Saturday, January 26, 2013

Climbing the Ladder

I don't know if you heard, but I went viral last week.

That essay I wrote back in September got picked up by a bunch of Patch sites around the country and got, as of this writing, 135,000 159,000 163,000 Facebook shares, which makes it "the most socially viral article in Patch history." 

Knock me over with a feather!

(To put this in perspective: the editor told me she once wrote a post that got 6000 Facebook shares, and they couldn't believe it. They've rarely seen that kind of action. So their response to my post's popularity is... enthusiastic, let's say.)

It's been surreal and exciting and terrifying and validating. All of those things at once. And perhaps most surprising of all, I find myself a lot more comfortable with the combination than I would ever have been a year or two ago. I'm a lot more comfortable with it than I was even a few months ago, when I nearly ended up in the emergency room with a panic attack over the (relatively mild, in retrospect) attention that piece got when it was first published.

I've developed a thicker skin since then-- something one does, in such situations, if one wants to remain sane. But to me, this feels bigger than that. "Thicker skin" doesn't quite cover it.

I feel, to my surprise and delight, less afraid of fear.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll understand the significance of that statement. Here is something scary, something the Ministry of Vigilancequite literally lives to spot and trigger a major freak-out over, and yet here I am, not freaking out. Not triggered. Channeling the fear into exhilaration and purpose. Feeling pretty damn sure of myself and my point of view.

ME!  Imagine!

Nowhere was this made more clear to me than in the interview I did with one of the Patch editors:

It's weird, watching this video of myself. For one thing, I look and sound really different than I thought I would-- this is much more like watching a stranger than like watching myself. And then there's the usual voice in my head saying, Wow, are you really that dorky? Is that a speech impediment? Can that scar in the middle of your forehead and your weird head-tilt be any more obvious? Seriously, you allowed someone to film you on that bad of a hair day? Could you not muster anything more snazzy than your ubiquitous black t-shirt?

But here's something new: right along side that voice is another voice, speaking just as loudly, saying, Wow. Look at YOU! You sound... confident! Well-spoken! Like you know what you're doing! Like you've got it all under control!

You sound... like a grown-up!

And as luck (or maybe all this goddamn therapy) will have it, that second voice was the one in my head before the interview. She refused to allow me to get too nervous or filled with self-doubt. She kept the butterflies in my stomach on the "excited, not terrified" end of the spectrum. And she sat on my shoulder and got me through that interview with shocking ease, black t-shirt and Harry Potter scar notwithstanding.

So even before I saw the tape, I barely recognized myself. That is a "me" I would like very much to get used to. She knows what time it is, that one. She is comfortable and confident, just as she is.

So the connection between the content of that essay (letting your children learn by trying and failing and trying again, so that they gain resilience and coping skills and confidence in their abilities, rather than doing everything for them to somehow prevent them from the slightest discomfort in life) and my own PTSR was probably inevitable, right?

I've read hundreds of comments from parents around the country, most expressing support and agreement, but a still-sizable number expressing shock, outrage, and less-than-charitable opinions of me and my choices. 

One theme that my husband noticed in the more critical comments is that many people seem to believe that it's wrong to let their kids feel frustration or disappointment, and that if they're not intimately involved in every breathing second of their kids' lives and fully engaged with them at all times, their kids will feel abandoned, unloved, and resentful, and they will learn that the world is a cold, unfeeling place where no one can be trusted and no one will help you if you need it.

I wish I were exaggerating that. I'm practically quoting some commenters verbatim.

My husband's response to this was that people seem to feel compelled to parent in a way that prevents themselves from having to feel uncomfortable feelings.

I think that's true for most of us, at least some of the time. We feel guilty when we have to say "no" to our kids. We feel heartbroken when we see them disappointed. We feel fear that something could happen to them, or that they will be afraid themselves. 

It can be very tempting to give in to those fears and do too much for your kids as a result. To prevent them from feeling bad, you tell yourself, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's allowed you to avoid feeling bad, yourself.

I know I've done it. I suspect most people do at some point, even if they, like me, know it's not doing anyone any favors in the long run.

But then I stop and ask myself: what's so bad about feeling bad?

This is the question of the moment, for me. It's the central question of my own work. What's so bad about feeling bad? Why is it the end of the world to feel fear or nervousness or disappointment or a lack of control?

Here is the answer: It's NOT. It's NOT the end of the world. As a matter of fact, facing those emotions, as well as their counterparts-- confidence, joy, excitement, exhilaration-- that IS the world. It's LIFE, is what it is. 

