I Will Love You on the Other Side | Patience for my Pubescent Son

I started warning you about middle school a long time ago. Heights are awkward, bodies are changing, skin is uncooperative, voices are unpredictable, and fashion… well… fashion is pretty much nonexistent. I showed you pictures of my own middle school years, and OH the laughs we shared. We laughed as I tried to prepare you for flirting, gossip, deodorant, and body hair. The time when you’d finally get to join band or athletics, switch classes, maybe even get a cell phone. We talked about the temptations, the changes, the dynamics. We talked a lot about what awaited you from the outside, we talked a lot about the changes you’d experience on the outside, but I didn’t prepare you for what would happen on the inside.

I wasn’t prepared for what happens on the inside.

Middle school is the time when childhood bleeds into manhood, when you’re just enough and not enough of both to know just where you stand.

I’ve watched you grow taller, marveling and bragging at how big and handsome you are, yet I’m at a loss as to how to help you pilot this new body, how to make sense of the man inside you trying to push through the boy who remains.

I’ve rolled my eyes and raised my voice. I’ve punished and debated. We’ve snuggled and we’ve argued. I’ve pushed and I’ve stood back. I’ve allowed myself to take this storm of hormones personally, viewed this journey you’re on as a deliberate one. I’ve been so lost in this sea of changing tides and moods that I’ve forgotten you’re in it with me, that you’re in as much control of it as I am.

I’ve sat dumbfounded, offended, hurt, angry. I’ve sat proud, tired, accomplished, content. In it all, no matter which mood your body has decided to put you in, whether I was angered by your attitude or astonished at your absurdity, the one consistent thing I have felt has been that of helplessness.

I don’t know how to help you curb these hormones.

I don’t know how to make your changing body cooperate.

I don’t know why what worked yesterday won’t work today.

I have prepared you with the science of what is happening, can explain what is going on. We share the common understanding of what is changing, but between us also lies the hurt and confusion of two people who are fighting with futility to stay the same.

I’m not ready for you to be a man.

You’re not ready for you to be a man.

Your body whispers that you are a man, but your heart cries out that you’re still a boy.

The deodorant on the counter is for a man, but the toys on the table are for a boy.

The independence that bubbles up inside of you is that of a man, but the way you rest your head on my shoulder is with the innocence of a boy.

You’re a sapling, growing, hinting at what you will be, but not quite steady enough to cast a shade.

I don’t always know when to hold on and when to hold back. You don’t always know when to speak up and when to quiet down. We’re both in new roles, you and I, neither of us always certain of what those roles are.

It’s tough. I feel as though I’m being replaced, resented. You feel as though you’re being stifled, stunted. Together we both want what’s best for you, both know you’ll reach that point someday. It’s your job to get there, and part of mine is repeatedly telling you “not yet!”. We have battling roles with a common outcome – to see you reach manhood. They are seemingly incompatible yet also highly dependent upon one another.

So in this time of tumult, during this disorienting dance between man and boy, when I don’t know what to expect or how to always handle it all, I can only make you this promise: I will still love you on the other side.

I love you now, in the middle, don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved you through cries and colic, through potty training and Minecraft obsessions. I loved you when your little feet were still chubby on top and I’ll love you when your little mouth gets fuzzy on top.

I’ve loved you through every time you took your diaper off during a nap and I’ll love you through every time your mouth shoots off during an argument.

I’ll love you through this change, this time, this journey, this discovery. I’ll love you through the mood swings and the voice cracks, the wrestling for independence and the very real need for support. I’ll love you through this hard time, this weird time, this getting-to-know-you-again time, and I will love you on the other side.

I’ll love you through your embarrassment of me, your ridicule of me, your annoyance at me, and the inevitable running back to me. I’ll love you through your wee voice, your changing voice, and someday soon, your deep voice. I’ll say goodbye to the voice that called me “Mama” and get to know the one that will call me “Mom”. I’ll someday put my head on your chest when we hug and smell your cologne, not your shampoo.

I’ll mourn the future as though it changes our past, then I’ll remember our past and look forward to your future.

I’ve seen glimpses of who you’ll be, of the man peeking out. I’m getting to know his humor, his passions, his compass. He’s not quite steady, but he doesn’t have to be. Not yet. He’ll make it out, eventually, and I already know I’ll love him. Because he’s you, you’re him, and I know I’ll love you on the other side.

If You Give a Mom a Tough Kid

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely have a hard day.

If a mom has a hard day, she’ll likely feel exhausted.

If a mom feels exhausted, she’ll feel like she can’t do it all.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely get some phone calls.

If a mom gets some phone calls, she’ll likely have to attend meetings.

If a mom has to attend meetings, she’ll feel like she’s failing.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely end up crying.

Crying on the phone calls, crying in the meetings, crying late at night.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely feel alone.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely blame herself.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely question all she’s done.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll look back at every choice she’s made.

Every phone call, every meeting, every night spent searching for resources.

She’ll remember every time she’s stood up for him and every time she’s calmed him down.

She’ll remember every book she’s read and every parenting method that she’s tried.

She’ll see how far she’s come from what was supposed to be and what is.

She’ll see how strong she is and how very hard she fights.

She’ll remember every time she rolled up her sleeves, dove into the fray, dried the tears, hugged, reassured, redirected, and loved anyway.

She’ll remember every night she cried herself to sleep.

She’ll remember every morning she woke up to try again.

If you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll likely have a hard day.

But if you give a mom a tough kid, she’ll rise to the occasion.

Today I Blamed Myself

My kids were hard today. All three of them. Their different personalities and senses of humor and ways of communicating mean every day is different, but today everyone was hard. And so I blamed myself.

They yelled a lot at each other, and since everyone is always sharing articles about how damaging and unnatural yelling is, they must have learned it from me.

The tween got pretty disrespectful and mouthy, and since people love to say that kids are a reflection of their parents, it must have been something bad that I modeled.

Their patience was short, their words were harsh, their tempers were fiery, and their obedience was lacking, and since I’ve devoted almost every waking moment of the last 13 years to raising and caring for my kids, today I blamed myself.

We live in a time unlike any before it, when parents can share articles and philosophies and studies in less time than it takes to change a diaper. Back when we were being raised, our parents chose between Dr. Sears or Dr. Spock and had the occasional interjection from Dear Abby. Parenting experts were few and far between and the methods one could choose to employ in childrearing could be counted on one hand.

At some point between us growing up and us growing our families, parenting research took a turn. Forget NASA, experts threw themselves into the field of parenting and began churning out research and articles faster than people could even procreate. Now we have more opinions than children, and a mom can’t scroll through social media or a home page without seeing the latest in childrearing opinion and research… without being told that everything she’s doing is wrong… without being told that everything she’s struggling with is her fault.

My youngest child has a very long list of very severe allergies. Some are weird, like breaking out into hives when she’s cold, some are life-threatening, like losing the ability to breathe if she gets too close to peanuts. No one else in our entire family has so many allergies, let alone life-threatening ones. Our entire lifestyle was changed and I live in a state of constant hypervigilance now, constantly scanning the crowd for peanuts, tuna, cinnamon, anything that will cause a reaction in her. So much about our lives is different now and requires so much more work and research, just with something as simple as going grocery shopping. Yet when I’m explaining her allergies to someone new, 9 times out of 10 do you know what the first thing they say is? “Was it something you did when you were pregnant with her?” They blame me.

