Today, around 2 hours after I picked up my girls from school, my 6 year old, JB, had still not paused for breath in the rapid fire, stream-of-consciousness chatter that started the moment we met at the gate. (I was going to say “conversation” but that implies a certain give and take that was noticeable in its absence.) I found myself remembering with a kind of fond, slightly desperate nostalgia the time when she was 2 and we wondered if she would ever start to talk. Back then she was shy and clingy. She never wandered far from her parents, and she never, ever talked to anyone she hadn’t known for her entire life.
Today she roams free, talking confidently to anyone within earshot (and earshot is much further than you would expect). She is happy to approach people, whether kids or adults, she has never met, and when on holiday with her 10 year old sister, it is JB who approaches other kids to ask if they can play, or talks to shop assistants, or answers the kind questions of strangers.
Back when she was 2 she suffered from undiagnosed silent reflux. She rarely slept. She screamed during the day for reasons we couldn’t fathom. She cried at night until we were beside ourselves with distress and exhaustion. Doctors told us she had a sleep problem, or we had an anxiety problem, or there was nothing wrong. Just surviving from one day to the next seemed like an unrealistic pipe dream some days. My mantra became “This, too, shall pass.” I spent a lot of time reminding myself that she wouldn’t be 2 forever. That there was light at the end of the tunnel. That sleep would one day be within our grasp once more. And that a social life would some day be more than a distant, hallucinatory memory.
Listening to her chattering today I suddenly realised that this had, indeed, passed. She wasn’t two anymore. Now she sleeps. Not infallibly, but almost every night. Now we are more likely to be woken by her older sister’s anxious nightmares than by JB’s reflux. Now my main cause of distress is not JB’s sleep but her sister’s intense emotional distress.
Today I bumped into a very wise friend, who was bringing her baby in to work for a visit. She told me a story about a niece who was just like my ten year old. She used to be paralysed with distress. Her parents did much the same things we are doing, and now she is coping just fine. It dawned on me that I am still looking for an instant fix to a lifelong problem. I wanted JB’s reflux/sleep problems to miraculously disappear overnight. (Or during the day – I wasn’t about to be picky!)
My fondest conscious wish is to teach my ten year old the coping skills I am still learning at 41. So that she can manage her anxiety and not be paralysed by it. So that she can encounter adversity, be distressed and keep going. Unconsciously I want what every parent really wants, deep down. I want her to not be distressed. I want to make all possible sources of trauma miraculously disappear. I want to wrap her in the softest of cotton wool and protect her from everything.
And yet, in the wise words of Dory (from Finding Nemo) “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him!”
In reality we are teaching her coping skills. And I have seen her use them. Today’s meltdowns are tomorrow’s object lesson. I can’t make the meltdowns stop, but I can teach her the self-awareness and mindfulness skills to survive them and use them to grow.
As a newly fledged high school teacher I bonded strongly with my first cohort of students. Last year they graduated, and at the start of this year I looked around at my next class and thought “in a couple of years they’ll be gone, too.” It brings some perspective to the trials and tribulations of both the teaching and the parenting year. Crises come and crises go. If I spend too much time fearing tomorrow’s potential dramas I will fail to appreciate the joys today might bring.
This, too, shall pass. Tomorrow will doubtless bring both joy and sorrow, and we will all survive and grow. That’s worth remembering.