Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On the Shores of Lake Wobegon

Sitting in a circle on a grassy field beside a lake, fifteen or twenty parents joined together in a discussion at a school shabbaton, almost two years ago. The discussion leader, Rabbi Laurie Katz Braun, who is also a parent in our school, asked us to go around the circle and say three positive and three negative traits of our children.

Within minutes, parents in the circle were crying. It was very intimate, and very cathartic.

Why did the prompt evoke so much emotion? 

The positive traits, while important to appreciate in one's children, were predictable: She's creative. He's funny. She's loving. He's kind. She's intelligent. He's full of life.

The negative traits brought out something different. Everyone loves their children, and we all do our best to love all parts of them. But how often are we asked, outside of a therapist's office, to speak openly about their imperfections? How often do we offer to do so? The discussion of children's negative traits brought out elements of pain and fear. Mothers and fathers spoke about the challenges of raising children who are not what they might have expected; who have needs that sometimes seem beyond their powers to meet.

It's easy to feel (especially while flipping through Facebook), that everyone's lives are just perfect. Smiling kids, successful parents, trophies and performances and A's are blasted out into the world: the product of parents' pride. But what happens when perfection is expected? We only say the good things, so that any kind of difficulty becomes a secret. Welcome to Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

That parents' circle taught me something I will not soon forget. As I listened to the other parents talk about their challenging children, I realized that Josh and I are not alone. Our kids are not perfect. They each have their own challenges, but I won't pretend that they are equally challenging. We have one child who has required us to sharpen our parenting skills more than the others. It helps immeasurably to know that we're not alone.

Just as you can work for years with someone and not know their salary, so too do parents avoid discussing their kids' challenges. No one wants to out their kids as having problems, and fair enough: children deserve to be the bearers of their own issues. But on the other hand, there's nothing like feeling supported, especially when you're doing something hard, like parenting kids with all their varied needs. I hope other parents in that circle gained strength, as I did, from the simple acknowledgment of how hard it can be.

Thank you to the parents and friends--you know who you are--who have made me feel that I'm not alone. Parenting is a journey, and at times the road is steep. No one ever said it was going to be easy.

[p.s. I want to emphasize that the parenting circle at the shabbaton was not about parenting children with disabilities--it was just about parenting. But perhaps because of where the discussion went, Rabbi Laurie read an essay by Emily Perl Kingsley, which offers a poignant analogy to explain what it's like parenting a child with special needs. You've prepared for a trip to Italy, but surprise! You're going to Holland. Click here to read it: Welcome to Holland.]

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