Allergies are largely a fluke. There are some genetic links, but many of the allergies she deals with are genetic anomalies, random cases of autoimmune responses gone awry. She was nursed for two years, never had a drop of formula or a flake of rice cereal. She was cloth diapered, swaddled, seen regularly by a pediatrician, and had a stay-at-home mom with her at all times. I can’t imagine any area where an anaphylactic food allergy could have snuck into her genetics, yet people almost always assume that I’ve done something to cause this life for her. Either I ate something I shouldn’t have or I didn’t eat something I was supposed to. Maybe it was because she was delivered via C-section (which, let’s face it, is something else to blame me for) or the fact that she lost a twin early on? Surely, there has to be some reason that she has these struggles, and surely, the only possible finger we can point must be at me. My daughter will die if she eats peanut butter, and society blames me.

I have a child with some special needs, a very difficult child. He is who he is, he is what he is, because that’s just how he was made. When his high IQ comes up people question my ability to keep up with him, never assume that was my fault, but when the tough stuff gets really tough, society blames me. Heck, I blame me. No matter how much I tell myself I’m a good mom, no matter how much I know that his wiring is a result of nature, not nurture, when he has a bad day I cry in the dark and I blame myself.

People talk about losing the baby weight after a child is born, but no one mentions the weight of motherhood that we put on every day after. No one applauds the celebrity for their public debut carrying the crushing self-doubt and responsibility of raising a person. There aren’t a lot of articles being shared that remind you that kids sometimes just act like jerks. That they yell without being yelled at, that they mouth off without being taught disrespect. We are constantly fed the sobering responsibility of motherhood without once giving thought to the reality of childhood – and that reality is that kids, sometimes, just have bad days, and it’s not always mom’s fault.

My kids also painted today, a lot. They gave makeovers to toys they weren’t playing with and created something new. They used their imaginations and their creativity, and I’d like to blame myself for that.

My oldest is learning to play multiple instruments, and as a band nerd myself I’m totally going to blame myself.

My youngest recently performed in her first musical and had the time of her life. She’s very dramatic, energetic, and outgoing, and I absolutely blame myself.

My middle one loves fiercely. He faces a lot of struggles, but he lives in a home where his parents love each other and love him deeply. He is modeled grace and sacrifice on a daily basis, and for that I will blame myself.

Our kids get so much more from us than just what we’re determined to feel guilty about. Our kids just do things that we have no right to feel guilty about. We mom shame the woman in the mirror and convince ourselves that their flaws, their struggles, their bad days are all something for which we are to blame. We have set such a standard of perfection for ourselves that we’ve begun to take it personally when our kids aren’t perfect, either.

My kids had a bad day today. They were rough, rude, loud, mean. They fought with their siblings, didn’t work through conflicts like pros. My kids whined, yelled, tattled and teased. My kids acted like kids today. And I had the audacity to blame myself.

Survival is Worth the Brokenness

I’ve watched a few medical dramas in my time. Okay, a lot. Without fail there is always a scene where a patient who was previously thought to be healthy and fine suddenly crashes. The room fills with medical staff, nurses are flinging IVs and needles and someone is sweating through chest compressions. The patient gasps, eyes wide, and everyone is relieved – he made it. Roll credits, time to go home, happy ending for all. Unless you watch Grey’s Anatomy, then your favorite character is probably going to be carried away by a protected bird of prey or die in some other incomprehensible way while in the parking lot.

The problem with these scenes of survival is that the story ends there. We see the patient pull through, grateful, strong. We see everyone relax and sigh that the crisis is over. We see loved ones laughing in the corner, basking in the glow of recovery as the camera pans past the room.

We don’t see the bruises.

We don’t see the broken ribs.

We don’t see the side effects of pushing a lot of powerful medications in a small amount of time.

Survival, sometimes, requires brokenness. CPR and other life-saving measures can be violent, painful. They may save you, but they will hurt you. Re-starting someone’s heart, electrocuting them ever so slightly, guiding a tube or a sharp instrument into someone’s body – those are invasive, painful moves, means justified by the end, but traumatic either way.

survival is worth the brokenness

Survival can hurt you. Survival will hurt you. Having scars or aches or some broken pieces doesn’t mean you lost, it means you survived. You just have to know that survival is worth the brokenness.

Sometimes there are toxic relationships that require you to break, to tear away part of your heart by ending the relationship or cutting off contact. When it hurts to love someone, when someone you love hurts you, survival is worth the brokenness.

Sometimes there are crises we face. Medical emergencies, job losses, financial disasters, car wrecks. Survival takes pain. You scramble, you hustle, you pray, you beg, you do whatever you have to do to make it through, and you survive. Your pride may crumble, you probably won’t smile much. Actual survival doesn’t look much like the determined heroine in the movies with ferocity in her eyes and gloss on her lips – more often it looks like the woman with her head down, crushed and tear-stained, desperate, depressed, and barely hanging on. She may not look like much, but she is surviving.

Having a child with special needs, that’s a lot of survival. Painful survival. Sometimes the moment of gasping after being resuscitated doesn’t come for 18 years. Sometimes there’s no known end and you just survive for a really, really long time. You try this therapy and that therapy, you gain hope from understanding and get crushed by the setbacks.

Living with depression is nothing but survival. You ache from the pain, both physical and emotional. Sometimes your body is a road map of what has worked and what hasn’t. Sometimes your night stand is littered with bottles of what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you feel the broken bones and the bruised tissues of trying so hard for so long to just keep living, and you wonder if it’s worth this pain, if the life-saving measures are worth it.

Survival, friend, is worth the brokenness. You aren’t hurting because you’re losing, you’re hurting because you’re surviving. You are aching, stinging, maybe even immobile. But you are surviving.

If you need to isolate yourself for a little while in order to focus on your mental health or just to rest, do it. If you need to end a relationship in order to live your life, do it. If you need to take medication or attend daily therapy or do something really, really hard that will not be convenient in any way and will likely hurt, do it to survive. Take the broken bones that come from chest compressions to keep your heart beating. Take the scars that come from surgical procedures and keep yourself functioning. Take the pain from what you’re going through and know that it doesn’t mean it’s beating you.This pain doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it means you made it. This pain isn’t a defeat, it isn’t a sign you shouldn’t keep going, and it isn’t the only thing you’ll ever feel again. Survival requires brokenness, but brokenness, like you, will eventually heal.

You will make it. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck. It’s going to break you. But you will survive. And survival is always worth the brokenness.

survival is worth the brokenness


The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church

Before I get accused of hating the church in any form, and I know that’s the first reaction of some, a little background on me. I met my husband in church. I didn’t grow up in church, really, but I’ve been a Christian for most of my life now. When I met my husband he was a children’s pastor, and about a year later I began volunteering to help out in elementary services. He became a full-time minister  before we were married and has remained in full-time ministry ever since. The entirety of our 13-year marriage has been spent in devotion to God, His people, and the local church in the form of full-time ministry. I also hold two degrees – one in counseling, and the other in general ministries, both earned at a Christian university. I literally went to college to learn how to serve the church. I hate no one. I love the church. I love people. My passion for both have led me to learn all that I can so that I may help all that I can. The post you’re about to read is more concern than criticism, for the people who make up God’s church, for the people who have not yet walked through the doors, and for the people who may never come inside.

We have to do better.

Mental illness is a scary term. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, from anxiety to psychosis, so simply labeling someone mentally ill can conjure up a number of images and assumptions – most of them wrong. Whatever the diagnosis, whatever the terminology, the fact remains that mentally ill people are as deserving of the love of Jesus Christ as anyone else. I don’t think anyone could argue with me there, right?

Then why do we treat those who struggle as though they have chosen to suffer in place of salvation?

I will say this now, and likely hundreds more times for the rest of my life – mental illness is not a choice, mental illness is not a lack of faith, mental illness is not a sign of weakness.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself in my fervor, let me back up.

