“It’s not that easy.” Grumwald felt his lungs scratching to become one in his chest. “I can’t just share my secret. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to understand. It’s complicated.”
“Of course it is. It’s life.”
“So how do I do it then? How do I share my secret? What do I tell?”
“Your story.” The witch didn’t even hesitate. “You tell your story. That is what we all must do.”
“That’s not magic,” said Grumwald.
“Of course it is,” said the witch. “Story is the best magic there is.”
– Laurie Frankel, This Is How It Always Is
Once upon a time there was a little girl who worried. She didn’t worry about practical things, like fires and robbers; she trusted her mom to handle things like that. But she worried about heaven, and how to know what happens when you die. She worried about wanting to be alone and making her friends feel hurt. She worried about being the littlest and the last and being left out because she was too late. She worried about losing her stuffed bunny that kept her company in the dark at night.
When she grew up, her worries didn’t really leave; they just changed to fit her new grown-up circumstances. She still worried about death, and wondered just what she would find after passing through that painful door. She worried that her introversion made her less of a good Christian by crippling her witness to Jesus’s love and grace. She worried about never measuring up to the people around her; she worried about missing out on something important by showing up late to anything. And she worried about losing the people closest to her, the relationships that mattered most, the love that kept her feeling safe in the dark at night.
This little girl didn’t realize, for years and years, that she worried about all these things. She thought that because she didn’t care about what other people thought of her, and wasn’t anxious about the future, and didn’t get nervous for doctor appointments or tests, and could handle large crowds and speaking in public (although it wasn’t enjoyable), that she wasn’t a worrier. She prided herself on her ability not to worry, to trust God with the outcome, to embrace new situations and attack new problems with confidence. But the worries were always there, in the dark corners, ignored but not silent.
They were there in the moments she wanted to speak but couldn’t open her mouth for fear of saying the wrong thing; they were there in the Psalms of trust and strength she memorized and would recite over and over again before getting out of the car and walking back into the relationships that mattered so much they hurt; they were there in the nights lying sleepless in bed aching over a careless word that might have damaged a friendship; they were there in the years and years of picking away all the bumps and scabs and scratches on her arms. But it wasn’t until they grew so strong that she couldn’t leave her house without physical panic that she admitted they were there, and that she wanted to let them go and help them rest in peace.
Worry grows like a climbing plant, wrapping its tendrils tightly around the support bars of your heart, cracking stone, weakening foundations, inserting itself into every nook and cranny and taking hold. Removing it is not the task of a day, nor an effort for the faint-hearted. Sometimes, this grown-up girl worried that it would be an futile effort, not worth the time and energy it demanded. But now that she knew how deeply it could incapacitate her if allowed to grow freely, she could see that even just keeping it fought back and somewhat maintained was a necessary (if unrewarding and unending) task. Left to itself, it would destroy everything else.
Worry builds unseen walls around the tended places of your heart, sealing them in, claiming to protect them from danger and harm. But all the time, as it builds, it pricks and pokes and pierces those vulnerable and intimate areas with images all the possible scenarios that could bring about your devastation and despair. You may be safe from the actual event you fear, but you are locked in a dungeon with your worst tormentor of all. It took years of patient love, proving the worries false and unfounded, to open doors in those walls and coax the frightened areas of this girl’s heart out into the wild and beautiful free world again, and still she finds herself drawing back into those confines in moments of fear or anger. But now she knows the feeling of warm sun, fresh air, and flowing water in the deepest part of her being; now she knows the peace that comes from leaving behind worry’s dark and fearsome fortress.
Worry tried to convince this girl, through all these years, that she was unable to control the forces surrounding her life, and that events were sure to overwhelm her at some point or another. It tried to tell her that she could never hope to be enough, to break her spirit and close her in. But the deeper story, the more lasting truth, is that worry has trained her to be a warrior, fighting for her own joy and peace and love and beauty, and for all those things for the world she lives in: a warrior who will never give up, who knows her enemy is a liar and a coward – a warrior who fights with hope.
Once upon a time, long long ago, someone tried to bully me. He was a scrawny little red-headed boy who I don’t think ever smiled, and I was a skinny little girl with huge glasses, and he was hurting and confused from the turmoil in his own life and tried to pass it on by calling me “four-eyes.”
I don’t think I was really that insulted by it. I’d read about things like this in my American Girl magazines and was partly delighted to be experiencing something I’d only read about, and partly disappointed that he hadn’t come up with anything more original. It didn’t make me self-conscious about my glasses… I think I just gave him a look like, I’d rather wear glasses than be an idiot! And that era in my life passed away.
But I know people who have been deeply wounded by being bullied as a child, whether because it was more long-lasting than my encounter, or more focused on an area of vulnerability, or less understood by the victim, and it makes me sad. I wish I could go back in time and find those people I love as children and tell them, you are worth so much more than this! They just don’t see – or don’t care to see – the real wonderful you inside the awkwardness and quirks of growing up that make all of us look warty and weird at different times. And I don’t know if it would help, of course. I have never taken my self-confidence and sense of worth from my peer group; it mostly comes from inside myself, from pride in my own abilities, from seeing myself accomplish my goals. But many people are different by personality, and need the camaraderie and acceptance of a social circle to make them feel worthy and complete. Those are probably the ones who would be hurt most by bullying.
