As I look at my son, I start to feel a bit sad. Nothing is wrong in this moment, but the part of my mind that is concerned with the not-now keeps having this recurring thought: he is going to be sad.
I spent a great deal of my life with major depression, from about 13 until 28. I joked with my midwife that labor would be nothing compared to years of depression and anxiety (I was right!). It was so incredibly, unbearably painful. I cannot tell you how many times I thought about ending my life, and I gave it a half-hearted attempt once or twice.
How painful that was makes me so worried about my son. If he is ever depressed, I know that I won’t be able to stop it.
The best way to assure that he never does get depressed is to let him have his sadness, his anger, and the whole host of human emotions without trying to curb, shame, or stop them. The best way to assure that he never gets depressed is to help him develop the abilities that allow a person to remain stable as the winds of circumstance and his own emotions blow around him.
The best way to make sure that he doesn’t get situationally depressed is to tell him something that we hate to tell people, especially our children, and that we hate to admit to ourselves:
It’s not that one thing or another is hard. It’s not that building a new skill, or trying a new thing, or death or divorce or moving or failing or loving is hard. Things are tough all over.
If you are not growing, then you are withering.
If you are not expanding, then you are contracting.
This being, I believe, wholly true, it means that you’re in one of two states for the whole of your life: being smaller, less strong, less connected, or less motivated than you were previously; or becoming stronger, bigger, more connected, or more motivated.
The first is a life of smallness that we know can bring us pain, and the other is also pretty terrifying: constantly bringing yourself out of your comfort zone.
While some people find this stance defeating, I think opening up to the reality of things makes life easier. If you accept things as they are, you don’t have to struggle against them anymore. You can say, “Yeah, this is difficult, but so is everything else,” and maybe if you are invested in yourself, and your life, you can make some of the changes around you that are necessary so that you can be working on a more worthwhile difficult thing.
We like to believe that things get easier, but they don’t. Everything is a trade off. My partner asked me whether our two-month old will be more or less difficult to handle when he is one. Or two. Or three.
And the answer is: No.
Some things will be easier, some things will be more difficult. His emotions are going to get so much more complex, but he’ll be stronger. He might rail against us, but he’ll be able to communicate more clearly.
As our son deals with more and more deep, complex emotions, and has a rich inner and outer life, he will recognize that life is hard. Us telling him things are OK will not make things less hard, and may make him feel alone, or like he’s doing something wrong.
We will have to deal more and more with the hardship of seeing the person we want so badly to protect feel hurt, confused, overwhelmed, sad, out-of-control, and accept that the only thing we can do to soften the blow is to be empathetic to his emotions and be the calm in the storm for him. If we protect him, we will do him a huge disservice in the long run, no matter how right that will feel in the now.
Being suicidal was extremely hard. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Much harder than moving overseas and leaving everyone I knew, harder than pregnancy and labor, and infinitely harder than being a mother. I worked so hard and it didn’t pay back at all.
Now, as a healthier person, things are still hard. Choosing to put myself out there, embarrass myself, and be social is hard. I know that I have to create a life that is an inspiration to my child (and future children) and I have to be able to give them opportunities to be social with other child—older, younger, and their own age. This means that I cannot, as I have most of my life, just stay inside happily with my books and my boyfriend. I am working hard and I am actually getting something back.
Giving kids the gift of allowing them to get comfortable with difficulty—the big things and the small things—is one of the greatest blessings. Don’t sugar coat life, for yourself or others.
Death is a topic that people struggle with for their whole lives, but E.B. White believed children could deal with the topic and made it deep and relatable for them in the much-loved book Charlotte’s Web.
Roald Dahl is one of the most popular children’s books authors of all time and he deals with incredibly dark subjects—abusive guardians, psychopathic business owners, and a world full of child haters.
Death, failure, sickness, turmoil, depression, poverty. Kids can handle these topics, and they can handle the concept that life is hard. We must teach them that life can be hard and worth it or life can be hard and not worth it. We can teach them that and give them the skills to cope—through letting them deal with difficulty, connecting with their emotions and learning to remain balanced through tumultuous inner states, creating a solid attachment, affirming their feelings, and modeling and speaking about our own difficulties and mistakes and how we have grown and are growing from them.
What emotions am I uncomfortable with?
Are there topics that are normal parts of life that I’m uncomfortable talking about?
Remember a time that you felt an emotion you are uncomfortable with (sadness, anger, anxiety). Close your eyes and feel it in your body. Follow with a quick meditation. Repeat often.
Pick a children’s novel that deals with a difficult topic and read it to your child.
Charlotte’s Web, The Bridge to Terabithia, or Little Women