To understand how the church is getting it wrong, the church has to understand what it’s dealing with. Mental illness is just that – an illness. Sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance, sometimes it’s a miswiring or misfiring of the brain, but whatever the cause there is an organic, physical disorder that exists within the mind of the sufferer. It can’t always be seen the way a limp or wheelchair can, but it remains a struggle nonetheless. For some reason, the invisible battles that are waged are often viewed in the church as more spiritual than physical. Yes, we war not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and there are often very real spiritual battles and oppressions that occur, but this has never been intended as a dismissal of all things unseen. One of my favorite professors in college told the story once of how he, while pastoring a church, was approached in loud desperation. A group of church members were carrying a woman and laid her at his feet, pleading with him to cast the demons out of her as she was surely possessed. The woman was writhing, moaning, foaming at the mouth… and had a seizure disorder. She was experiencing a medical emergency, but the church, in their ignorance of the psychological and insistence upon the spiritual, was of no help.

A woman I knew from church was experiencing a mental health crisis. She was deeply depressed, overwhelmingly anxious, and her social media posts made it obvious she was struggling. Those who attended church with her reached out, with the best of intentions I’m sure, but instead of offering her help or hope, they only hurt and hardened her. Rather than approach her with empathy, those on the outside who enjoyed the good fortune of stable mental health began with the assumption that her struggles were chosen, were spiritual, were the result of a lack of faith rather than a lack of serotonin. None of these were true. She was battling mental illness, a chemical imbalance much in the same vein as type 1 diabetes. Yet the diabetic is not told their insulin is a sin, is not frowned upon for turning down cake at a birthday party. This woman who was struggling, who already felt weak and overwhelmed, was told by people who did not understand her illness how she should handle it. “Pray more!” “You should try fasting!” “Have you asked God to show you where in your life you’re weak?” “Do you have any sins or open doors in your life that would bring this on?” “Read your Bible every day!” “You should find some good verses to tape to your mirror that will uplift your spirit.” “Really go after God!” “Turn up that worship, girl, and praise your way out of this!” None of these helped, obviously, as she was facing a very real disorder that they were minimizing down to a personal faith issue or a simple bad mood. The woman, while absolutely in need of God, was not in need of clichés – she was in need of medication.

Here’s something else the church has to understand about mental illness – it gums up your brain. Someone who is mentally healthy does not and cannot think in the same way that a mentally ill person does. Just as you may breathe more freely than someone with asthma, you cannot expect a mentally ill person to think in the same “logical” sense that you do. To someone overwhelmed by invasive, pervasive thoughts, those thoughts make perfect sense. To someone paralyzed by fear or anxiety, every worry is justified. No person in the midst of a psychotic break, manic episode, or fugue state chose to act the way they do when affected. It is all too easy to view the dark posts of the woman wrestling with depression and think, “What does she have to be sad about? She’s so negative, why doesn’t she cheer up and ask God for some joy?” It’s all too comfortable to use your logic to negate an illogical mind, but it does nothing to heal or help them. We can pray for these brothers and sisters, and we absolutely should, but our listening ears will go a lot further than our “logical” advice.

Which brings me to another area where the church is failing the mentally ill: the lack of licensed professional counselors and the absolute overrun of well-intended laypeople. I know, I know, you’re mad at me for this one. You know of some fantastic ministries led by volunteers who offer “counseling” and see lives changed. The people are genuinely loving, wise, and want to help. But they are playing with fire. Biblical knowledge is not a substitute for mental health training. The best of intentions will never take the place of a license from the state board of examiners that says you know what you’re doing. I feel a mixture of fear and anger when I see these volunteer “counseling” ministries advertised or suggested – fear for the person who is placing their mental health in the hands of someone wildly unqualified to care for it, and anger at the rate at which the layperson offers their advice as counseling. It is not the same. Legally, it’s not even counseling. We allow Biblically-sound but psychologically-illiterate people to care for the most fragile of persons, and it’s a dangerous, dangerous game. Churches need licensed, professional counselors at the ready, and if no LPCs are available then they must be humble enough to pass on the number of one who is. Addiction, anxiety, and depression are some of the most common struggles that bring churchgoers to the altars, and every one of them is serious enough to need a professional’s guidance, not a church pillar’s good intentions. Financial advice, life wisdom, general encouragement, and testimony are all welcome and valuable services offered by church members around you, but when it comes to mental health issues, a professional is not only respectful, it is necessary. It does not matter what life experiences you’ve had, if you are not trained in mental health care then you have no business offering services in the field, and you are rolling the dice on doing more harm than good.

Now that I’ve lost a few friends after that paragraph, I’m sure to isolate a few more with this one: the church fails its mentally ill members by supporting the notion that mental illness is the result of a spiritual lack or physical sin. I once sat in on a very well-known conference, one that is held several times a year in churches all over the country. It has been around for years and comes with very high praise, and at the risk of pitchforks and lawsuits I won’t name it, but I still feel a fire in my belly when I hear it mentioned and consider every church that welcomes it willfully negligent. On the inside of the handout everyone receives, literally one of the first things anyone in attendance sees, is the image of a tree, with illnesses and maladies drawn into the leaves and the “causes” written into the branches and roots. You guessed it – mental illness was “caused” by a spiritual fault, by sin, according to this “ministry” that claimed to want healing for all. Very real, very quantifiable, very devastating diseases and disorders were reduced to the fault of the sufferer and assumed to remain because the mentally ill person chose to keep them.  I walked out.

Mental health is health of the mind, just as oral health is health of the mouth, or heart health is health of the heart. Being unseen does not leapfrog it past the physical and into the spiritual. Mental illness is a sickness. It is real. We can pray for all illnesses and all disabilities, absolutely, and we should believe for healing from a God who is still very much alive and able to offer it. BUT, we cannot and should not dismiss every sufferer of a mental illness as a sinner whose lack of faith keeps them suffering. We cannot toss some prayers towards a bipolar person and consider it enough. We cannot shrink away from the schizophrenic in fear and cannot offer verses in place of therapy. God can do it, but that doesn’t mean He does every time, and a lifelong struggle with mental illness is no more indicative of someone’s relationship with God than their height or hair color. It’s in their genetic makeup, a physical issue, and the sooner the church stops mishandling the mentally ill people the sooner they’ll stop leaving the church in droves.

Quick attitude check – when I mentioned the woman earlier who was struggling with anxiety and depression, I said she didn’t need clichés, she needed medication. How did you feel when you read that? In my work and my every day life I meet a lot of people who are faced with mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one, people who will take ibuprofen for a fever, Nyquil for a cold, and yes, insulin for diabetes, but will view medication for mental health struggles as weak, unnecessary, or even optional. “What a shame,” they think, brows furrowed, when they hear of medication, of therapy, “If only they could fight a little harder.”

Church, the mentally ill are fighting. They’re fighting harder than most. And medication is just one tool in their arsenal as they wage war against a disease that would claim their relationships, their jobs, their lives. The mentally ill have to work harder than we do to make it into church. They have to fight harder than we do to make it out of bed some days. They walk into a church full of people who don’t understand them, who judge them, who offer little real help. They get forgotten about or talked about. They’re prayed for but not visited. The mentally ill are those who need our help and love, not our opinions. We can and should pray for them, but we cannot dismiss their continued battles as lack of faith or time with the Father.

God is the Healer, He is Jehovah-Rapha. He can heal people, deliver them of their afflictions, and by His stripes we ARE healed… but what if that healing doesn’t come until we are made complete in His presence, if healing on this earth eludes us and some among us suffer until Heaven? Are they any less faithful? Are they any less Christian? Are we better, stronger, more righteous than those crushed by depression? Is our faith more prized than that of someone paralyzed by anxiety? Is bipolar disorder a lifestyle we’d rather not associate with because we disagree with the actions of the person with the diagnosis? NO! I cannot say it emphatically enough – NO! We are not granted only salvation or mental health – God’s children are allowed His grace in any mental state as much as they are in any physical. 