The ability to cope with all of those things, to take them in process them and feel them and let them push you forward, that's living. That's what it's all about.

And as you know: I WANT TO LIVE.

So I find myself in the position of trying to create for my children something that I am only now learning to create for myself: the ability to live a life that isn't shaped by fears, both real and imagined.

I've spent the last 20 years trying to avoid facing difficult feelings, and I can tell you first-hand that this is a limiting, self-defeating, suffocating way to live.

Despite the insistence of the Ministry of Vigilance™, there are not nightmares around every corner. Every step is not moving me closer to swiftly impending death. Every scenario is not worst-case scenario. The headlights are not still coming around that corner on my side of the road.

It's over. I survived.

I lived. I am alive. And everything is okay.

I want my kids to feel that. Everything is okay. Falling isn't dying. Or failing. It's just an opportunity to pick yourself up and try again, armed with a bit more knowledge and experience than you had the last time around. It's a chance to do it over, a newly-earned step ahead of your former self.

It's life. It's living. It's learning. It's being where you are and feeling what you feel, and not being afraid of whatever that might be, because no matter what it is, you can use it to your advantage.

I don't want to teach my kids that the world is scary and every move could be their last. I don't want them to think that I don't trust them to learn from their own mistakes and achieve without someone having to do everything for them. I want them to trust and believe in themselves.

And despite what some of my detractors seem to think, I do realize that the best way to teach them this isn't actually by making them climb the ladder to the slide without my assistance.

It's by refusing to let the fear of uncomfortable feelings limit my own life any longer.

I want to live. I want my kids to live. And nothing, not PTSR, not a challenge on the playground, nothing is going to get in our way.


  1. Kate:  "And I can write."

    Hell yeah, you can.  

    "Why is it the end of the world to feel fear or nervousness or disappointment or a lack of control?  Here is the answer: It's NOT. [...] As a matter of fact, facing those emotions, as well as their counterparts-- confidence, joy, excitement, exhilaration-- that IS the world."

    Great writing, great parenting.  Rock on.  I'm so glad that you're getting the validation you deserve.  

    Also, good for you for keeping the haters in perspective.  A friend once told me, "Oh, you're getting hate mail now? Congratulations, darling, you've arrived."  135,000 Facebook shares sounds like arrival to me.  

  2. I thought you sounded great--and how awesome it would be if you were interviewed by Terry Gross, and sounded that good! Of course, that's my own personal yardstick of success, but hey, I'm generous, I'll share!

    In addition to your husband's idea about it being difficult to tolerate one's child's difficulties, I think that there is yet another reason people may be reacting to your piece as if it's suggesting some sort of neglect.

    They are mitigating their own neglect through over protecting their children.  There really is a line between supporting independence and all the good things you say in your essay, and leaving a child to figure out way too much on their own, way too early. I've seen it in my practice--people who have no idea how to tolerate their own distress so they numb themselves to the normal challenges of living, or see all challenges as evidence of not being or having been protected enough.  When I've read those comments, that was the sense I got from many of them. They don't want their children to feel lonely, alone, abandoned, unguided etc, and their answer is to insert themselves into their child's learning space, because they see it as a danger zone.

    If they could come out from behind their own pain, they could see that what you are talking about is learning to protect, love and not abandon yourself in the face of challenges. 

  3. I'm a sixth grade teacher and every year I have kids in my class that suffer under the "helicopter syndrome" of their parents.  God help us all of Suzie brings home a (well deserved) D on her report card, or Sammy misses recess because he didn't do his homework. Kids have to fail and they have to know it's OK.  The other side of that coin is learning to be accountable for thier mistakes and responsible for their choices.  It would be so much easier if they learned that in preschool rather than high school or the penal system.  I starts with exactly what you are doing with your girls. They are learning to stand on their own two feet.  So many kids have no idea how that works.  Keep it up, Kate.

  4. I found your blog rather late, I'm afraid. I was only recently linked to the article via another blog. I agreed with much of what you said, although I thought maybe you could expand a bit upon this philosophy? My childhood was made very difficult by a chronic illness and a rare neurological disorder, and I needed my parents to advocate for me. They didn't. They felt that if I didn't learn to do things on my own, to be my own advocate and to live with the pain, then they would be doing me a disservice. There's nothing wrong with the expectations they set, and I eventually did learn to both live with my illnesses and advocate for myself, but there were moments as a very small child when I felt absolutely abandoned and defenseless. I needed my parents, and they quite literally let me suffer. I assume you would not behave as my parents did, but my own baggage has clouded my reading of the article. I suspect the same is true for a great deal of people.