I hope that as my children grow older they will not experience bullying – but if they do, and if they aren’t able to shake it off, I hope they will be able to come to me with their hurts, to be loved and strengthened. I hope they will have at least one close friend to stand by their side and fight for them when the world seems to be against them. And I hope that they will make it to adulthood without the scars of childhood alienation and pain that I see on too many of my peers now.
I wonder if we all parent the way we do in response to our own internal demons.
The mother who feels lonely and insecure, who desires above all to feel a sense of connection and belonging – maybe she is the mom attracted to attachment parenting, because she hopes to give her baby the feelings of security and unconditional love she longs for herself.
The father who always felt distant from his own parents, who never had a listening ear for his stories and ideas – maybe he is the the dad who gets excited about his children’s hobbies and learns enough about them to engage in meaningful discussion about their activities and interests.
The mother who is constantly driven by shame and perfectionism, who tends toward depression and feelings of inadequacy – maybe she is the mother who parents permissively, attempting to free her children from the heavy emotional burdens she carries.
The father who grew up in an unpredictable and sometimes violent environment, for whom love was an unstable things – maybe he is the father who disciplines his own children harshly to try to maintain the control and order he needs to keep his own painful childhood memories from being triggered.
Probably many people, from both healthy and broken childhoods, parent well through common sense or the mentoring aid of more experienced friends. I don’t really think that we all choose our parenting methods (at least in part) through some desire to avoid passing down our own problems! But it is a struggle for me.
What I am realizing, though, is that it isn’t enough to parent out of an avoidance or fear, any more than it is enough to build one’s own self that way. My therapist showed me the importance of creating a positive image to move towards in my own personal development, and maybe that would be a beneficial exercise in parenting as well. What kind of parent do I truly desire to be? What atmosphere and attitudes do I want to cultivate in my heart and home? What qualities do I want to characterize my interactions with my children?
Not only will answering those questions give me a more defined vision than simply parenting in hopes that my children will not be depressive perfectionists because of me, but it will also give me freedom from the vague feelings of inadequacy and shame that come from never being sure of the goal I’m aiming for. And that can only have good effects on both my life and my parenting!
In the next few weeks, I’m going to try to come up with a positive description of how I want to parent, and if I can I’ll share it here! I may even do a link-up party if anyone else is interested in writing about the topic – just comment here to let me know!
Tonight at dinner, to forestall the usual request to read a Magic School Bus book (good books, but we’ve been on serious repeat mode here and they’re still a bit over Limerick’s head so he gets left out), I brought down one of our children’s Bibles and read a few stories from there.
As we read the story of King Solomon, I asked the boys what they would ask for if God said He would give them anything they wanted. What would you want most?
Without hesitation, Rondel answered, “Mommy!”
And then, “And baby.”
To say I was touched would be an understatement. I am so blessed to be loved so much by my sweet boy – and especially when the depression is telling me that everyone would be better off if someone else was filling my place, it’s extremely validating to have such deep and unconditional love given to me.
There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good.
– The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver
This is the kind of parent I want to be.
It is so easy to fixate on the difficulties, the flaws, and the immaturity of one’s children – to be constantly thinking of how they need to grow and improve, or to be irritated by their boundary-testing, neediness, or even their boundless energy and silliness. At least, it is easy for me, sometimes, when I’m in my grumpy grownup or anxious mom modes! But there is so much more joy in parenting (and probably much more joy in my kids’ childhood) when I can see them in this way: as if they had hung up the moon and plugged in the stars.
There is so much good, so much beauty, in each of them, if only I choose to see it.
I bike home in the evening, as the sun is getting low and the heat of the day has past, and the last half mile of my ride takes me down a residential street. This time of day, when work and school are done but the day still lingers to hold off the nightly routines, the neighborhood is filled with the soft sounds of people simply living.
A white girl in loose outdoorsy clothes stands close to a black man in the street, both of them touching each other and a bike (his bike, I think), looking into each other’s eyes as they talk.
Three boys around ten years old, two Hispanic and one white, wrestle on the front lawn, laughing and shrieking and trash-talking and acknowledging defeat, alternately.
A little Mexican girl of no more than two bounces up and down on a little wheeled horse contraption that moves forward every time she bounces, her mother patiently walking beside her.
An old man sits in his driveway on his scooter, accompanied by his faithful mannikin, perched upon a second scooter (I’ve seen them driving those scooters together, the old man towing his mannikin behind him, as it somewhat creepily nods and grins along).
A mother stands on her front porch and swings her arms forward into a startlingly loud clap, to the cooing and burbling delight of the baby sitting in its little chair in front of her.
I love this part of my commute. This neighborhood may be poor materially, but it is rich in the simple joys of family and community life; I contrast it to the wealthy neighborhoods I know where the residents don’t even speak to each other except to complain and regulate each other’s activities through their HOAs, and I know which option I’d choose if it had to be one or the other. I crave that freedom to simply be, to savor with gratitude the warm night air and the sounds of people living together and letting each other live in their own way, and I am encouraged every time I bike through it.