The church must stop viewing mental illness as sinful, optional, fleeting, or even nonexistent. We must implement real programs to help the people around us who are suffering, and if we can’t implement them then we must refer to those who can. We must up our empathy. We must be as concerned for the depressed as we are for the impoverished. We must cease to view any human imperfection as the fault of the imperfect running off the perfection of God. We must shut the heck up about our own opinions and experiences when faced with someone we can’t possibly relate to, and just love them.

Mental illness is in your church, friend. Don’t shudder, don’t judge, just go love.

 

Related Posts: Loving the Mentally Ill , The Church is Not Our Mirror

You’re Probably Wrong About Anxiety

Anxiety.

You keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Anxiety” is a bit of a buzzword right now. I’m seeing it in a lot of memes, a lot of people are sharing their experiences and struggles on social media. I see it in headlines, in casual conversation, and in my own home. All of the talk has brought anxiety out of the mental health closet and into the more accepting light of the mainstream. People are more comfortable with admitting their inner battles and are acknowledging that they’re fallible. Anxiety has become increasingly discussed, increasingly common, and, I dare say, increasingly misrepresented.

In all of our freedom to discuss anxiety, we’ve watered the true meaning down from a diagnosis to a discomfort. 

So what is anxiety, really?  Well, first I’ll tell you what it’s not.

Anxiety is not just worry. It is excessive worry. Consuming worry. Worry to the point of terror or impending doom. Worry over situations that may happen, that haven’t happened, that will probably never happen. Worry over seemingly innocuous situations. Worry over the most catastrophic of situations. It’s dread. Anger. Hypervigilance. It’s not nervousness. Butterflies are not anxiety. Anxiety is being unable to stop the fear, oftentimes without anything having triggered the fear… or even anything specific to fear.

Anxiety is not stress. Anxiety causes great stress, and it is distressing. But feeling the weight of an upcoming project or bill does not an anxiety diagnosis amount to. Anxiety and stress are not mutually exclusive, but one can very much exist without the other. Whereas stress fades with the task at hand, anxiety is a chemical reaction or imbalance that will remain long after clicking the “submit” button.

Anxiety is NOT insecurity. Who knows if it’s the rise of social media, Photoshop, or the general public getting ahold of contouring, but we have become an image-obsessed and insecurity-driven society. Confidence has become such an exception that it’s often met with contempt. We have come to accept insecurity as such a norm that we joke about it, bond over it, and rather than build one another up we often resort to comparing our perceived flaws. This isn’t anxiety.

Anxiety cannot be turned off with happy thoughts. I cannot stress this enough. This is the main difference between situations that can cause anxious feelings and actual anxiety. Someone in the throes of anxiety cannot just “cheer up”, “find the silver lining”, “have a little faith”, “trust that everything will be alright”, or – and especially – “calm down”. When someone can’t breathe because their body is in the midst of an anxiety attack or when a child is overtaken by a fear they can’t explain, telling them to “calm down” is about as helpful as throwing a bucket of water on a wildfire. If only an anxious person had that kind of control over their reaction!

So what is anxiety?

It’s many things.

There are different types of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, various phobias…. Did you know hoarding is an anxiety disorder? Did you know children can be diagnosed with any of these anxiety disorders? Anxiety is not one specific thing and is rarely the same for any two people suffering from it.

Anxiety can be triggered by anything… or nothing at all. Anxiety can be chemical, a misfiring of the brain – or even an imbalance of hormones – that causes an anxiety reaction. It can be situational, such as the fear of heights, crowds, spiders, germs. There are various techniques, therapies, treatments for anxiety, and results will vary by individual. The beginnings and ends are often unknown.

Your anxiety may not look like my anxiety. Some sufferers are able to calm their bodies with breathing exercises and distraction. Some are in need of medication to slow their body’s response to perceived danger. Some meet with professionals frequently, some require in-patient therapy, and some are so overwhelmed by the paralyzing fear that they have built their lives around avoiding any and all potential triggers. Some anxiety is eventually outgrown, some sticks around and wages war for a lifetime.

Anxiety often doesn’t look like what you think it does. My own counseling degree still left me completely taken by surprise when I encountered anxiety in someone who wasn’t just rocking in a corner, breathing and counting to 10. Especially in children, anxiety can manifest as anger, rage, irritability.  My son’s principal described him as walking through the halls looking like a wounded dog, ready to snap in defense.  What you see as a defiant child can be a kid whose body is telling him he’s in danger and he is instinctively lashing out in self-preservation. Where you see a pack rat, someone with a hoarding disorder sees all of the possible bad things that could happen if they let go of an object, all of the what ifs and eventualities they have covered by keeping something they may need or by giving in to their desire to acquire. What you may perceive as laziness, flakiness, or indifference to a friendship could very well be someone who is crippled by social anxiety or agoraphobia, who is terrified of going new places, crowded places, any places. Anxiety doesn’t always look like someone shrinking back against a wall or breathing into a paper bag. It looks like someone who feels a total loss of control over their world, like someone whose body is telling them to fight, like someone who feels the urge to run, or freeze, or avoid. It looks like someone who is exhausted, who can’t rest, who only wants to rest. Someone who makes frequent trips to the bathroom or who doesn’t want to leave it altogether. Anxiety can look like stomach aches, restlessness, rage, chest pains. It can look like a child who makes frequent trips to the nurse or the mom who can’t turn off her brain long enough to fall asleep. Anxiety is a shapeshifting, deceptive cloud that can masquerade as many things – no paper bag-breathing required.

Anxiety is one size fits all. While some populations and people are more likely to experience anxiety, none are immune. Anxiety affects men. It afflicts Christians. It travels down generations or pops up unexpectedly. Diet, age, weight, social class, gender, race, faith, level of education – none of these are safeguards against anxiety. Young people are often dismissed as “being too young to worry” or “not having anything real to worry about”. Wealthy people are often regarded as having nothing to worry about, as though you could pay anxiety off. Church members suffering from anxiety can be thought of as having little faith. Men experiencing anxiety can be viewed as weak. The reality is that anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere, from any background, and anyone’s opinion of their experience does nothing to help them overcome it.

Someone’s disbelief in the sincerity or seriousness of anxiety does jack squat. You can’t disagree someone’s anxiety away. You can’t tell them to stop worrying and expect it to work. Reminding someone of all the good in their lives doesn’t heal them, either. “Calm down” doesn’t negate anxiety. Listing off facts about non-venomous spiders doesn’t quell arachnophobia, nor do statistics about plane crashes when flying. Your words and beliefs can’t and won’t dismiss anxiety, but….

You can help. Someone who is overwhelmed with anxious feelings or thoughts is hurting. They’re panicked. They need to feel safe, grounded, and heard. Whether you understand their fears or not, it’s important that they not be made to feel like a sideshow for them. The best thing you can do for someone you care about when they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack is to say, “I hear you. I’m here. You can keep talking to me if you want.” Not everyone remembers their breathing exercises (in the nose, out the mouth) when they’re crippled by dread. Medication can take a while to take effect. If you can help the person leave the situation that is triggering their feelings, do it. Keep them talking, keep them breathing. Don’t force anything, don’t rush anything. If they need to stay and put their back against a wall, shield them from judging eyes. If they need to talk about their worst fears, don’t cut them off with your rebuttals and statements of how unlikely they are. If they need a hug, give it. If they need space, provide it. They won’t die from the fear, but they’re not always convinced of this, so stay with them, breathe with them, be an anchor so they know they’re not going to float away.

