Humankind is a very strange species. We have an irresistible tendency to assume that we are the only ones in the world ever to have experienced what we are currently going through. If someone else has obviously been here before, well it couldn’t have been as bad for them, or as intense, or as terrifying. It must be different for me. This trauma, whatever it may be, is unique to me, and me alone, and there is no solution, no solace to be found. We catastrophize and isolate ourselves very effectively in the very times when reaching out and acknowledging our commonality and community could help us most.
In truth there is very little new under the sun, especially in parenting. It is so easy to get caught up in the moment, and fully believe that no other child has been as naughty, as destructive, or as hurtful. No-one else is as bad at listening. No other parent has ever lost control and hit their child in a moment of extreme stress. No-one has overreacted and lost control in the face of tiny provocations on a bad day. Everyone else is a much better parent than I am managing to be, and only I am feeling like a miserable failure of a human being.
Recently I read a truly wonderful blog about a mother and her 5 year old daughter. I won’t blow the punchline for you, suffice to say the 5 year old was having trouble staying on task, and was hurt by her mum’s frustration with this. What ensued was a performance on the part of the 5 year old that outdoes anything Hollywood could possibly offer. It was magnificent. And here’s the thing. Switch “mum” for “mom” and take away the DS, which has not yet darkened our doorway, and it could easily have been written about my family.
For a moment I was stunned – my god! There are two such creatures in the world?? The relief was overwhelming. It’s not just me! It’s not just my daughter! Hang on – maybe this is normal. Perhaps I am not the devil incarnate, such a miserable excuse for a human being that I barely qualify as human at all, and perhaps my daughter’s sole reason for existence is not to torture every brain cell I have into abject submission. Perhaps I am just a mum, and my daughter is simply 6.
I have this revelation to some degree every time I talk to the other parents in my daughter’s class (and yes, we are all in the class just as much as our children are, take it from me – there is a whole heap of learning going on here!). I see it every time I help out in the classroom. Yet when we are at home and it’s mano-a-mano, there is no other family in the world, and no-one else has ever experienced anything like this.
Last year, before my nearly-2-year-old was diagnosed (by me) with silent reflux, we were in a living hell of sleepless screaming. She was waking once an hour (screaming), soothed back to sleep only by breastfeeding, and every specialist I consulted patronised me and told me it was a sleep disorder, or the result of bad parenting. The one thing that kept me from going irretrievably over the edge was the support of a friend whose allergic son was going through very similar things. We emailed each other in the middle of the night, in the midst of our waking nightmares, and reassured each other that we were, in fact, sane. Our mantra was “this, too, will pass”.
That support made it possible for us to work out that it was, in fact, silent reflux, and has got us to the point where we all occasionally sleep through the night. Progress! But we would never have got to this point without that opportunity to relate to someone else who was going through so many of the same things. I used my friend as a sounding board, to make sure I really wasn’t off the deep end this time. Day after day we had conversations like: “hey, when you found X, what did you do?” and “argh! I can’t keep doing this!” and she would often reply with sane, rational ideas, many of which truly saved our bacon over and over again. Other days she would match me scream for scream, and do you know what? That felt wonderful. There is no feeling in the world as good as being deep in the pit of hell and discovering that you have friends in there with you.
Every situation is different, as unique as a fingerprint. And yet, at the same time, many different people have been there, regardless of where “there” is. It is that commonality that can save us, if we can focus on it. You’re not alone. In the beautiful words of REM, everybody cries. Hold that thought!