Every day during Lent I will write on my blog in response to a word for the day suggested by Trevor Hudson from his book Pauses for Lent. Whatever I write will be inspired by the day’s word and may or may not have anything to do with Lent itself. This is an exercise that allows for me to accomplish my goal of writing every day during Lent.
I’m an emotional person. The thing is, that’s intentional. I work very hard to not numb the spectrum of emotions I feel within a day. I’ve learned through experience, and through the guidance of people like Brené Brown, that if you numb one emotion, you are numbing them all. If you numb your saddest feelings, you’ll also be numbing your ability to feel the happiest ones, too.
Author Glennon Doyle is intentional about being emotional as well. She has a post-it note on the mirror in her bathroom that reads, “Feel it all.” She also believes that, “All feelings are for feeling.” In her best-selling book she wrote, “Every great spiritual teacher tells us the same story about humanity and pain: Don’t avoid it. You need it to evolve, to become.”
This way of thinking resonates with me deeply. I think it does with a lot of people.
Due to parent-teacher conferences, a weekend, and record-setting low temperatures, my three kids were out of school for a total of eight days. I enjoy having them home, but as an introvert who needs some silence and time to myself, eight days feels like a long time to go without having the ability to have alone time. So I was excited that everyone was going to school yesterday morning.
Micah had speech therapy first thing in the morning over Webex, so his brother rode the bus to school without him. After dropping my daughter off at her school, and then my seven teenagers off at their middle school and high school, I would come back for Micah and take him to his elementary school after his therapy ended.
When I returned home Micah was struggling with his participation in speech therapy, and he had already been declaring that morning that he didn’t want to go to school because his tummy was hurting. He had done this once before recently, a few days after his escape from the school. On that day I told him that he didn’t have to go to school, but he would have to rest here at home and then go to school the next day. He was content with that response at the time and replied with a sing-song “Ok. That’s fine.” The next day he was ready for school, and went with no issue.
As a behaviorist, I’m always aware of the types of behaviors I might be reinforcing, and so when I told Micah he could stay home from school for his “tummy ache” and noticed he was so quick to say ok, I wondered if I had made the right decision. I had given him what he wanted by letting him stay home, so it was likely, perhaps inevitable, that he would try it again.
Sure enough, after his therapy session he once again announced that he would not be going to school. And when Sarah and I told him that he would, he doubled down and began crying, saying that his tummy hurt. I told him that it was probably because he was nervous or scared about going back to school, and that was ok, but that his teachers wanted to see him again. Sarah also affirmed these things and tried to validate his feelings while also letting him know that he would not be staying home from school.
He was crying and argumentative. It was a battle to get him to put on his shoes and his coat and get his backpack. I had to be stern with him, telling him that he needed to get in the car so that we could go to school. When he got in the car he immediately got as far away from his booster seat as he could.
With tears streaming down his cheeks he cried out, “I don’t want to go to school. I just want to stay home!”
As a parent, this is heartbreaking. I was constantly asking myself if what I was doing was right. Do I force my child with special needs, who only a few weeks ago ran away from school due to anxiety, to go to school against his will? What is the lesson I want him to learn? Is it that you have to push through anxious feelings sometimes and do the things you don’t want to do? Is it that I don’t want him to think that if he tells me he has a tummy ache that he can get out of things he’s expected to do? Is it simply to remind him that once he gets to school and sees his teachers and sees his friends he’ll be ok?
What is truly my motivation for wanting him to go to school? Is it that I just want a day to myself after these eight long day? Is it that I don’t want to reinforce an avoidance behavior? Do I let him stay home? I see a kind of panic in his eyes about having to go. A deep heart-breaking anxiety that I recognize because sometimes I feel that way, too. I’ve just learned in thirty-four years how to manage and cope and push through those things (most of the time).
With my best and deepest dad voice I looked at him with a furrowed brow and said, “Micah, you come and sit down in your seat right this second and you put on your seat belt. We are going to school, and that is that.”
He sat down in his seat, still crying, and fastened his seat belt.
I pulled out of the garage, down the driveway, and headed towards his school. Micah continued crying the entire way. As we drove past the lake that he had wandered all the way to that one horrible day, he said in a quivering voice, “I don’t want to leave Boys Town! Why are you doing this to me?!”
I do believe that all feelings are meant for feeling, but the feelings I had in this moment were not pleasant ones to be feeling. I really started questioning in myself if I was doing the right thing, if I was a good parent.
Just the night before a good friend of mine called me on his way back from Chicago to chat for a while. In the midst of our conversation he took some time to affirm me of Sarah and my parenting, of the work we put into Micah, Ezra, and Lydia, but especially Micah. It meant a lot to me that he took the time to say those things to me. But just twelve hours later I was calling them into question as I was forcing my son to have to experience this dread, this anxiety, of going to school.