More than anything, anxiety is not weakness. It is not an inability to control oneself, it is not a lack of faith or gratitude, it is not a measure of intelligence. It is not the fault of the anxious and cannot be dismissed by the disbelieving. Anxiety is hard. It’s a battle, and those fighting it are warriors. To live in fear and still step out takes a lot of guts, a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of (perceived) risk. Be proud of those you know who are fighting their battle, who are honest about their feelings, who work so dang hard at just getting through the day sometimes. It’s not easy living your life when your body is convincing you it could end at any moment. Anxiety is not weakness. It’s not trendy. It’s not made-up, attention-seeking, or frivolous. It’s real, it sucks, and someone you know is suffering from it.

It Hurts to Listen to You Sometimes, Child

My dear, sweet, child, the fruit of my womb, the tapestry of my husband and I woven together with unique purpose, my mini-me, my legacy, my charge, my heart, my pride – sometimes it really freakin’ hurts to listen to you.

It’s not your voice – you sound like a heavenly harp (albeit sometimes a harp plugged into an amp turned up to 11). It’s not the adorable way you still mispronounce a few words (it’s one of my “fravorite” things about your stories). It’s not even that sometimes you want to talk 4 hours after you were supposed to be asleep and I’m still only 12 minutes into my 50-minute Netflix show (okay, maybe it’s a little bit of that). It’s that sometimes, as much as I truly, madly, deeply love you, I just really don’t care about Minecraft. Or cars. Or that YouTube vlogger. Or the nuanced differences between Shopkins. Or the Rubik’s cube algorithm you came up with that is just ever so slightly different from the one you used before. Or the combination of buttons and triggers that help you land an Ollie on that skateboarding game. I love you, dear child, but it hurts to listen to sometimes.

I spend all day listening. I listen to you. I listen to podcasts. I listen to the tv, the radio, the honking horns and squealing children in the pick up line. I listen to how your day was. I listen to how your dad’s day was. I listen to my family, my surroundings, my kitchen timer, and my gut. I am constantly listening. Spending so much time in the state of receiving audio input means that by a certain point in my day, I’ve reached my quota . I’m full. I’d like to talk. I’d like to sit. I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to listen to something of my choosing rather than remain in the state of vigilance that parental listening requires.

“Uh huh” won’t work. “Neat” doesn’t cut it. You are so deeply passionate about what you’re saying, child, that I can’t offer up half-interested automated responses when you pause to study my reaction. Your eyes are wide with excitement and your body is coiled with anticipation. You are so exhilarated by whatever paragraph you just monologued that an offering of “wow, that’s cool” may as well be a slap in your eager little face. No, your speeches require listening. Lots of listening. More listening than I want to offer, and seemingly more listening than I feel I can give.

Yet I listen.

There will be those who remark that the years are short, that someday you won’t want to talk so much, that I should treasure the Lego talk because too soon I’ll have closed doors instead of open mouths. I’ll be chided by mothers who would give anything to hear their child’s voice again and waiting mothers who would give anything to have a child at all. I’ll be met with criticism and judgement and disbelief, but no matter anyone’s feelings about me, it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to you describe – in detail – every single Hot Wheel you have that I can plainly see right before me with my own eyes.

Take note, child and naysayers, I did not say that I don’t listen. I said it hurt. I don’t ignore. I don’t dismiss. But I do give deeply of myself when the day should already be over and still I am asked to listen. It is a sacrifice to listen, yes. Whatever anyone thinks a mother’s ears should be for, they have a limit, and mine meet it every day. I can only feign so much interest in rubber band bracelets, and once I’ve given you all I have, you ask for more. It hurts.

I do not listen because I should. I don’t listen because I have to. I don’t listen because I’m your mom, I don’t listen because I have nothing else to do, and I definitely don’t listen because I care that much about different breeds of turtles. I listen because I love you. I listen, though it hurts, because you are special to me, though your chosen topic may not be. I listen because someday there will be topics you won’t want to talk about and I need you to know you can say anything. I listen because someday, as cliché as it is, you won’t tell me much. I listen because it helps me know you, because you are your own person and I want to encourage you to like what you like without any outside input telling you that you shouldn’t. I listen because I want to model for you, want you to see that caring about someone doesn’t mean being selective in your interest level. I listen because you have to know that we don’t have to agree to be kind, that you can sometimes learn things you never knew you never knew, just by staying quiet. I listen because it’s important to you, and because I remember the disappointment in your voice when you could tell I didn’t want to. I listen because children are not meant to only be seen and not heard, because you have unique things to say in the most magical ways sometimes. I listen, my dear, even though I don’t want to, because I know you want me to.

That last paragraph sounds a little more noble than it feels when I’m thick in the quicksand that is one of your stories. It amazes me how only 26 letters can combine to create so very many different words, how you can weave together a seemingly infinite explanation or take 5 1/2 minutes to answer a yes or no question. You have so many words, so very many words, and you’ve gone from the cooing little infant to the child who wants to make sure I hear all of your words.  I cannot imagine being interested in some of the things you are and I definitely don’t think Pokémon card trades are nearly as consequential as you do. It hurts to listen sometimes, baby, because sometimes your stories bore me. Sometimes they interrupt me. Sometimes they come at the end of the day when I have so far exceeded my listening limit that the line is a dot to me. Sometimes I feel my chest tighten in panic as I realize that your story truly does have no end. Sometimes I feel irritation flare up in my gut when you begin yet another discourse over American versus Italian sports cars. Sometimes I just want to sit in a comfy spot with a cup of caffeine and scroll mindlessly through Pinterest. Sometimes all 3 of you, dear darling children, want me to listen at once. And by sometimes, I mean every dad gummed day.

It hurts to listen sometimes. Pregnancy hurt. Delivering you hurt. Breastfeeding and first days of school and burning myself while cooking bacon this morning hurt, but these things were all worth it, and all were acts of service I took on as a way to express my love for you. I humble myself, don’t tell myself that everything I hear in a day is meant for my enjoyment, I suck it up and listen. I usually end up hiding in the closet for a while afterwards, but I listened, made sure you were heard.

So please, dear child, don’t take it personally when my eyes glaze over, when my breathing turns into sighs, when my face turns heavenward in a desperate plea to your Maker to distract you with something else long enough to silence your oration. I love you more than words can say – though I’m sure someday soon you’ll find enough words to get close – it just hurts, actually hurts to listen right now. Instead, appreciate that I’m trying, recognize the sacrifice that my love is offering you in the form of attempted interest. I love you, sweet one, and you often tell me the silliest, most interesting things. I love hearing about your day, love knowing what makes you laugh. I love your nerdy interests and creative ideas. I can only know you by listening to you, and I want to know you as deeply as I can, my child. It’s just that if it’s after around 10PM, I’m gonna need you to shut your pie hole because mama’s done for the day. Now go ask your brother about black hole theories.

 

What to Do If You Meet a Gifted Kid in the Wild

You’ve seen them on tv – Reid on Criminal Minds, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Young Sheldon, the brothers Crane from Frasier. Gifted people, geniuses in layspeak, full of quirks and visible differences. We laugh, we marvel, we love their character… yet we rarely encounter people like them in our every day lives.

… or do we?

Statistically, no, there aren’t a whole lot of gifted people running around, forming packs in the library and taking over the local comic book stores. But they are out there, roaming, usually fairly well camouflaged. They don’t give away their locations with the tell-tale bowties and glasses you’re looking for, oh no. They’ve adapted and taken on a new form in order to better blend in with their surroundings – human being.

