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Down and dirty: The hard truths behind raising resilient children amid COVID-19

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As we get deeper into fall, I find myself thinking back to warm, sunny days spent having fun with my boys. At different points in the summer, I was able to take a much needed break from work to be with them. One day we rode a camel at the zoo, another day we watched Angry Birds for the 100th time, and on most days we swam.

I breathed.

Before all the fun of summer started, I took my oldest to be fitted for braces that will stretch his heel cords at night, an attempt to break his habit of toe walking while he dreams of anything but. For weeks he had been upset about needing them and opened up about this during shared moments of peace, as if sunset, stories and snuggles disentangle a knot of emotions, making space for the vulnerable feelings of a 5 year old that are often hidden behind whines, screams and control seeking.

I’d listen and tell him about Iron Man and other super heroes, boys and men who relied on equipment to enhance their best qualities, not create them. Together we’d weave a different kind of story, one that honored his big feelings, supported by my willingness to be with him in that heart space.

This didn’t make things better. But it was something he could wrap himself up in, burrow deep and find comfort between the words.
That sounds so nice, doesn’t it?

God, I hate that I can’t make things better for my boys.

Never had this been more true than during quarantine, when my son was beside himself that school buildings were closed, that he could only see his friends over Google Meet, that he would never get to be the scientist or mathematician or fish feeder again, and that suddenly his big mama wasn’t just big mama anymore. It was a low point in motherhood when my then 4 year old looked up at me from where he was sitting on the living room floor and said “mommy, I have a yucky feeling in my belly. I’m really afraid I’m never going to see my friends again. When will this virus end?!?” His words were weighted with sadness, his voice laced with anxiety. His little hand rested on his belly, as if he was about to be sick.

I know I was.

To say I was a bit gutted would be an understatement. I felt as if the Universe was teaching me some kind of lesson, Professor Umbridge style, by forcing me to understand a hard truth – that there are limits on the power of mothering. My mind catapulted forward in time, experiences that would undoubtedly leave a mark on him played out in a crystal ball, me on the outside, watching, helpless in my inability to take his pain away. The knowledge that there would be things in my son’s life that I could never make better, even now at this young age, was unnerving.

In that moment, I felt sick to my stomach, the loss and grief of not being able to help my boy pooling within, helplessness rising to the surface and settling on my chest. As I got some distance from this realization, I wondered, what I would say to a mother I was working with if she brought these feelings to me?

I’d say breathe. Deeply. I’d um hmm and nod. And then. . .then I’d say that it isn’t our job to make everything better for our children. We want it to be our job but it isn’t. We want to take away their pain but we can’t and we shouldn’t. We want to make life easy for them but we can’t because easy isn’t real. Easy isn’t truthful. I’d say what our job is as the mother of our children is to sit with them in the muck and mire. To sit with them in their pain. To recognize that their pain is theirs to carry, that our job is to simply walk with them through this rough terrain. Our job is to guide them to their own reservoir of resilience, to bow in reverence to the hardships that put them on that journey, to honor their difficult feelings so that they can do the same.
Our job is to teach them that their darkness deserves to see the light of day and we will still be there, wading with them among the red tide.

Now that right there? That sounds good to me.

Dear mamas, perhaps what seems to be our greatest limitation may in fact be our greatest gift. We have the unique ability to show our children, from a young age, that they are capable of growing up in a chaotic world because they have agency over the chaos that brews within. Just like Iron Man’s suit, Captain America’s shield, my son’s leg braces, as mothers we enhance the best qualities of our children not by taking over but by being a supporting player. We do this by allowing them to feel anything and everything, by allowing them to struggle and work through their feelings while sitting quietly by their side, hand on their back, heart space available to offer compassion and empathy, validation and love.

I still hate that I can’t always make things better for my boys and impending decisions about school buildings re-opening in the fall will no doubt serve as a reminder of this lesson from the Universe. I know, dear mamas, that it will serve as a reminder for you too.

Breathe, mamas. Deeply. Breathe and be with those little loves of yours.

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