We’ve often observed our kids, who are now 17 and 20, going through seasons of growth and coping, and we’ve used different kinds of language to describe the experience: mood swings, expansion and contraction, equilibrium and disequalibrium. Anghelika describes the way a child can feel stretched and challenged in uncomfortable ways by a world that seems too big, and then soon after can come to a place of feeling more comfortable ‘in their skin’. When children are being challenged and stretched, it can be hard times for families.
We have been through innumerable such cycles with our children. We’ve suffered through the tense times when our child seems to hate everything, wants no help, chooses to be alone. These are terrible times, because, of course, she can’t be alone—she lives with you. And she can’t really go without help, because she’s dependent. And when someone you live with hates everything, that’s kind of a downer, because you’re going to be collateral damage. We found these times really hard, and we celebrated the return to equilibrium. As we learned a bit about how these things worked, we began to ‘tolerate’ the down times because we knew that better times were coming. But what if we were missing an opportunity to celebrate the hard times too?
After twenty years of parenting we can say that family is a lifestyle of challenge and change. Family is not a formula to master, or a parenting book to finish, or some season to get through. It’s life: we change our children and they change us. In our experience, families (our own included) tend to get labeled … as healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional. But looking back, no family qualifies exclusively for a single prize. Family is not a race where you either win or you don’t. It’s a scrimmage, where every player gets a little better by the end of the day … and gets a few bruises to help them remember the day’s work.
We might have been too quick to wish our way past the bad-mood days. We might have taken them too personally, as a sign of our faulty parenting, or of a child’s rebellion against our ideals. Even when we recognized that it wasn’t about us, we might have looked forward to a child ‘getting over it’ so we could be a “happy family” again. But we are starting to recognize that families are not supposed to be … anything really. They are not validated by the amount of happiness enjoyed by its members, or by any other ideal. They are a place where life happens, and that means whatever we bring to the party, that’s the life we are going to have, and the family that we are. And if we can accept that family is not some ideal that we have to achieve, but is the very mechanism by which we will grow together, then we may embrace the struggles as the way we all, parents and children alike, get better at living this life. To look at it another way, family holds us together when we might otherwise drift apart in trying times: it’s a mechanism of love.
If we could go back and give our younger selves advice, we’d say, for every lesson you think you need to teach your child, there is probably a lesson or two you need to learn yourself, so slow down and don’t be in such a hurry to fix the problem of the day. A child in distress, in rebellion, or in a bad mood, is not an obstacle on your path to a perfect family. On the contrary: this is what families are perfect for. Responding in love and patience when one of us is in danger of falling away.
This post originally appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula Blog