They look like regular people, regular kids even. They wear shirts that don’t button down and aren’t (usually) carrying briefcases, so it’s pretty hard to tell from a casual glance over the plain which solitary figures are the gifted ones. If you see a person running towards you, it’s a pretty good idea to step out of the way whether they’re carrying a travel chess set or not. It’s gotten pretty hard to spot the gifted kids, so it stands to reason that it’s gotten even harder to know what to do should you encounter one. That’s where this handy little guide comes in.

So, what should you do if you happen upon a gifted kid in the wild?

Freeze. They can’t see you if you don’t move.

Totally kidding.

Say hi. One of the reasons their human costumes are so effective at camouflaging the gifted is that they actually are human. They’re people. They’re not superhumans, they’re not freaks, they’re not innately arrogant. They’re people. They have friends and flaws and faults. They won’t ignore you if you don’t start the conversation off by quoting Stephen Hawking, so just say hi.

Since gifted kids can smell blood within a 4-mile radius, make sure you’re not approaching a gifted person without all wounds having been dressed. Also kidding.

Don’t quiz them. Seriously. If you know a kid is gifted, don’t make them prove it to you. They’re not endless trivia fountains and they don’t know everything. Giftedness has more to do with how a brain works than what a brain holds. Those brains can hold an awful lot of amazing stuff, though it’s usually not at all what you’d think to ask them about.  Converse, don’t quiz. My kids aren’t novelties, they aren’t there for your entertainment or your tests. Let them be more boy than brain or more girl than gift.

Get to know who they are instead of poking around for what they know. 

Immediately feel threatened by their gifted label. Also kidding, though this seems to be a horribly common reaction. Recognizing giftedness in one child does not negate the abilities or gifts in another. Gifted is a category, in some cases a diagnosis. It relates to IQ score and asynchronous development, not competition and elitism. The intellectually gifted are not an aggressive species, so there is no need to defend yourself or your children upon an encounter with one of their kind.

If you meet a gifted kid in the wild, don’t expect them to behave like Reid, Sheldon, or even the gifted kid you know next door. Because the pool of gifted people is so small and characterized by being so far removed from the intellectual norm, they’re all vastly different from one another. There are characteristics that can be recognized as typical, but remember that you are dealing with an atypical group. They don’t travel in pods or have a secret handshake. They can struggle. They can have learning disabilities, mood or personality disorders, sensory issues, physical disabilities, or none of the above. Some gifted kids get along fine in life and others wage internal battles. Some gifted kids get all A’s and some fail classes. Some love museums and some are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they can’t bear to visit one. Giftedness doesn’t look like a stereotype, so brace yourself to be surprised by the person you encounter.

Do not, under any circumstance, utter the phrase, “Every child is gifted”. This will be interpreted by the mother of the free-ranging gifted kid as a sign of aggression. Yes, every child is A gift, and yes, all children have gifts, but no, not every child is gifted. This would be akin to saying every child is dyslexic, every child is diabetic, every child is tall. Giftedness is a label applied based on IQ and how often it occurs relative to the norm. It is a quantifiable deviation, a measurable difference, and by definition cannot apply to everyone. Acknowledging the giftedness of a child is not an affront to your own precious jewels at home. Giftedness does not make a child better or worse than the neurotypical kid next to them. It’s just how their brain works, and it’s who they are. To dismiss their uniqueness by applying it broadly to everyone is to ignore the black-and-white data that proves they are different. And to be honest, gifted kids are one of the most underserved populations in schools, often dismissed as having no real needs or being “smart enough” to adapt themselves that they can be sent to a corner with a book and a high five. Gifted parents are tired of having to fight the stereotypes and feelings of elitism that get applied to their kids’ unique needs, so they’re likely to turn on you if you get snippy or dismissive.

Treat them normally. No really. Gifted kids are, in reality, kids. They get excited about stuff like Minecraft, princesses, farts, and candy. They also get excited about physics, coding, art, literature, architecture, engineering, paleontology, trains, plains, automobiles, and in my kiddos’ case, various local laws and ordinances surrounding exotic animals in the US. The odd duck still waddles like a duck. They’re not a typical kid, but they’re still kids. Intellectually they may be decades ahead of their age peers, but emotionally and socially they may be a little behind. Just because a kid has an adult brain doesn’t mean they have the capacity to know what to do with it. Imagine getting a Hennessey Venom GT as a newly-licensed 16-year-old (car reference provided by the automobile-obsessed kid). It’s a powerful, fast, expensive car that will catch a lot of looks and do a lot of stuff, but you, the inexperienced and even timid driver don’t know just how to handle it. No matter how cool and different your car is, you’re still a teenager who isn’t that great at driving it yet. These kids are in a similar seat – so much power under the hood, but little capacity to harness it yet. Let them be kids. Don’t scoff if they mess up or turn your nose up if they make a fart sound under their armpit. Having trouble tying their shoes or regulating their emotions doesn’t make them imposters, it makes them kids.

Seriously, don’t be threatened. I can’t stress this enough. While not all entirely docile, they’re also not predators. The way the gifted brain is wired means that emotions and sensations are experienced differently, intensely. Whoa. There is no disappointment, there is devastation. There is no jolly, there is elated. These kids are intense, but they’re not threats. They’re not out to make you or your kids look bad. They just are what they are, and if a child makes an adult feel insecure, then the adult is who needs more self-examination. I can’t say it enough – they’re kids. Not threats. They don’t need to be taken down a notch or knocked off any pedestals. Don’t make it a personal mission to add gifted kids’ self esteem to your trophy room. Whatever they are is not representative of what you or your child isn’t – it’s just who they are.

Don’t armchair diagnose or assume different = disorder. Yes, there are a huge number of gifted people who are twice exceptional – who are gifted and have a learning disorder, mood disorder, or some other type of hurdle. A person can have an IQ of 170 and be dyslexic, hyperactive, autistic, or even incontinent. Gifted people are not immune to the misfirings and crosswirings of the brain. But they are also not all coping with additional diagnoses. I’ve been asked more than once, “What’s wrong with him?” Apart from your rudeness, not much. My profoundly gifted child is quirky and he has struggles that make some tasks or situations hard or even unbearable for him, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m really just beating around the bush – all gifted people are not autistic. Lots are, but not all are. It does an immense disservice to the autistic community to assume different always equals autistic, or autistic always equals quirky. You can’t lump a bunch of stuff together you don’t relate to and call it autism. For every time I’ve been asked what’s wrong with my child, I’ve been asked 30 times if he’s been evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. Yeah, 4 times now. Nope, 5. If autism is an interest or a concern for you, then please educate yourself via the immense resources and willing families available now. If you want to understand more about what makes a different person so different, ask them. If a child has a diagnosis, that is his family’s journey and not one you’re entitled to. Explore instead of stereotype. Get to know someone for who they are and not any labels that may pop up.

While not endangered or protected, please refrain from making a gifted child a trophy. Remember, they’re kids, not novelties.

I hope this guide proves helpful as you resume your interactions among the people around you. Remember that all people are people, all kids are kids, and all should be treated accordingly. The gifted children sprinkled around the edges of the herd are no danger to you, so allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate them in their natural habitat – childhood. Take in their creativity and ability to think outside of the box. Note their intense emotions and, while they can prove mercurial at times, how they inspire change and empathy and passion. Drink in their humor, their sarcasm, the language that far exceeds their years. It’s okay to laugh when one trips and falls, kids do that. But let yourself appreciate just how beautiful and unique and cool they are the next time you find yourself face to face with a gifted kid in the wild.

 

 

Pause. Take a Breath. And Choose a Child’s Life Over Irritation.

