My middle son feels shame easily and sometimes I worry that I am to blame and sometime I think some people are more wired for shame. A few months ago he came home from school crying because he said it had been one of those days where he thought about all the bad things he’s done. He’s 6. He is also more wired toward discontentment, which in my mind is a fast and furious path to depression. And so I am on a mission to find a solution before IT’S TOO LATE. My intellectual self knows that it will take years of patient parenting – lots of conversations and leading by example. But it seems that my conversations often leave me wondering if Espen heard anything other than the sound of my breath coming out my mouth, the sounds of siblings playing in the other rooms. And my example? I wake up at night fifty percent of the time feeling anxiety and shame. And I often find myself thinking that if only my life looked like this or that, things would be better.
A few nights ago, I watched an old episode of Little House on the Prairie with the kids. As always I felt like a shitty mother compared to Ma. She’s always smiling and saying just enough but not too much. I think I frown a lot and I say way too much. Too many words, I can hear some self-critical voice inside my head when I’m trying to force some big picture insight into my children’s little heads. Too many words….I’m melting….I’m melting…And Laura and Mary are thankful and helpful and emotionally articulate, resolving conflict, gaining quick understanding and applying it to their lives appropriately all in 45 minutes. And Pa plays his violin before bed each night. So I walk away from a fun family activity armed with shame and discontentment. Not only do I dwell on the ways I fall short but also on the ways my kids and my husband are lacking. Now obviously I’m not expecting my husband to start learning to play the fiddle so he can play each night for the kids so that they will wake each morning smarter and happier. No, really, picturing Ole playing the fiddle to his eager, adoring family is a little like picturing him doing Yogo. Just not his scene, which is just fine with me. But I am guilty of the fleeting imaginings of ways he could do his father and husband job differently. Likewise, I assume that if I was a certain kind of mother my children would become like those kids featured in Highlights Magazine who organize big service projects that lead to either thousands of dollars raised for an impossibly worthy cause or a policy change in a city. The trigger: A TV show. Long after the show is over, the negative script plays in my head over and over.
As a part of my journey to cure my son or any of my kids of their potentially miserable lives, I’m reading a book called, The Optimistic Child in which the author describes a long term study done on the predictability and treatment of depression in kids. One of the ways his team attempts to address depression in school-age children is to help them change their self-talk. He says that people in general are more likely to reject or challenge the truth of negative messages given by another person than if the negative messages are internal. So, we believe what we say about ourselves which is scary to think how often negative and often completely inaccurate messages are bouncing around our heads like giant fleas on a trampoline. Our trampoline of lies. And the lies number in the double digits if not triple every single day. I have heard this kind of thing before – the power of our thoughts – but more recently I have begun to think about this in the context of God’s seemingly impossible commandment to be thankful. We become our thoughts and so I wonder how I can transform my thoughts and encourage my kids now at a young age to use their thoughts to their advantage and not their detriment. The problem is since I can remember my mother has been talking about good self-talk and I grew up to indulge in one-sided, judgmental, self-talk that very often steals my joy. Maybe because in the end I was hearing my mother’s inner voices loud and clear, not always the ones she wanted me to internalize.
So given that my kids fill their little hearts with shame and discontentment because of me, because of their predisposition to do so and because of societal messages that permeate everything, what can I really do? I know that my quest to eradicate any potential for depression is grandiose and yet I have to try, right? I think the wisdom in the book is important but I feel sort of cynical. To be fair, I haven’t finished the book, but I have a hard time believing that a program run in a school system could lead to a change in depressive outcomes. Can children who are on a depression trajectory be taught to sort of self-talk themselves out of it?
I remember practicing positive thinking when I played volleyball in high school and it did work to a certain extent. I would visualize doing really well before each game – consistent serves and digs. I was no Misty May Trannor or Kerry Jennings Walsh, not by a million mile long shot, but I played well. And yet, even as far as my ability and my self-talk took me, I was aware of how my pervasive lack of confidence affected my game. In other words, I really believe I could have been better if I had a deeper internal sense of my worth and abilities, whether that would be a product of or a reason for focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t. Maybe it’s about being having more of a posture of thankfulness, which I love to annoy my kids with even when I can’t manage it to the extent that I’m asking them to sometimes. I try. Really I do.
“Those who bring Thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.” Psalm 50:23
So we try. In the end we try even though Yoda said, We do or we do not. There is no try. Ok Yoda. Get a grip.
So the solution: Maybe I’ll tack up all the Bible verses that encourage thankfulness and contentment and release from shame. Maybe I’ll say the verses out loud and read them to my children. And I’ll finish the book, The Optimistic Child and take what I can.
“Therefor if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
We do this again and again. Putting our junk in God’s hands because it doesn’t fit in ours’. But we keep trying to hold it, wallow in it, let it define us.
Another thought: There is no perfect solution. I know that, but I think we’d whither away if we didn’t think we could help our kids and ourselves be less burdened by discontentment and shame. We all need to feel that our missions can be accomplished.