I catch myself watching my children when they don’t even notice. When they don’t know I’m looking, they are a tad more relaxed, a bit less inhibited, more free. I consider myself particularly blessed when I catch them playing with each other. Navigating roles, relationships and preferences, they play with each other, each taking a few risks for the other, stepping out of their comfort zone, playing hard and laughing harder. At times, sinking into the joy and beauty of their relationship triggers my sadness for a lost relationship of my own. At the age my kids are at now, I was already affected by experiences of violence that I hope my children never have to face. My relationship with my brother was already strained, and I spent more time sad and scared than in joy or wonder. I watch my children as if I’ve never truly witnessed a childhood before. While not perfect, their woes are what they “ought” to be: the challenges of growing, learning, fostering relationships, and increasing independence (and responsibility). Those woes, I am slowly learning, are plenty.
When I find myself in that triggered, somber, reflective place, I can meet my grief in a few different ways. I can judge myself: “Why am I not over this yet, it’s been forever!” I can get anxious, “I cannot tolerate this anymore. RELIEF! STAT!” I can get angry with myself: “What the hell is wrong with me that I still feel this way? Clearly I’m doing everything wrong!” I can be ashamed: “If only I said ‘no’ louder, more often, told again, told more people, fought with all my might… I would have spared myself this pain.”
Whether it’s reflecting on my life, or thinking about the survivors I’ve met and worked with over the past couple of decades, I know that shame is a tricky, ugly gremlin. Reliving the “wish I would’ve” mantras of my yesteryears brings me to doubt my judgment and capabilities today. Sneaky thing shame, as if whether I yelled “no” loudly or persistently enough (or even at all) at the age of six can decide my worth today. Yet, in tangled webs of self-doubt, self-judgment and self-loathing, I doubt.
I am “one in three”, and I know parenting brings ample opportunities to experience tremendous new heights, and to revisit our dark places, though experiencing our children. As my children meet and move through ages and stages that I remember as tumultuous and frightening, I am facing myself in new ways. If you catch yourself nodding a little too much for comfort as you read this, I am practicing a few things that may come in handy for you:
- I’m breathing, a lot. When I feel the urge to inhale everything in the house, kitchen sink notwithstanding, I know I need to inhale air first. A deep breath is the first and most powerful way to begin getting ourselves off the emotional edge and so far, nothing has topped it.
- Following the breath up with unrelenting positive self-talk reintroduces your humanity. It’s hard for shame and self-loathing to coexist with a belief in your own worth. When I see my kids, still so very young, naïve and innocent, it’s hard to hate myself for choices I made when I was that small. Remind yourself of your worth like it’s going out of style (though it never will).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is so humbling to say “I can’t do this on my own”, and I’ve said that more than I care to admit. Do it anyway. Asking for help reaffirms your worth, is so very brave, and allows you to see yourself through someone else’s eyes for a spell. I bet their eyes are kinder than your own.
It can be hard (impossible?) to “enjoy every moment.” Ditto if witnessing your children triggers your own stuff. Adding self-judgment to the formula is akin to kicking yourself when your down. I wish you a hefty dose of compassion and gentleness instead.
It is never too late to turn on the light. Your ability to break an unhealthy habit or turn off an old tape doesn’t depend on how long it has been running; a shift in perspective doesn’t depend on how long you’ve held on to the old view. When you flip the switch in that attic, it doesn’t matter whether its been dark for ten minutes, ten years or ten decades. The light still illuminates the room and banishes the murkiness, letting you see the things you couldn’t see before. Its never too late to take a moment to look.