This week, Grace was chosen for the “A” team on her volleyball squad, one of only 6 girls who get a spot on the top tier. Last weekend, Will caught several long passes at his football team, moving the ball to within yards of the end zone and moving the fans to something near frenzy. It was great to hear cheers and applause. Lots of other parents didn’t get a similar pleasure.
I’ve gotten to experience many such moments since becoming a parent. I am able to take many things for granted. While we’ve lived through some real and difficult challenges at school because of their intellectual abilities (yes, TAG kids can have a legitimately hard time in school), I’ve never had to worry about their capacity for learning or the kinds of struggles that come with a learning disability. Although they were born two months early and Grace once sustained a serious injury that required nearly a week of hospitalization, I’ve never really worried about their health. Both kids have always had friends and been generally happy, so I’ve never had to worry much about their social or emotional well-being.
We are lucky. It is easy for me to forget this.
While I’ve written before about rejecting a deficit model of gratitude–one in which we are supposed to find gratitude in not having something as bad as someone else–I was thinking earlier this week that perhaps sometimes looking at what others don’t have can help us find gratitude for what we do.
I became quite frustrated with one of my children on Tuesday. I was trying to build understanding about Ella’s difficulties in the hope that greater understanding could lead to greater compassion. It wasn’t working. The child could only see the difficulties Ella creates, not the ones she endures.
“You know, you just don’t know how lucky you are,” I said in frustration. “You are smart, and athletic, and good-looking, and healthy. You’ve never had to struggle like so many other people do. I wish you could just try to see how hard it is to be her right now.”
It was the wrong thing to say, probably. The face in front of me turned blank and flat and hard as a brick wall. The conversation was over.
My words, however, kept repeating in my head. They are just spoiled, I thought. I’ve raised spoiled children who can’t see past their own pain to someone else’s larger pain. It took me awhile to realize that my words apply to me as much as to them. We are spoiled. While I’ve handled my share of parenting challenges, I’ve never faced any real hardship as a parent. None of us realize how lucky we’ve been.
Earlier that day, Cane had sent me something he found online, one Aspergian man’s account of what happens to him when he’s experiencing a meltdown:
When I have a meltdown I feel like I’m in some kind of a shock. I start crying and shaking and feel a strange feeling in my head and in my body. I start feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, emotionally, mentally and physically. During a meltdown I cannot talk and I don’t notice my environment much. I usually think a lot about whatever caused my meltdown (which is always a series of things) and I can’t think about anything else at the moment and can’t stop crying. I need time to get better after a meltdown, so I always go close myself somewhere, like in a bathroom or some place where I can have some privacy, but usually I will feel strange for the rest of the day.
Meltdowns are caused by a cumulation of many irritations. I feel those irritations cumulating inside me and I feel how I become increasingly stressed with each irritation, but I have no way of getting it out of my system. I’m trying to hold things in, trying not to explode. Then something happens that causes me to just not be able to take it anymore. The last straw… and I have a meltdown.
I can usually feel a meltdown coming in some advance. For example, I might know that I’m about to reach the limit of how many irritations I can take without bursting. At such times, I try to avoid stressful situations that might trigger a meltdown if possible. However, much of the time there is really no way out of the stressful situation, so inevitably I have a meltdown in the end.
Sunday night, the end of another long weekend with Ella, as we attempted to process what’s happening, Cane said:
“I guess I need to accept that this is the new normal with Ella. And I need to figure out what to do for the girl she is now, not the one I remember.
But how can I do that? To accept who she is now, it feels like I have to let go of who she was. How can I do that?”
I thought I understood how it is for him. I thought he was trying to accept the change in her, and the grief he feels at the loss of who she was and what we all used to have.
But somehow, reading the words above and sitting across a table from my own child that night, it hit me differently. I think he meant what I thought he did, but I think he also meant this:
How can I let go of the idea that I can expect for Ella what most parents expect for their children?
I sat across the table from my lucky child and although I was frustrated and angry and wishing the child was different in that moment, I suddenly understood how much I have to be grateful for.
I do not have to worry that my children, on a daily basis, are fighting feelings of being emotionally, mentally, and physically overwhelmed. I don’t have to worry that my children will spend much of many days feeling strange and exhausted. I don’t have to worry that my children have to try every day not to explode. I don’t have to worry that my children live with the knowledge that some days, their inability to manage the world is going to create an unavoidable explosion–and there will be real fallout from that, damage to their relationships, their work, all the things they care most about.
I don’t have to worry that my children will grow up and be unable to take care of themselves in this world. I don’t worry about their ability to create for themselves a healthy and generally happy life.
And suddenly, my own pain and frustration and anger over our situation shifted. Cane and Ella’s came to the forefront, and what I felt more than anything is compassion and empathy. I felt all kinds of things inside soften.
Ella came the next night for her mid-week overnight visit. And, for one of the few times since we moved, we had a good night with all three kids. It wasn’t a perfect night, but there was no full-blown meltdown. Everyone seemed a little easier, somehow.
Now, from the view at the end of this week, I realize that today’s gratitude isn’t coming from my good fortune, the jackpot my turn at the parenting roulette wheel produced. It is coming from an internal shift, not from some external situation. My gratitude does not come from the fact that I have some things better than other parents–but that realization created a change in me, and that’s what I’m really grateful for.
During that conversation that went nowhere, the child said:
“What difference does it make if I have greater understanding? It’s not going to change Ella. She’s still going to throw things at me.”
Yes, she’s right: For now, we can probably expect that Ella will continue to throw things, and sometimes she’ll throw things at us. We can hope that will change (and I do), but I’m realizing that my happiness (gratitude) can’t come from realization of that hope.
If our goal is only to change others or to change a situation that can’t be changed (or might never change), we are doomed to bitterness and anger and disappointment. I think we can only pin our happiness on our own changes. Today I’m grateful that this week I was able to change, just a little bit, and for the reminder that I’m only going to find peace through my own changes, not from anyone else’s.
And, for some hope that Ghandi’s idea is correct, that we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Was our good night this week the result of change in me? I don’t know. All I know is that I felt more peaceful, and there was more peace in my family, in our home.
I’m going to run with that, as far as I can take it.