Gifts that come with struggle
I remember sitting on the floor in my kitchen one Thanksgiving morning, holding my one-month old and two-year old in my arms, both of them crying ~ and I wondered if I would ever get to enjoy a peaceful holiday ever again. I remember believing the day was ruined because they were both cranky. I kept thinking, “This shouldn’t be happening on a day set aside to feel gratitude.”
What I’ve learned in the two decades since that morning is that no matter how terrible a situation is, odds are there is also something good happening (some friends had invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner so I didn’t have to worry about cooking ~ that was definitely a blessing!). And, on the flip side, even when something amazing is going on, there’s almost always some not-so-great parts to it (how many times do you see crying children at Disneyland?!?). This is called the 50/50 of life, and no matter what is going on, it’s there. Let me give you some examples to show you what I mean:
When my husband was in the US Navy we experienced many separations. Throughout these times apart he missed lots of special occasions (holidays, milestones, vacations) and loneliness was a real, tangible part of our experience. But, in a way, we also drew closer through letters and eventually emails. In fact, in some ways we talked more about important things when he was away ~ and that was definitely a good thing.
When my teenage son got a horrible skin infection from the wrestling mat that even baffled the doctors, it was excruciating to watch him in so much pain and it was exhausting to try and take care of him when nothing seemed to help. But, in a home full of testosterone, even his brothers worried about him (which showed me they do care about each other!) and I got multiple requests to snuggle with my son and run my hands through his hair even though he normally didn’t like those kinds of demonstrations of affection.
Last Spring we had a horrible snow storm. It got so bad that every window in our home was covered with ice so we couldn’t even see out. The storm prevented my husband from getting to work, cancelled several planned activities, and it took us a while to dig out once the snow stopped. But, it also gave us 24 hours with our oldest son who was unable to make it to his home (30 miles away) after his shift ended. It was a precious time with him… and we all were safe throughout the storm.
There are always little gifts of good that come along with the hard things we have to endure!
So, if every experience includes both good and bad, it’s important to our own well-being to accept the hard (bad), as opposed to resisting it by always believing the bad parts shouldn’t be happening or that there’s something wrong because things are going like they should. It is also important (perhaps even vital) to look for the good when things seem mostly hard ~ like when you’re dealing with your difficult teen or young adult child.
One of the good things that happened early on as I dealt with our son’s shenanigans was embracing a principle I had learned in a business book I had been reading: “Life turns out the way it does.” This might not seem very profound but think about it. How often do you find yourself thinking (or saying out loud) some version of, “This shouldn’t be happening” or “It should have happened like this”? I had read about this way of thinking but it wasn’t until my son went crazy ~ and I was drowning in all the “should’s” and “should not’s” ~ that my mind opened up to the truth in this statement: Life turns out the way it does. As my mind caught hold of this different way of looking at things, a lot of guilt and shame started to dissipate, and rather than see my son’s actions as a big neon sign of my failure as a mom, I began to see this experience as an opportunity to learn and grow. Sure, there are times when I get tired of the learning and growing, but this shift in my thinking has been a gift over the last few years because it reminds me that focusing on all the “should’s” and “should not’s” does not help me to get to a place of peace, a place that serves me so much better than guilt… especially as I interact with my difficult son.
In the midst of this gift-giving season, I challenge you to look for the gifts in your own situation. It’s so easy to concentrate on only the difficult things that are slapping you in the face but I promise there is good to be found, even in the middle of all the hard, shock, and disappointment.
(To encourage you to keep looking for the good, every two to three days until Christmas I will share with you some of the gifts I’ve been given even as we continue through this difficult journey with our son.)
GIFT ~ FEELINGS
After decades of mostly going through life numb, a few years ago I began to realize that while it might be nice not to feel sad or angry, my numbness also prevented me from actually feeling happy or excited. To be sure, this was a great way to live an efficient life but I wanted to start feeling joy when something good happened. I knew this would open the floodgates of negative emotion, too, but I was ready.
So… I spent time learning about emotions and how to start tearing down the wall I had built around my heart since I was a little girl. I spent time reading some books about emotions. I spent time just trying to be quiet to see what any given emotion might actually feel like. This was definitely a good step but I still mostly felt numb.
And then my son ran away right before Christmas. It was supposed to be our last Christmas together before he went off into the world to spread his wings. We had actually made some fun plans to celebrate (as he was our only child that was going to be home that year for Christmas) but instead I got to feel the ringing in my ears of anger; the heaviness of sadness in my chest, arms, and legs; and the constriction in my throat of shock and lost dreams.
How is this a gift? As I opened up my heart to the hurt I experienced I found I also got to feel the warmness of love in my chest as a son and daughter-in-law spent extra time with us after Christmas, being OK with the tears that sometimes just flowed. As I allowed the embarrassment in, I was able to share some of my burden with loved ones and it actually helped to lighten the load, just a little. And as I allowed the disbelief to wash over me, I took some time to take care of myself.
Throughout those first weeks of shock, I actually let myself cry and feel bad ~ and the tears seemed to wash something out of my head, eventually opening it up to feel happy when something good would happen and peace when I came to understand I could get through this, one step at a time.
This may sound strange, but learning that it’s totally OK to feel horrible sometimes was a gift I was given through my own experience. This gift allowed me to move through my emotions rather than using them as new bricks in the wall around my heart.
GIFT ~ REALIZING…
Like a lot of moms, I spent a lot of my mothering years believing that the sole determination of whether or not I was a “good” mom lied in the choices my kids made. When they behaved well it meant I was a good mom. When they acted contrary to how they were taught it meant I was a bad mom.
When our son got into drugs, ran away, and even got in trouble with the law, I felt like my years of parenting him were slapping me in the face, reminding me with every new surprise from him that I had failed. But I couldn’t ignore all the good things that all of my kids had done (even this one that was giving us so many problems) and the contradiction of it all forced me to take another look at how I viewed myself as a parent. Through this journey I came to a realization that I did teach my boys what I believed was right and important from the time they were little. And even though if I could go back and change some things about my parenting, I certainly would, what wouldn’t change is the overall foundation we gave them of right/wrong, good/bad, the importance of work, teaching about God, service, etc. ~ all of that would still be the same.
The lesson learned here, the gift I was given through this, was realizing this is my son’s journey to make. I had my time to teach him; now it was time for him to learn some things on his own. I hadn’t left out any super important lessons. It was his turn to take the baton (even though I didn’t think he was quite ready) and continue on his journey. And because I know the foundation he’s been given I also realized that he will figure things out. Maybe not as quickly as I want him to; maybe not in the exact way I think is best; but he will figure it out.
Getting to where I believe this really is his journey and he will figure it out has been a gift that brings me peace (when I remember it!).
GIFT ~ PERSPECTIVE
Over the weekend I had an experience that I want to share with you ~ another gift that I’ve been given as I continue to learn and grow as the mom of a difficult young adult child. I share this experience with you to show you what’s possible. Even though I’ve been doing this work for several years I still have to work through the hard things, too.
There was a point not too long ago that it looked as though all of our boys would be home this Christmas. For various reasons it’s been five years since we’ve all been together at Christmas-time so my mommy-heart has been looking forward to this. And, my husband and I planned a “Family Fun Day” for the 26th, at which time I envisioned that we would take an informal family picture for New Year’s cards to send out to our family and friends.
Well, as happens, especially when we have children involved who sometimes have a hard time thinking about others, certain things have transpired and one of our sons won’t be joining us on our Family Fun Day. After getting over that disappointment I figured at least we could still get a family picture taken on Christmas Day ~ it just wouldn’t have the fun background I had originally planned.
Then, this weekend my son called and said he and his wife wouldn’t be joining us Christmas Day until nighttime ~ after our other son and his wife are gone. As my eyes filled with tears, my head filled with thoughts about how this isn’t fair. Everyone else’s choices and stubbornness, once again, takes away the one thing, the only thing I wanted this Christmas. The past few holiday seasons have already been hard; here we go again. And then I began thinking that I have every right to hate the holidays. While I most definitely love my Savior, Jesus Christ, I’m about ready to throw in the towel on everything else about Christmas.
After getting off the phone with my son, my husband and I went on a walk. As the cool, crisp air hit my head I suddenly realized that believing Christmas is ruined is a choice. Seriously, up until that moment it had not felt like a choice; it felt like fact. I then took a few minutes to think about whether or not that’s what I wanted to choose. After remembering the other good things that will happen over Christmas time I realized that I did have other things to look forward to and be grateful for: extra time with my husband; time with each of my boys; watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” (something we’ve done for over 20 years now); good food; extra time to play games; and, two fun surprises for our kids (at least for those who choose to participate!).
As my perspective changed on Saturday I realized that no matter what’s going on around me ~ even in my family ~ I get to determine my own experience within my shared experience with my loved ones. With my new perspective, I’m choosing to focus on the good part of the 50/50 of the next few weeks ~ even while I might also be sad at times because some important-to-me things won’t happen. That is life. It’s most definitely my life.
What part of your 50/50 are you going to focus on over the holidays? Remember, you do have a choice and your perspective is totally up to you!
GIFT ~ UNEXPECTED LOVE
I didn’t even recognize this gift ~ even though it happened over a year ago ~ until I sat down to make a list of some of the gifts I’ve been given through dealing with my difficult son, but it certainly is a cherished moment that I will always keep in my heart.
My Dad is a good man, but a man of few words and even fewer demonstrations of emotion. Even though deep down I know he loves me, there have been many times throughout my life where I just wasn’t so sure.
About six months after our son ran away (and at this point we didn’t really know where our son laid his head down at night), my husband and I went to visit my parents for a long weekend. As we sat around the kitchen table, talking, my Dad got up and said, “I need to apologize to you two right now.” I had no idea what he was talking about; as I looked over at my husband, I knew he didn’t know, either. Dad continued, “I have to apologize to you because the next time I see your son I have some pretty harsh words for him. You are the best parents I know and you don’t deserve to be treated the way he’s treating you.”
That was it. A few dozen words, accompanied with some emotion, from a man who rarely speaks of anything to do with relationships. I sat there in my chair thinking, “My Dad really does love me.”
