Normality, Denial, and Parenting

Humans are inherently social creatures, even those of us who are happiest when we have significant quantities of time alone. Some people are checking around to make sure they fit in, others are checking to make sure that they stand out, but we’re all looking around to see where we stand in relation to others even if we’re trying to adhere to our principles rather than be swayed by popular opinion. Unfortunately this tendency does not really help us establish a true normal, because it is impossible for one person to truly check with all people everywhere. Even more so because there are regional, cultural, and familial variations on what is normal.

This is one of the reasons I have trouble figuring out whether my emotional responses to the stresses of the past month are over reactions or if what I’ve experienced is actually hard. I scroll through facebook and see friends whose kids are battling cancer, traumatic brain injuries, and severe mental illness. Compared to them, my lot is easy. On the other hand I also see friends whose biggest problem is the inability to find a close parking space at the mall. My concerns are weightier than that. So am I justified, or making a fuss over nothing? I can’t make a definitive decision. Instead I have to accept that whether or not my emotions are merited, they exist. I must work through them, which I have for the most part. It is a relief to be coming out the other side where I can look back and figure out what was going on. I can think again. Of course next week will bring new challenges (thus justifying my reactions) or it won’t (thus lending credence to the belief that I was making a mountain out of a molehill.) Either way I’ll deal with it.

One of the fascinating things about this experience with parental grief and guilt has been watching the power of denial. Over and over again I’ve watched as my mind reclassified events or suppressed them in support of the “I’m making this all up” theory. Then I’ll look back at journal entries or be reminded by a friend about the particulars of a conflict. Then I remember how hard it was. In order to avoid painful emotions, my brain wanted to suppress information. I know that repression and denial are important survival strategies. There were some days where they were my bestest friends because they let me keep functioning. But it made sorting things out difficult because facts and emotions were all tangled up together. I needed to keep the facts in front of me and I so very much wanted to bury, deny, repress, avoid all the emotions.

The facts are, Gleek’s anxiety is strong enough that it is disrupting her education and creating challenges for the school. Most of the concerns that the school and I have for her are because the trend line of this anxiety could lead to some very dark places for her. But that is not going to happen because we’re going to use therapy and parenting shifts to re-direct that trend line. Gleek is a cooperative partner in this process. All indicators point toward things being fine again within a couple of months, a which point Gleek will be a stronger person with a well stocked tool box. Stripped of all the emotion, these facts are promising, good news even. After all, she could have had her anxiety crisis after she’d entered the teenage push for independence from parents, or at college without anyone to guide her.

I’ve known all these facts since the beginning of March, yet I’ve been a mess for a month. I’ve cried because my daughter flailed away in stress rather than just sitting down and doing the work. Hypocrisy thy name is mother, or Sandra. I’ll grant that much of the emotional mess was due to simple schedule disruption, lack of sleep, and mental fatigue. There was a lot to process. However, the majority of my emotional chaos was–and is–because this particular crisis manages to hit many of my pockets of parental fear and guilt. I’m left with the contents of my emotional baggage strewn all over the house. The therapeutic solutions are going to require disconnecting some long-standing parent child feedback loops between Gleek and I. They were strategies which saved us when she was a toddler, preschooler, and grade school kid. Now they are like an outgrown pen trapping us both. We need a guide in this restructuring process, hence the therapist. The hardest part for me will be learning when to stand back, trust her good judgement, and not help. I always help more than I should, or maybe I don’t.

Which brings me back around to wondering if the way that I parent is right, good, or normal. I know many people who are both more structured and less structured than I am. I pay attention to the parents around me, watching for useful strategies to apply or for behaviors I want to avoid. I see people with happy and well adjusted families who do things very differently that I ever would. It is tempting to shut my eyes tight and find my own way, except how else can I learn this crazy mothering job except by observing others?

All the pondering aside, I have a plan of action for the next week. It starts with going upstairs and helping Gleek watch a documentary about the Berlin Wall for her history day project. Then I’ll help her plow through all her other work to give her the best chance possible to feel prepared for school on Monday. I may be over helping, which may interfere with her ability to learn how to handle stress, but for now I want to keep it below the level of crisis and this seems the best course of action. Truthfully, all the best parents are just muddling through.