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I spent several years in an unhappy marriage, frozen and unable to act. And because you have heard a version of this story one million times, you can guess why.
For the kids. Naturally.
Because I could not stomach the idea of what breaking up my family would do to my kids, I did nothing. I, like many women, told myself that a good mother should suck it up, soldier on, and make things okay for the kids. No matter the cost to herself.
Because that’s the responsibility of a parent. Right?
Well. No, actually.
I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to insulate my kids from the truth – and you might argue, rightfully, that protecting our kids is a parent’s job, especially when they are little. I certainly don’t subscribe to the notion that, say, the idea of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is a bad thing. I didn’t sit them down to tell them the nitty grits of our demise – they were much too little to take all that in.
Rather, I am asserting that trying to protect them by denying my own happiness was the problem.
What I had to realize was that I could not save my kids from the pain of divorce – but I could show them how I saved myself – and that fighting for your own happiness is a worthy endeavor. In showing them this, I also allowed them to see someone who did not allow fear to dictate her next move (or lack thereof.)
My moment of clarity and insight came rushing to the surface when I realized that by not taking action, what I was actually showing them was how to suffer. I was showing them a marriage I would not want either of them to have, and I was teaching them to tolerate (or perpetrate) a toxic relationship.
Yes, divorce is painful. But the experience is also full of life lessons, giving our kids an opportunity to learn about their own resilience. Seeing you protect yourself is a much better example for them than you sticking it out for their sake. And the guilt they will experience later learning you martyred yourself for them is probably worse.
For better or worse, kids always take our lead. Staying in that marriage wasn’t protecting my kids at all. In fact, leaving – and finally making a decision – was something I ultimately did for them. We had many conversations about the pain of the situation and how I couldn’t fix it for them no matter how much I wanted to. And what I saw them do is lean on each other. Lean on friends. Lean on my parents. And lean on me. Even in the moments they were confused or mad at me they learned that they could trust me to be honest with them. And I learned that I could trust them to adapt and grow through hard times and changes, too. By trusting them, I gave them permission to trust themselves.
When we allow our kids to experience – and learn to deal with – the entire range of emotions, they develop emotional intelligence. When we allow them to see us as fully actualized human beings with a life of our own – not just “mom” or “dad” – we teach them to cultivate a life of their own, as well.
But when we decide ahead of time what our children can and can’t handle, we don’t give them the opportunity to succeed, fail, adapt, strive, grow, learn, and prove to themselves that they can get through the hard times. And we need our kids to know they can handle hard times. Because life brings hard times.
If we learned nothing else at all from 2020, have we not at least learned this? Since we entered this Twilight Zone a year ago, nothing about life is regular. We have all had to adapt to a state of limbo, a new “normal” that we knew was temporary – yet we couldn’t predict the duration. I think back on how cute we all were, talking about changing from day jammies to night jammies and wondering if we’d showered today as we hoarded our toilet paper and washed our groceries then hunkered down, taking to our couches like good soldiers, thinking “oh, it’ll just be a few weeks…”
As the weeks dragged into months and we watched the numbers climb, we fretted for good reason over our parents, public health, the economy, front-line workers. And oh, how we worried about our kids. The impact of this year has been eye-opening on many different fronts. And while not all of it has been bad, for many people it has been devastating. It was a year of reckoning.
Our instinct as parents is to protect our kids. How many times have I wished I could wrap mine in bullet-proof bubble-wrap before sending them out into the world. Yet I realize that we also try to do a lot of adapting for our kids rather than letting them do it for themselves. And I argue that we do them a disservice by attempting to make life too neat and pain free for them. Don’t we want our kids to be adaptable? Don’t we know by now that adaptability is one of life’s most essential coping skills? Why do we still insist on insulating them from emotion?
When I look back on my life, I feel most proud of the times that things went wrong or when life was challenging and yes, even painful, and I handled it. Those rough seasons where I had to claw my way out of darkness and reclaim happiness, that’s when I found my mettle. These are the moments my strength revealed itself to me. And while no one walks willingly away from good times, finding our strength and adaptability is something we can only do for ourselves. And being responsible for our own happiness is a necessity because there is so much we cannot control.
The skills we gain from being hurt, or things not working out, or having our expectations dashed — from situations where things just don’t go our way to the big losses in life that drop us to our knees — this is where we gain our grit. This is where we develop the fortitude to fight for ourselves, to get back in the arena after being knocked down.
I think in this upside-down year, one of the lessons adults need to pay attention to is that our kids really do take our lead — and if we focus on the lack, and keep telling them how bad it is, this year of “non-learning” (not one hundred percent true, by the way – but that’s another article), and how far behind they’ll be – well, that’s what they will see. But if we can manage to find even one positive in all this – maybe that’s what they’ll take from it. Why don’t we start there and see what grows. I’m betting on the kids to surprise us.
I am not suggesting we slap a coat of Pollyanna on the whole year. Nor am I suggesting we down-play the very real consequences we as individuals and as a country are left to grapple with. Quite the contrary – I’m pointing out that this –this– is life. We don’t know how things are going to go. We can’t predict when we might lose someone we love. We can’t guarantee that the ones we love will always love us back. People choose to leave, people die. Life is messy and unpredictable and there are any number of ways it can go spectacularly wrong. But nothing can protect any one of us from all of that. Nothing.
A hard fact of life is that the only way to climb out of despair is to do it. And while that is easier said than done almost always, I suggest we present our children examples of resilience and tenacity – indeed, that we strive to be that example by letting them see we are human, and not just mom or dad. Then get out of the way. Allow them to stretch, grow, and to learn to want for our happiness, as much as their own. Let’s stop limiting them and insulating them, because we know that’s not the truth of what this life will bring.
In a time when depression is on the rise globally, our responsibility as parents is to give our kids the tools to deal with the inevitable challenges. Show them with our actions how we take care of our own mental health, remind them we will be there to help them cope – and also to celebrate the joy, too. Because even with all the bad, when we persevere, we get to experience healing and happiness that inevitably follows. Living by example and showing our kids they can make it through tough times: That is a gift.
NOTE: For many, this year has been devastating. Indeed, suicide rates have been on the rise in 10-24 year olds since 2007, and while suicide is a complex issue that varies over time and is impacted by many things such as socioeconomics, it is clear that suicide is largely preventable when action is taken to protect mental health. If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone, please use the National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-272-8255