Sarah had already called ahead to the school to let them know that Micah was having a hard time wanting to go, and a teacher of his agreed to meet us at the door when we got there to encourage him about coming back and to put his worries at ease. But when we got to the school Micah was still riled up and crying, refusing to go. When I got out of the car and opened his door, he immediately got up and moved over to the other side of the car again.
“I just want to go back home! I don’t want to be here. Please! Please, dad! Take me back home. I just want to be home.”
His teacher came out to greet us. She tried to gently say hi to Micah and invited him inside. He continued to refuse. When he saw her come over to the car he jumped out of the car and ran as fast as he could down the hill of the pickup lane in the direction of home. I had to chase after him to stop him. He turned around and started walking back towards the car again. His teacher remained calm and was wonderfully kind. I told Micah that it was too cold to be running around outside and that his teacher was cold (she didn’t have a coat on and it was about 0 degrees).
He agreed to go inside.
When we got inside, Micah was agreed to put on his mask, and when the teacher said “How about we get some breakfast, and later do you want a hot lunch or cold lunch?”
He calmed down a bit. That terror in his eyes dissolved a little, too.
“You want to come with me, Micah? We’ll go get breakfast together.”
In a resigned, defeated voice Micah responded, “Ok. I guess I’ll do that.”
There was something about the way that he said it that just immediately crushed my heart. I don’t know if it was because it felt like he was leaning in to do hard things, or because he felt he had no more energy to fight us about being at school. Whatever the case, it made me very emotional. I quickly said goodbye and ran back out to the car with tears of my own streaming down my cheeks and under my mask.
When I got in the car I had to sit there for a moment to regain my own composure. I was breathing heavily. My skin felt like it was being pricked by a million little pins. I felt a little light-headed.
This is so hard. Why does it all have to be so hard? I thought to myself.
I let myself feel those feelings. It’s what pushes me to grow. It’s ok.
When I returned home I had a sense of relief that I was finally home with no other kids to take care of for the first time in eight days. But I was stirred up and tender. I had a Webex meeting for work with all my other coworkers and I really was not in the mood to have to discuss logistics about my job. But I pushed through it a bit reserved and deflated.
A couple hours later we got a phone call from Micah’s school saying that he had thrown up and needed to be picked up to return home.
I was upset. At that moment I knew that we made the wrong call to send Micah to school. Either his anxiety got the best of him and he ended up throwing up, or he figured out a way to work himself up to the point to throw up so that way he could return home where he wanted to be the entire time.
In anger, I put my coat on, my gloves on, and threw on my winter hat. I slammed the door on my way out the house.
When I got to school Micah came out smiling from ear to ear.
“Hi, Micah. Go get in the car.”
Micah’s smile immediately dissipated and he ran over to the car. When I got in he tried telling me stories with excitement in an attempt to test whether I was mad at him or just seemed mad in general and was attempting to see if a fun story could cheer me up. I cut him off.
“Micah, did you throw up on purpose?”
“No, I didn’t. I just said, ‘Uh-oh!’ and then I threw up.”
“Did anyone see it? Where did you throw up?”
“Under my desk.”
“Ok. Well, I’m sorry to hear that. When we get home I want you to rest and stay in bed until Ezra gets home.”
I’ve found that when I experience a lot emotions or anxiety it’s good for me to relax by taking a hot shower for a while and give myself the solitude to just think without any distractions. When it came time for work yesterday I was in no place emotionally to be able to attend to the needs of the seven teenage girls we work with. So I got in the shower and let the hot water hit the back of my neck while I closed my eyes and just tried to relax.
I was reminded of another mantra of Glennon Doyle’s that resonates with me: “We can do hard things.”
And so I determined within myself that I was going to go ahead and lean in. I wasn’t alone in my job. I’m not alone in my parenting. I was going to be ok because we, together, can do hard things.
And so I turned off the shower, got dressed, motivated and determined to what I needed to do. I decided to not let the anxious feelings from this day steal away the feelings I could have from a job well done with the girls in my home.
After getting dressed, I sat down on the edge of my bed for a moment. I took a deep breath, and then I walked out into the main part of the house where everyone was back from school. And I leaned in and did my best to work with these girls, giving them my attention and care.
By the end of the day I felt accomplished and proud of myself. I had done a lot of good work with the girls. Sarah noticed, too, and even let me know that she was proud of me. By the time I returned to bed last night, I was able to lie down knowing I had allowed myself to feel all of the feelings of the day and that I had pushed ahead and done hard things.
While I was writing this The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” came into my head. And so I will share it here for you to listen if you’d like. I can’t recommend David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBOMax enough. If you have access to HBOMax, I highly recommend watching it.
After a short search I wasn’t able to find the video version of it, which is too bad because it is such a treat to watch, but here is the audio: