I used to think it was a parent’s job to protect their kids from pain. Now I know, it’s a parent’s job to point their kids in the direction of the pain…
I failed my daughter.
It’s the end of August, we’re in a new town with new schools, and we’re walking toward the building where she’ll begin kindergarten in three short days. It’s our first back-to-school orientation in this new place, so we’re figuring it out as we go. And, as I look around at the converging crowd, I see moms and dads and grandparents with little human beings in tow, and all the big people are carrying big bags full of bulk Kleenex, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, and vats of hand sanitizer.
I, in contrast, am empty-handed.
And my daughter is observant.
She looks up at me with concern in her eyes and asks, “Daddy, why are all the other kids bringing their stuff to school today?”
I’m tempted to respond, “Well, Sweetie, because those bags are bigger than you, and it will be impossible for you to carry it into your first day of school all by yourself along with your big backpack and the big lump in your throat, so every other parent is doing the completely obvious thing and getting the delivery out of the way ahead of time. You see, the other parents are smarter and probably just plain better than me. Also, though you will already feel lonely and alienated enough on your first day at a new school in a new town, I wanted to make sure you feel even more different than the other kids.”
Then, I imagine handing her a blank check for the years of therapy she’s going to need.
What I actually say is, “Sweetie, this is all new to us, so we’re making it up as we go. We’ll figure it out, though.” Meanwhile, the little kid inside of me who remembers what it was like to be on a first-day-of-school-in-a-new-town playground is off crying in some corner of my heart and quietly hating me for my incompetence.
After all, isn’t it a father’s job to protect his kids from all pain and suffering?
A Crappy Hope
I’m not sure where we get this idea that success is equivalent to the absence of pain and it’s our responsibility to banish all suffering. And I’m not sure where we get the idea it’s a parent’s job to make sure their kids are always comfortable and without dis-ease.
But, boy, we sure have gotten it.
Myself included. And I’m a psychologist. I sit with the pain of people every day. I know intellectually and professionally that pain is both unavoidable and totally redeemable. Not something to be avoided but something to be confronted. Yet, somewhere in my heart, I secretly cling to the belief that my job is to shelter my kids from all of it. I stubbornly hope my life will be void of suffering.
It’s a crappy hope.
It makes your heart seize up every time the inevitable happens. It makes your gut clench up every time you fail to prevent your own pain or protect your loved ones from their own pain.
An Essential Fact
Three days later, my daughter and I are sitting at the breakfast table with her older brothers. It’s the first day of school and everyone has on their confident faces and their bravery has me in awe. When out of nowhere, my oldest son looks at my daughter and says, “You just remember this today: You are awesome. You are you. You are Caitlin Ann Flanagan. And no one can change that.”
For one morning, at a first-day-of-school breakfast table, her brother acts like the parent I want to be when I grow up. He reminds her of the good thing she is, and he reminds her no amount of pain can alter that one bit. That’s not a hope. That’s not something to believe in. That’s a fact, and it’s a fact worth learning.
Even if it takes a lifetime.
A Parent’s Job
A parent’s job is, ultimately, not to protect their kids from pain, though of course we try to do so desperately and of course we grieve the failures. But no, pain is inevitable. Our job isn’t to help them avoid it at all costs; our job is to help them move toward it, walk through it, and, if they invite us, to be with them in it.
Our job is to remind them: pain is like a really good mirror—when you face into it, you get to see who you are, what you’re made of, and why you’re here.
So, I watch my daughter take in what her brother has said. I watch her confident face get a little more joyful. And his reminder to her becomes a reminder to me of what she did as we left that back-to-school orientation three days earlier…
We’re walking out of the school with a crowd of now also empty-handed parents, when she begins putting her thoughts into song, as she so often does. And in a beautiful, cracking, lilting, childlike falsetto, she declares, with her arms wide open,
“This is my world. This is my world. This, is my world.”
Yep. That’s our job. To remind our kids, regardless of the pain, regardless of the mess, regardless of what anyone does or does not do to you, this is your world. You can be fully in it, you can be fully you, and you can embrace it.
With arms wide open.
And, when we forget, it’s our job to let our kids remind us.
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