Storms: the Unconditional Acceptance Challenge

I found myself reading up on ADHD.  I was in the library, reading up on home schooling, trying to decide whether to continue or to send my son back to school in the fall.  But the chapters on ADHD were what grabbed my attention.

Oh, no.  That sounds like him, I thought with a sinking feeling as I read the clinical indications of the disorder.

On the heels of that thought came images of my son playing Legos, for hours, mind focused, body soft and relaxed.  And more:  setting up elaborate train tracks and choo-chooing them round and round; building a blanket fort and reading inside of it; seconding that same fort as a redoubt in a Nerf war; climbing a tree and watching the world go by underneath.

I scanned ahead.   It turns out that clinicians are now diagnosing “situational ADHD”; that is, there are children who can pay attention everywhere but in school.  Curious.

I shut the book, feeling slightly ashamed for trying to diagnose my son’s behavior as pathological.  I sat back as another image, a memory, slid into focus.  Oh. I’ve been here before.

It was five years ago.  I was in despair over my daughter, who was still having tantrums every day.  They had begun at the confluence of two milestones, turning two and her younger brother’s birth.  But three years later they still hadn’t stopped.  It wasn’t just the tantrums.  She was devious.  She bullied a playmate.  She snarled at me more often than she smiled.  I seemed to have no influence over her except to make her angry.  One mournful night I found myself Googling “oppositional,” “defiant,” “antisocial.”  The next day I paid a babysitter so I could pour, uninterrupted, over child psychology books in the library.  It was good news/bad news:  she was way too young to diagnose a mental illness; that meant the problem must be with my mothering.  If there was pathology, it was mine.

Alone again, naturally.  Wasn’t I?  I didn’t see anyone else struggling as I was.  I must be the only one.  I was ashamed, and so I confided in no one.  This cut me off from help and advice (I shouldn’t need it) and from sympathy (I don’t want pity).  Being cut off also encased me in the painful belief that everyone else knew what they were doing.  Motherhood looks so easy.  I was an intelligent, educated woman.  Why did I find it so hard?  Why did I seem to be failing at this apparently simple job?  Simple, yes.  Easy?  Hardly.

Help, advice and sympathy did come, in the form of my friend Alicia.  Alicia was a full time mom of three who also happened to be a psychologist.  She seemed confident and organized – exactly the kind of person I typically avoided exposing myself to.  But I was in crisis, and her professional credentials gave me hope that she could help and would not think (too much) less of me.  She agreed to meet me for coffee.

Under cover of clanking cutlery and boisterous conversations at the communal tables of a Pain Quotidien, I poured my heart out to her.  I held nothing back.  I allowed myself to reveal my darkest feelings.  Even in the din, I found myself dropping into a whisper as I admitted my resentment at my daughter for being as she was.  I surprised even myself.  My God, I wasn’t just worried for her.  I was angry!  You could say I was having a tantrum right there:  a respectable, educated, thirty-something, stay-home mommy, having the respectable, educated, thirty-something version of a tantrum for not getting her way with her five year old.

My dear friend listened to it all without judgment.  She didn’t flinch.  She didn’t change the subject.  She was not embarrassed.  She affirmed that it was hard, motherhood.  She admitted that she felt anger, too (Even she?)  She told me that sometimes her children made her cry, too (Those perfect children?).

What a relief!  To be heard and validated allowed me to relax.  I felt normal again, and feeling normal gave me hope that our problems could be solved.

In a nutshell, my friend had modeled the solution she proposed for us: unconditional acceptance.  She said that my daughter needed help and was expressing it the only way she could, with her behavior.  She needed me to see past her behavior to the feelings underneath, accept her feelings, and then help her with her problem.  Years later I would come across this idea in Bonnie Harris’s Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids:  “Your child,” she says, “is having a problem, not being a problem.”

Sitting in the hushed library in the present day, I wondered if that’s where I’d gotten off track with my son.  What unmet need was his behavior signaling?  When he acted out, was I paying attention to him or to his misbehavior?  Did I pause from my busy-ness long enough to really listen to him, or was I too focused on being annoyed?  Did my response help him, as Alicia’s helped me, to feel normal – not alone! – and hopeful.

Unconditional acceptance certainly helped my daughter.  She noticed the change in me immediately.  When I responded with curiosity, instead of censure, to her tantrum that afternoon, it actually stopped the tantrum before it started.  Confusion flickered across her little face.  She smiled.  She started laughing.  Then she hugged me.  I know it sounds like an after-school special, but it really did happen that way.  Within a week – one week – she was a happy girl again, and she remains a happy girl still.  Would my son’s response be as dramatic?

 

*     *     *

 

I have struggled over this blog post for the past few weeks because the answer is no.  I had wanted a “happy ending” – or at least a neat one – for this post, but I don’t have one.  I’ve seen some response from him to my attempts at unconditional acceptance, but it hasn’t been as dramatic.

I think I understand why.  I can’t give what I don’t have.   That is, I struggle to accept myself unconditionally.  I beat myself up for my mistakes.  I can’t believe I haven’t figured it all out yet!  I think, If I’m good enough, we will all be happy all the time!  Perfectionism, with its happy, neat endings and discomfort with messiness of any kind, is kind of the opposite of unconditional acceptance.  If that’s what I practice, why would he believe my preaching otherwise?

On my morning walk, I notice the weather and evidence of the changing season.  Today it is more humid than yesterday, but noticeably cooler than one week ago.  I’ve just heard there may be a tropical storm this weekend.  The high winds and rain will be very dramatic.  Certainly many leaves, their grips on the trees grown fragile as summer winds down, will be blown from the trees.  Some trees may even be uprooted.  None of this is good or bad.  It is simply Nature.

When I am lost, as I feel now, my daily walks remind me of the larger perspective.  As Nature is in a constant state of change, so is all of life.  That includes my son, and it includes me, too.  In Nature, death not only makes room for birth, it feeds the new life!  You can’t have sunshine all the time.  You – he – Ican’t be happy all the time.  Or always know what to do.  The transitions happen, and sometimes they are violent and uproot things.  But I’m lost only if I forget that after the storm, the sun will come out again and the weather will be easy.  Until next time.

by Allison Evans, August 30, 2013.

What storm are you going through right now?  Do you tend to fight them, too?  What do you think would happen if you didn’t this time?

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