March 3, 2014

What Parents Need Most: Optimism!

Optimism is the prime directive of parenting. The late Gilda Radner said it better: “Motherhood is still the biggest gamble in the world. It is the glorious life force. It’s huge and scary – it’s an act of infinite optimism.”

It’s kind of like being Torontonian in March. We know the crocuses will bloom. We know the forsythias will paint our town yellow. Just not yet. If it seems dark and dour and still winter, that’s because it is. Our work is to hold spring in our minds as a positive notion. That is optimism, and it’s what gets you through the night sometimes.

Same deal with parenting. There will be many times in one’s life as a parent when it doesn’t feel good. We never stop loving our children but there are times when we cannot love the job of parenting them. Times – most often in the middle of the night – when we fear for them and for us.

This begins when they’re babies and they exhaust us with their needs and their sleep schedule. It doesn’t help that they can’t tell us why they’re crying. Sleeplessness is no friend to optimism.

It goes on when they stumble in any significant way. I continue to marvel at the courage of the parents with children in trouble. Despite the most caring and intelligent parenting, some children struggle. For reasons we cannot necessarily fathom, some kids have anxiety disorders, some are depressed, and others have physical or mental illnesses that break their parents’ hearts.

I have been there too. I hate taking that walk down memory lane because it is, even in memory, excruciatingly painful. One of my children experienced a life-threatening illness (and yes, recovered) and during that period, which was lengthy, I learned a thing or two about parental optimism.

The first thing I learned is that optimism is required. Why? Because otherwise we, the parents, will literally break. I learned during that period that a broken heart is not something you can get from a bad boyfriend. That’s like a sprained ankle compared to the serious illness of a child. The sprained ankle hurts bad and feels important – till you get into the big leagues of pain.

If you’re there, just hold on to this: You can not break. You can not break because you are a parent and your child needs you more than ever. So here’s what to do: Take really good care of yourself. This seems oxymoronic at a time when you are obviously stretched well beyond normal human limits, both emotionally and functionally. But it’s necessary because if you don’t do stuff to nourish and replenish yourself, and buy moments of relief, you’ll start to crumble, and not be of good use to your child(ren).

This means exercise, talk to your friends, find pleasurable distractions and use them, whatever they are. Get sleep. Talk it out. Cry it out. Do therapy. Meditate. Anything that relieves the pressure. These are what helped me.

All of these acts of self-nourishment will keep you in the game. Your not-ok child needs you to be intact in order to believe in and model optimism for her. Without your daily infusions of optimism on her behalf, she will sink. This applies both to our children’s serious issues and those that are not so serious. Our core task as parents is to believe that our child will get well and thrive, to refuse to contemplate giving up – even for a minute. The need us to believe in their ultimate well-being, and to communicate that belief to them. When I asked my daughter why she got better, she said: “Because you never gave up on me.”

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