I’m taking my own advice many times as I write this. It’d be entirely too easy to be accusatory, snide, and even downright rude when discussing food allergies and the classroom. I could quickly fall into my own emotional reactions and simply pen a piece that would only serve to anger the parents I’m trying to reach (though would definitely get some rousing applause from the parents who can relate). So I’m pausing. I’m breathing. I’m repeating.

Peanuts.

No other legume is so hotly discussed, so feared, almost legislated as the peanut. It is the stuff of lunches, candy bars, cookies, and dreams. It’s a cheap protein, an easy meal, a no-bake staple. Creamy, crunchy, mixed with chocolate… there really is no way to ruin peanut butter, AMIRIGHT?

It’s also absolutely deadly when combined with many, many children.

This is the time of year when millions of children are headed to school, many for the first time. Backpacks are being bought, teachers are being met, and, in some schools, policies are hitting parents smack in the face: no peanuts allowed.

Not every school is nut-free. Not every class is, either. But my plea is to the parents who find themselves surprised by this news: Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over this irritation.

I live in Texas, where the phrase “try and stop me!” was basically born. We’re a stubborn, proud, independent bunch, and we instantly bristle at any rule by nature. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Believe me, the parents of the allergy kids are frustrated, too. They dream of pb&j lunches, peanut butter candies, and Cracker Jack. You’re not alone in scrambling to find equally easy and affordable lunches to send, it’s hard for sure. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

I know, I know, back in our day kids didn’t have all these allergies and rules. We ran the streets and ate whatever we wanted and classrooms were filled with treats of all kinds, with nary a sign warning you to turn back if you carried forbidden candy. Research is ongoing as to why food allergies are on the rise, but I promise you this: anaphylactic reactions are not made up and they aren’t for attention. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the favorites of MANY kids. Yes, there are some kids with sensory or other differences who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches. Their parents will work out those situations with the administrators and find a way to keep everyone safe and fed. Not everyone likes turkey and not everyone can afford a lot of alternatives. I offer complete empathy, I know. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Oh yeah, I saw that meme, too. The one with sea turtles from Finding Nemo that have absolutely no relation to the statement comparing peanut butter sandwiches to vaccines. I’ve seen it a lot. It gets a lot of shares and likes, because again, people don’t like being told what to do and don’t like feeling as though their parenting choices are being taken away from them. But if you stop and think about it, parents don’t like having their children taken from them, and that’s exactly what an exposure to peanuts could cause for some. Death. Real death. Not a meme, not a grasp at straws to connect two hot-button topics and feebly justify risking an innocent child’s life. An actual process that begins with peanuts and ends with a dead child. I won’t even delve into the fallacy of the “argument”, but will point out that a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate is not the same as fluke genetics and how parents are afforded no such freedom of choice when it comes to food allergies. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No, they can’t just send them all to a special school. Life-threatening allergies are recognized by the federal government as a disability, so accommodations must be made just as dyslexia or the need for a wheelchair would require. You can’t ship off all the kids who need hearing aides or insulin. You can’t demand that the kid with vision problems be moved behind your child so they can be closer to the front because they like it so much. There are needs, plans are made, and life goes on. Food allergies are no reason to ostracize the poor child who can’t control their reaction… or at least ostracize them any farther than already sitting them alone at a table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

You’re not wrong to be irritated. You’re not wrong to be frustrated. You’re not even wrong to not fully understand it. You are wrong, however, when you know the risk and choose to break the rules, anyway. You are not wrong for wanting to send peanut butter. You are wrong for knowing that sending peanut butter will result in the grave injury of a child. You are wrong when you weigh the life of the little girl your child sits next to and decide the Nutter Butters are worth her life. You are wrong when you see your child’s disgust at yet another ham sandwich and decide you’d rather them witness their friend stop breathing, instead.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No one is saying it’s easy to leave peanuts out of the classroom. No one is shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well.” Your frustrations are heard, they are real. But so is death. And death will always be more important than frustration. Always. If you have any response other than agreement to that, then please find another school for your child to attend.

Maybe you’re a parent whose school is not nut-free, but your child’s class has a student with a life-threatening peanut allergy. What a disappointment, I know. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Seatbelts are irritating. They rub your neck wrong and come across your chest at weird angles. Sometimes they lock up right when you’re reaching forward to change the radio station and you feel trapped! But they’re there for a reason – to keep you safe. It’s easy to forget how necessary they are when they’re rubbing and twisting and inexplicably pulling your hair, but should you ever find yourself saved by one, you look at the simple strap with gratitude and don’t mind the irritation.

Allergy rules are irritating. They make lunches and parties and snacks difficult. They change your plans and cause some uproar in routine. But they are there for a reason – to save a life. Did you know that peanut oil can remain on the skin for up to four hours, even after washing hands? That’s why you can’t sneak it into your kids’ lunch. Did you know that simply being in the same room as someone eating a Snickers can cause an anaphylactic reaction that leads to permanent brain damage or death? That’s why you can’t bring them for all but the allergic kiddo.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Go ahead, mourn peanut butter. You’re allowed to be disappointed. I’d ask that while you are examining your feelings towards Jif you explore what the other side may look like – how terrifying it must be for the parents of the child who is the cause of this policy. Man, they can’t even eat peanut butter at home. Not on the weekends. Not after school. Not at all. Those articles all over Facebook sure did make it sound like those EpiPens he carries are pretty darn expensive. I bet all the birthday parties they go to are scary. They must have spent a lot of time communicating with the school and coming up with an allergy action plan in the event of accidental exposure. They must be scared beyond belief knowing that their child’s life is in the hands of the parents packing the other kids’ lunches. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

When my daughter was 4, yes, only 4, the parent of another child in her preschool class called her a “weak @$$ kid”. An adult man said this of a 4-year-old child who still needs straps on her flip flops to keep them on her feet. He’d just been told that the preschool class his daughter was about to start was in a nut-free room, and no peanut products would be allowed. Even after the immensely patient teacher explained that he would rather pack a different lunch than for his child to have to witness an anaphylactic reaction, he expressed his displeasure and frustration at the “weak @$$ kid”. My blood is boiling now just remembering it, and if I hadn’t been speaking so loudly I would never have heard my own words over the rush in my ears as I spoke up from behind him. No, she’s not weak – she’ll die. She did not ask for these food allergies, science cannot yet tell us what caused these food allergies, and she can actually die from these food allergies. I sometimes wonder if he still thinks about that moment, when he got caught name-calling a helpless preschooler because he didn’t like having to pack a different lunch. I wonder if he realized the weight his irritation carried when it came to an innocent child’s life and death.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Please accept my apology, I do recognize and sympathize that not bringing peanuts to school is difficult. I say that without an ounce of sarcasm, it really is tough. I am sorry for the inconvenience these policies cause, truly. But I will not ever – and I suspect you would say the same – ever apologize for keeping my child safe. If you find yourself at the end of this very long post and still have thoughts forming that begin with, “But…”, then please talk with your school administrators about how you can be either transferred to another classroom or another school without peanut policies. Seriously, it’s the only safe alternative. And if you can know that your rebellion could cause the death of a child and still feel okay with sneaking a Reese’s into your child’s bag, then I’ll be happy to help you fill out the transfer paperwork.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Mourning Normal

Yes, yes, I know – “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.” There’s almost a resistance to the word “normal”, a visual bristling that takes place at the mention of it, especially when using “normal” as a measuring stick or comparison tool. “Normal” isn’t bad, it isn’t better, but it is, statistically, a thing. It’s real. It’s the middle of the bell curve, the average, the typical. It’s what’s to be expected, what’s been planned for. It’s the experience of most, and surprisingly the disdain of many.

