My spiritual director recently described the difference between optimism and hope, as it relates to the season of the coronavirus. Optimism is what we see on Instagram. “It’s all going to be okay!” “Bake your sourdough bread!” Hope, as she says, holds both the darkness and the light together and finds worth in all of it. There is good in sitting with the heaviness of this time. It’s allowing it to form us into something new. That’s hope.
But what I hadn’t put a lot of thought to, until lately, is that our children are always with us. They are always with me. Which means that if I’m doing that sitting-with-the-heaviness thing that my spiritual director recommends, my kids are getting the brunt of it.
My oldest, who is 10, said to me one evening, “Mommy, I feel like I’m afraid to say anything to you right now because you seem really angry, and I don’t know what I did.”
Of course, she did nothing wrong. She wasn’t making me angry, but she was picking up on my vibe. I was definitely having a glum kind of day.
My first inclination was to apologize, snap out of it, and show her with my cheerfulness that everything is okay! But that’s just practicing optimism.
After all, I love my children unconditionally, even when they aren’t pleasant. Have you ever read the children’s book No Matter What, by Deb Gliori (HMH Books, 2008)? The opening words are: “‘I’m grim and grumpy,’ says Small to Large, ‘and I don’t think you love me at all.’” Large then spends the rest of the book assuring Small how untrue that is. A parent’s love isn’t as fleeting as a child’s moods.
We might know about unconditional love from books like that or from our faith. We might know it in our marriage. We might know it in the way we love our children. But do we allow our children to practice unconditional love for us? Unconditional love is love no matter the condition we are in. We can let them see us in our imperfections.
Sitting with the darkness of this time and letting it affect our mood once in a while is not an imperfection. But if you’re like me, you’ve lost your temper a few more times than you used to. Or you’ve let the stress get the better of you in other ways. And our kids are here for it. There’s no place to hide.
The most important thing our kids are learning in this season is not the mastery of any curriculum content. It’s emotion. And we are our children’s primary teachers (not just while schools were closed). They look to us for how to cope. If we only show them cheerfulness and optimism, they won’t know how to navigate difficult times like this.
I took a parenting class at my church early this year, and our amazing teacher told us: “Emotion is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.” She said that’s the most expensive free advice she can offer us as parents. And I guess, if we can’t accept that for ourselves, then it will be much harder to understand in our children.
When people hear that I have three daughters, I’m usually offered a glib warning about the teenage years. One day, they will be 13, 16, and 17 at one time. I will need someone to stitch that piece of advice on a pillow for my living room, or better yet, on a handkerchief that I can carry around and pass out throughout the house as needed.
But while they are still young and mostly carefree, I will practice sitting with my emotions and not hiding them from my family. I will practice holding the darkness and the light together. I will be hopeful, not just optimistic.
So yes, daughter, I’m grim and grumpy sometimes these days. And yeah, I might snap at you if you interrupt my brood. Learn from it.