Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.
– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine
In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.
This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.
Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.
How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.
(Maybe it is just me.)
I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.
The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.
The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood. This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.
Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.
I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.
Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.
The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.
The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me. So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home, the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .
Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?
Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?
With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?
With a counselor?
What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?
We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.
In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?
This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.
And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.
Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.
In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.
I have no idea what to do to prepare.
My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.
I have no idea what to do.
I guess I’ll do it anyway.