the facade. It's something that I'm just figuring out. I don't know why it's taken me so long. When I was 18 and had just moved out of the house, I watched a close family member go through a complete nervous breakdown. I think it embarrassed them at the time. What person wants to appear that vulnerable? But for me, it was lifesaving. A person can only hold it together so long and seeing him stop trying to hold it all together freed me tremendously. He's who I call now when I'm on the brink because he doesn't try to fix me. He just listens and says, "Yeah. Anxiety sucks. I hate it." And that's what I need. Permission to feel.
For some reason it took me a long time to apply this to my child who suffers from anxiety. On the outside she looks a lot like that person who has it together- straight A's, a few close friends, the kindest heart of anyone you will every meet. Essentially, she is me when I was her age. One of those long nights of laying in bed worrying about her made me start thinking that it was time she knew the truth about me and how much alike we really are. I just couldn't quite figure out how. Until one day she came home with a list...
People who don't have depression or anxiety often think you can just will yourself to be happier. Or to have more energy. Or that you can just wake up one day and just freakin' decide that you are going to not be depressed. Like depression is just a skin that you shed and walk away from. They give you all these valuable "tips" on happiness. Believe me- I hate it when the darkness comes and if there was a way to just will it away, I would have done it. And probably most other people would, too. It has taken me a long time to realize that it just can't be done. Sometimes the greatest accomplishment is in recognizing that some things just take time and space.
So my daughter came home with a list. On this list were gratitudes. I'm a grateful person so I see how this was well intentioned. I see the value in breathing in all the things we have in our lives to be thankful for. But to use gratitudes as a way to cure anxiety and depression just made things worse for my child. I asked her about the list. It was a tip she was given when she had a panic attack at school. Probably for kids who were just nervous about a test or something making a list of all they have to be grateful about might have been calming. But for my child... she looked over that list and it made her feel horrible. "I have all of these things and I'm still worried all the time." The whole "too blessed to be stressed?" is like the Christian cliche for "Jesus only likes you when you are happy." It's the kiss of death for people who struggle with mental health issues. It's the "you don't deserve to feel how you feel because it could be soooo much worse" that helps no one. I could tell she was feeling the pressure to conform to the notion that she wasn't allowed to feel her feelings. That she was feeling guilted about her anxiety. It's a feeling that I have felt my whole life and it's icky. I knew that was the moment she needed my realness.
I held her tight. I told her all about how I often feel the same way. I told her specific stories over my life when I felt exactly like she was feeling. I didn't try to fix her. I helped her know how to do deep breathing and a few other ways to help self sooth. But mostly, she just needed someone to say, "Yeah. I get it. It's hard and I'm sorry that it's hard." There is SO MUCH POWER IN KNOWING YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There is so much power in telling our kids that we love them no matter what- especially when they are feeling vulnerable. It seems that so often we expect kids to never have a bad day. Sometimes it's easy to think of childhood as "the golden years" where you don't have a care in the world. But being a kid is hard. There are bad days. There are bad weeks. There are bad years, for Christ's sake. Sometimes our kids just need to know that we grant them permission to drop the facade and fall apart and that it's okay because real people aren't perfect. REAL PEOPLE FALL APART SOMETIMES. Good things happen when we are real and authentic with people. Even our kids.
I worried (surprise) that once I opened up to her about how much I often struggle that my daughter would see me as flawed and someone that she couldn't depend on to help her through. Instead, being human and honest together is one of the greatest gifts I could have ever hoped for. It was just what she needed. I watched something transform between the two of us that drew us closer and made her felt safer and more loved. Us chronic people pleasers forget that we don't need permission from others to have a bad day but sometimes it's nice when we do get it. Just as my dearest friendships in life have come out of vulnerability and transparency with others, my greatest connections with my children are now coming from the same place. It's kind of beautiful. Sometimes beauty from brokenness is the best kind of beauty there is.
For me it was a great reminder that in our "me too" there is more connection and healing than we could ever dream of.