It’s also a gift, as I’ve written before.

We grieve a lot of things in our lives – jobs, relationships, deaths, disappointments. Stories that ended before we were ready and stories that continue on in ways we didn’t expect. This is where I find myself today, mourning. Grieving the death not of a loved one, but of a future, of expectations. Coming face-t0-face with the very real differences between what I expected to be “normal” and what is my “actual”.

For some it may be life after divorce. For others it may be life after an accident or illness. Continuing on after the loss of someone incredibly close. Hearing, “It’s a boy!” instead of planning for pink. Being forced to envision your future in an entirely new and different way after the loss of your dream job, or never having landed the position at all. The circumstances are all different, but the feelings remain similar – you had a plan, it changed, and now you’re left not only reeling, scrambling, planning for the new future, but also feeling the aching hole left behind by your original future, the one you’d looked forward to, prepared for. Your “normal” is suddenly gone, and your present is something you never intended or considered. Your present is now, by definition, “abnormal”, at least from what you’d been anticipating.

For me, I’m mourning a “normal” childhood for my son.

We can call it “neurotypical”. We can call it “average”. We can reference the majority of the population and refer to him as an outlier, an anomaly, an exception. What we can’t call him is “normal”, though the life I’d envisioned for him was.

I started homeschooling him a few months ago for a few reasons, and it has been fantastic. We’ve had a blast, I’ve noticed so much relief in him, and he’s absolutely loving it – it’s been a good thing. However, last week a parent from his former class shared a slideshow of moments from the school year… and I lost it. Full on, snotty, ugly, moaning, sobbing cries. Seeing the smiles, the crafts, the parties, the memories – they caused me actual pain. I saw this typical childhood in a typical school and felt the most intense sadness. They were so happy. They were doing what so many other kids their age did. In my eyes, they were easy and normal. Was I romanticizing their school experience, as a friend pointed out to me? Absolutely. Were those experiences things my son was even interested in? No way. Would him being present for those things make him happy? A booming, echoing NO. But I was suddenly hit with such intense grief over the fact that normal hadn’t worked out. It didn’t negate how much homeschooling is working for us. It didn’t lessen my love or amazement at who he is. It was grieving for what ought to have been. Recognizing that my current path had strayed from my intended one, and while lovely, I hadn’t yet let go of my original travel plan. Something was over, and no matter how poor of a fit it was, it brought me grief to know that it had ended, that is was no longer an option.

It’s popped up before, this grief, and I expect it will pop up again. And the thing about it is, it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve. It’s healthy to mourn. Mourning is not regret. Letting go of what might have been is not taking your current reality for granted. Being sad something didn’t work out, feeling the pain of that end is not wishing your present, wasn’t. You can be both sad at what is gone and appreciative of what you have at the same time. The tears that fell over knowing I wouldn’t see my son smiling in those photos did not erase the photos I have of him smiling with me. The tears just fell, and it was okay.

Grieving normal requires learning to think in new ways, retraining your reactions. Not many people start out their journey hoping they’ll abandon their destination and end up somewhere else entirely. The habitual way you think and react and plan has been practiced for a very long time, and now it doesn’t fit with your life. You may mourn normal every time you have to make a hard decision – at the very least you’ll be reminded of it. I once heard a beautiful analogy relating to the parents of special needs children that I feel fits so well to many, many more situations:

Imagine you’re planning to move to Paris. You pack your chicest clothing, research the museums, the language, the culture, the food, the rues. You tell everyone where you’re going and you imagine your exciting life once you get there. Only upon exiting the plane, you find that you’ve somehow landed in Holland. Huh?! Holland is not Paris. You’re shocked. You’re sad. You’re completely unprepared for Holland. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the customs. You know nothing about the food, the maps, the people. Your clothes are wrong, your plans can’t happen, yet here you are. You are now in Holland, for better or worse. You long for Paris, you may even declare intense hatred for Holland simply because it isn’t Paris. But slowly, slowly, you being to learn about your new home. You absorb the culture, begin to assimilate. Holland doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, but it does have windmills, and tulips, and it’s very peaceful there. Your friends come to visit from Paris and don’t understand it, but you go to visit them and find that Paris is loud, crowded, and a little smelly. You grow to love Holland, despite it never having been on your radar, and you appreciate your new life for what it is, find peace where you are, and are happy. Holland is never going to be Paris, but that’s okay.

Here is something I must stress, whatever normal you are mourning – GRIEF IS NOT GUILT. Feeling sad about the sudden change in your future does mean you are responsible for it, it does not mean you caused it, it does not mean you can change it. No matter how strong your feelings are, they cannot reverse anything. Do not trick yourself into feeling guilt over your situation or guilt for your grief. Feel your feelings. Identify your feelings. Accept them, work through them. You can change the way you think, but you must embrace how you feel in order to move forward. Assigning yourself guilt is not a punishment for experiencing grief.

Find someone you can talk with about your feelings. It may take a few tries and you may only find one person, but keep trying. People will say stupid things. I’ve written before about how we often attempt to measure the pain of others – it will happen. You will hear dismissive comments about the things you DO have that you SHOULD be grateful for. Don’t allow them to shame you into guilt. Don’t allow any statements that begin with “At least…” to bury your feelings. You know that being sad over what isn’t to come does not mean you are not grateful for what is. The thing about winding up in an unknown foreign territory, metaphorical or otherwise, is that it is terrifying. Sometimes you have no idea what to expect. Sometimes you DO know, and that’s even scarier. Change is hard, unexpected change is harder. But finding someone who can listen will at least mean you aren’t alone.

Mourning the end of your marriage doesn’t mean you want your ex back. Grieving the diagnosis your child received doesn’t mean you love them any less. Crying because you got a boy doesn’t mean you wish he’d been a girl. Remembering life before kids isn’t overlooking or disregarding the miracles that they are.  Missing your old home doesn’t mean you wish you hadn’t moved. It’s grief, it’s an end, it’s saying goodbye to what you thought your future would be as you learn what your new present is. It’s part of the process of letting go of what was “supposed to be”, what was your “normal”, and finding yourself in uncharted territory. Mourn that normal. Multiple times. And while your tears are still wet on your cheek, tell someone you trust how you’re feeling.

Whenever I feel inspired to write a post here, I typically write down some notes in a journal I keep. I think about it for a long time, I pray, I research when necessary. I have dozens of posts just waiting to be written, with rough ideas and random thoughts jotted down. But this post was different. I kept trying to make the time to sit and pray about it, to ask for wisdom. I was waiting for a time when I felt absolutely joyous about the current state of abnormal we’re in, so that I could offer some hope from the other side perhaps, so I could have a cute little sign-off, something to share that would inspire, lift, encourage. But it never came. Every day since that slideshow has been hard. Tomorrow will probably be hard, too. I began to feel very discouraged at it all. Why wasn’t it getting better? Why wasn’t I feeling more hopeful? Was I the world’s biggest hypocrite for wanting to talk about mourning normal and feeling this way? It hit me today – I was waiting for normal to return. I was waiting for this state of abnormal to stop being so abnormal so that I could write about it. I wanted it to feel normal while I discussed how it wasn’t. And so I grieve again, because mourning normal isn’t a period you go through, it’s a change in your lifestyle. It’s not a season, it’s a shift. Despite all my words, I still wanted normal to come back, and it just isn’t going to. And that’s sad. And that’s okay. I know over time this abnormal will become my new normal. I know over time I will feel that punch in the gut become softer and softer, with fewer and fewer blows. I know that we have made the right decision. But today, right now, in the middle of the sadness and fatigue and tears and doubts, I am sad. Not regretful, not ungrateful, I am in mourning.

Welcome to Holland.