Sometimes We Need to Sit With the “Glue On Our Hands”
In August of 2005, I was standing in Pearson Airport about to move to England to go to Graduate School. It was my dream to attend the London School of Economics and when I got accepted, I was elated, excited and proud. So, there I was, going to my dream school and moving to London. I had lived outside of Toronto several times, so moving to England on my own was nothing all that out of the ordinary. I should have been running onto that airplane. The reality of my departure was much different.
I still remember what the anxiety felt like in my body as I was holding onto my mother in the airport sobbing. My body felt like a noodle, too weak to detach from the people I loved. The act of leaving felt physically impossible. The worst part was, I knew my mom would never NOT let me go. I had been “here” many times before. I knew I was getting on that plane. That made the whole ordeal way worse. I knew I had no way out.
Growing up, the message from my parents was always the same - it is OK to be scared but you can’t not do things just because they terrify you. So, standing in Pearson airport that day, my mom and I went into the routine that we had been doing my whole life. This was a routine that was in its second generation. Every time my mom used it on me, she would tell me that it was what her mom used to say to her. Every time, it was the same line, “you have to go, and you are going to be OK.”
In June of 2018, my ability to continue the “routine” was put to the test. It was my turn as the mom.
My then 9-year-old Ben was going to sleep over camp for the first time. The night before the bus left it started. Ben had a propensity towards anxiety (and since then we have done a ton of work with him), but at that time, I didn’t have a full understanding of his anxiety and how it would affect him in this situation. By the time we got to the bus the next day, it was bad. When it came time to get on the bus, fight or flight took hold. It was me standing in that airport with my mom.
He was staring at me with big eyes, sobbing and saying, “this doesn’t feel right, I shouldn’t be going, mom, something is wrong.” Then, my poor baby threw up all over himself in front of everyone and literally right in front of the bus. Everyone had to step over his vomit to get onto the bus. It was awful.
So, there we were. I was up, it was my turn, I had to give the speech, I had to do the routine. But inside I was as anxious as he was. I felt so far from resilient. I felt out of control and terrified. I was having the same reaction as him.
With my mom standing right next to me, somehow, I opened my mouth and the words came out. I kept looking him in the eyes and saying “Ben, listen to me, you are going to be OK, you have to go, and you are going to be OK.” My brain was telling me to keep going, that he needed to hear the message. So, while my body was terrified, my brain somehow pushed through. I had no choice. I knew from my own experience the impact that I could have on him and his ability to feel resilient and push through this awful moment. After a few minutes Ben looked at me and said, “OK I am getting on the bus, I am going.”
Watching Ben in that moment was like looking in the mirror. It is not a coincidence that both my children have anxiety. They get it from me. I am such an open book on mental health and can talk about my struggle with anxiety very openly. However, just because I am aware of my own struggles, does not mean that parenting my kids through their anxiety when I am struggling with my own anxiety is easy. In fact, it often feels impossible.
This past September, after spending a day in one of our schools, Cindy from Connected Parenting came to me and said, “Alisa, your teachers need to get better at not swooping in to help kids avoid feeling uncomfortable.” She said she had seen a teacher run to wash the hands of a toddler who had glue on his hands because he was crying and didn’t like the “icky” feeling. The child couldn’t tolerate feeling uncomfortable and the adult rushed in to save the day. Cindy said it is important for our kids to learn to tolerate feeling uncomfortable. They need to sit with the glue on their hands until they are finished their activity because when we rush to wash it, we rush to rid them of anything that they don’t like, that makes them feel worried or “icky.”
This message resonated so much with me. How do I as the parent, help my kids learn to tolerate the “glue on their hands” when we are both feeling uncomfortable, anxious and out of our depth?
Feeling anxious about my parenting in daily life isn’t as extreme as the example of Ben at the camp bus, but it does come at me every day in small ways, and it builds up. It is Ben being upset about the kid at basketball who made him feel bad about himself or picking up Noah from a playdate and seeing him on the ground screaming because his friends wouldn’t tell him “the secret.” My brain catastrophizes. My brain tells me, “Ben feels bad about himself, he is going to internalize and lose confidence” or “kids won’t want to play with Noah, and he will have no friends.” What my kids need me to do is tell them that it is OK to feel disappointed, frustrated and mad - life is full of those emotions. And then we need to stay there together in that moment. I can’t protect them from those feelings but at the same time I need to tell myself, your kids are hurting now, they are going through regular life stuff, it is normal and HEALTHY. We all need to sit with the “glue on our hands.”
A few weeks ago, in a particularly difficult time at work, my mom turned to me and said “darling, you can’t go around it, you just have to go through it.” She was right. Washing the glue off is going around it, sitting with that icky feeling is going through it.
So, I guess, this is how I find the courage to parent my kids into resiliency when I feel anything but. I live in the feeling of being uncomfortable and find the courage to say to myself, “I have to do this, for my kids, and also for me,” even if my brain and body are telling me to run, protect your kids, just do what feels easy, not hard.
My amazing Noah Bear goes to bed at night and the last thing he says to himself is “I am filling up my tank and I can handle this.” Cindy taught him that in a session we did on how we can learn to manage his anger and frustration. What Noah doesn’t know is that on particularly hard days, parenting or otherwise, when I put him to bed and walk out of his room, I repeat what he just said in my head. I leave and I literally tell myself “fill up your tank, you can handle this.” I stop outside his room and repeat it in my head. If my kids can handle it, I can too.
We will find our resiliency together. We just have to go through it.