Parenting today is brutal. I don’t even have to say a word; you already know. We balance gymnastics with soccer and gastrointestinal specialist visits and occupational therapy and PTO events and business ownership and – most importantly –
a wealth of emotional knowledge that a significant amount of our parents didn’t have. To take it a step further, I will wager this is due to our parents’ natural generational deficit.
Taking care of anyone’s – ourselves or our kids’ – emotional needs is draining. It is WORK, plain and simple.
So when my five year old recently came up to me, lip curled over, and said,
“Mama, I have to tell you the truth about something. I’m lonely a lot” –
It sucker punched me to the gut, when I probably should have been leaping for joy.
Growing up, I was lonely often. I was the product of an alcoholic household; I was filled to the brim with shame and made myself smaller physically to show you all how much I was hurting. I was made to stand up during lunch because no one would let me sit with them, and the teachers did nothing about it. That was the 80’s for you. Never mind I didn’t have any Z Cavaricchi’s to help me fit in.
Because of the kept-quiet eating disorder, and because of the ensuing alcoholism in my 20’s, and because of the endless years of therapy and transformation and self-help meetings –
I became scared to death when I was pregnant with my daughter. She’ll turn out like me, I worried as I shifted my large belly in my sleep. When she didn’t sleep as an infant, I was paranoid she had caught the family disease. And I swore to myself then and there that I would do everything in my power to stop anything in her environment from affecting that.
I enrolled her in gymnastics, and I put her in swimming. I gently pushed her through every low self-esteem moment possible the way I wasn’t pushed. I made playdate after playdate and stepped out of my comfort zone to get to know Moms I felt inferior around. I did it so she would be known; I did it so she wouldn’t be that weird kid that everyone didn’t know; I did it so she would be happy.
And I received affirmation after affirmation, at least for awhile. “She’s so happy!” “Oh my gosh, she was RUNNING that playdate up there!” “She is so brave – she just walked up to that Hell’s Angel and said hi.” (True story). I felt like we had mastered things, at least a little bit.
And then she discovered feeling lonely.
And I remembered – because I knew this, but had forgotten along the way – that I can’t shield my kid from feeling. That it would be a disservice to her if I did. That even I, a therapist, someone who prided herself on being a balanced, realistic parent – had fallen trap to the disease of the new millennium –
So I looked at her, and I felt all of her pain, the way that only our emotionally-enlightened generation really can. I envisioned her on the playground at school, alone, with no one asking her to play.
And I put it the hell aside.
And I remembered how my independence wasn’t built on being at all the best parties in my hometown. It was built on knowing I had myself, and only myself to rely on. And I remembered that my keen observation and intuition wasn’t built on being outgoing, but that it grew in the shade of insults thrown at me and thrived in my shyness. And that my demand for more realistic body standards for women didn’t happen because I had a Kim Kardashian waist or butt.
It was because I was overweight. It was because I had an eating disorder.
So I looked at my daughter again, and I wanted to tell her –
BE lonely. Feel every last drop of it. Make art about it and walk along the Charles when you’re in your 20’s and contemplate why you’re here. One day you’ll be all the more interesting for it. Don’t get invited to every playdate, so you know that you can be alone and be just fine. That you can tolerate it. That you don’t have to immediately hook yourself into something, or someone to cure yourself of that feeling. For feeling happy is just the yin to loneliness’ yang; there is nothing inferior about either, and both need to be fully engaged in.
Be lonely, daughter.