I doubt this gift, this expression of love, would have come into my life without the “hard” of dealing with a challenging son. And this gift almost makes all the “hard” worth it!
GIFT ~ CLOSENESS
Every time I find myself overwhelmed with worry because of the things my son has (and often continues to) put us through, I am reminded that these last few years have also brought the rest of us in our family closer together. I didn’t really realize this until one time, my older two sons were both home, sitting in the kitchen, and I shared with them that I worried that before long our family would be fractured forever because everyone would eventually get so fed-up with our youngest and just give up on him. My sons looked at me and laughed. Then they assured me that even though they’re frustrated with their brother, they love him and care about him even when they don’t like what he’s doing.
I have spent so many years working to have a family who loves each other and likes to spend time together that my heart is often worried that the exact opposite is happening, especially when everything seems to be going “wrong.” This simple conversation reminded me that we don’t always like the people we love but we are more apt to slog through the mud and muck because we love each other.
I even wonder, sometimes, if real closeness can even happen without experiencing hard things together? There is definitely a different closeness in our family as we’ve worried together, tried to trouble-shoot together, and sometimes even been angry together.
GIFT ~ IT’S NOT ALWAYS…
Just a few weeks ago I sat in a Sunday School class at Church. A great discussion was going on and I was taking it all in when all of a sudden I heard these words going through my head: “It’s not always about you, Kelly.” I was a little startled and laughed out loud as the truth of those words made its way through me. I actually grabbed a notepad from my purse and wrote those words down.
I spent the next few days thinking about that sentiment: “It’s not always about you.” Our son had just thrown us another curveball and whenever he does I initially go to the place of blaming myself (even though I don’t stay there very long anymore!). What did I do wrong this time? How is this my fault? How should I have prevented this? The idea that this latest act by my son might not be about me went from ridiculous to intriguing to a definite possibility. And as I sit here writing, I am so grateful for the realization that I don’t have to own his actions ~ and that there is a distinct possibility that his latest choice has nothing to do with me.
GIFT ~ IT’S OKAY TO…
If you’re anything like I used to be, you know it’s important to take care of yourself but you’re always at the bottom of your List of Things-To-Do. Sometimes it’s only when you’re in the midst of challenge and heartache, when every part of you ~ your head, your heart, and your body ~ is consumed with worry because your son is self-destructing, that you let some of your (self-imposed?) responsibilities go and spend some time taking care of you. Maybe it looks like crying; maybe it looks like watching a show nobody wants to watch but you; maybe it looks like taking a nap or staying in bed longer than usual in the morning; maybe it looks like making time to call that friend that always understands you even though you haven’t talked in a really long time; maybe it looks like skipping the Christmas cards this year; maybe it looks like staying home instead of going to that party; maybe it looks like going to the party even though you already said you wouldn’t make it; maybe it’s snuggling with a newborn; maybe it’s giving yourself a 24-hour period where you can’t think about your son.
The Christmas our son ran away I felt like we should invite people over to keep us busy on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but we didn’t want to, so we didn’t. That Christmas I dropped some other “should’s”: taking treats to our friends and neighbors and calling my parents (before they called me). Taking time to evaluate what I wanted when my world had been turned upside down allowed me time to process and feel (see Gift ~ Feelings), and for the first time probably in my life, it gave me time to figure out what I needed (instead of just moving forward, taking care of everything).
Only you really know what taking care of you looks and feels like. It might seem like a puzzle to you right now, but the you deep inside knows what you need so you can take care of yourself. And it’s a gift only you can give yourself.
GIFT ~ CONTROL
To round out the gifts that have come into my life because of my challenging son, this one might just be the most important. And while this lesson didn’t come all at once, I distinctly remember when it solidified for me.
When our son ran away he was gone about nine months. Sometimes we would go weeks without hearing a thing from him, not knowing where he was. Sometimes he would randomly drop by just for a few minutes. One Saturday morning he stopped by. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversation but I’m sure I was offering my perspective on something important when he told me, “Mom, you can’t keep controlling me.”
It was one of those moments, you know, where the world seems to stand still for a minute, and then I responded: “Do you really think if I was in control of things right now we’d be where we are? Do you really think I am controlling this situation? Do you really believe that I am the one that has been making your choices over the last several months?” And as those words rolled out of my mouth, I suddenly realized that no matter how much I loved and cared about him, no matter how much I begged for something different, no matter how good and noble my intentions were, I couldn’t control him.
At first I felt sucker-punched, but as the day wore on I began to see how truly knowing and understanding this was actually a gift. I had spent so much time trying to convince my son to see things differently, to open his eyes to all the havoc he was creating (for himself and us), to control him. In the meantime, I had inadvertently let him control how I thought about myself, about him, about our situation. I no longer wanted to give him that power over me so I learned how to let go of the control I thought I had, the control I believed would make all the difference if I could just be good enough, strong enough, right enough. I let him be him (wasn’t that nice of me?!) and with the extra time I now had on my hands (thinking you’re in control of someone else takes a lot of brain power) I started really shaping the kind of mom I wanted to be… no matter what he was doing.
This particular gift is one that keeps on giving ~ and for that, I’m so grateful.