The other day, I overheard my son Aaron saying to our puppy Abby, "I love you no matter what." I do believe that Abby was being a turd at the time, as puppies are apt to do.
This was a relief to hear him say that after this terrible year of guilt-ridden parenting. Maybe I've done something right.
Aaron and I were recently interviewed for a documentary about mental health by the folks at the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation. It will be released in the fall. A perk of being interviewed is that it gives me the opportunity to think deeply about a topic. I had to ponder mental health and I realized that I do not like being asked questions about my own mental health. Not one bit. I was pacing around like a caged animal before the crew arrived, despite having the questions beforehand and feeling supported and prepped.
I often say that I'm an open book, but I'm really not. I can talk about my mental health if I'm holding the pen or the microphone and am in control of the conversation. I get anxious when my hands aren't on the steering wheel. There is a lot I don't want to talk about. I'm not sure it is just stigma. I feel a lot of pressure to be strong all the time. It has to do with not quite understanding myself fully too.
I won't give spoilers about the video, but I will say that it helped me reflect on the most useful thing I've realized as Aaron's mom.
I have learned that one must be overt about unconditional love. Aaron has had angry spells since the pandemic began - for good reason - how many losses has he experienced? So many. As he advised our dog, I also say to Aaron when he's feeling big emotions:
I love you when you are mad.
I love you when you are sad.
I love you when you are upset.
I love you when you are happy.
I want him to feel deeply that I love him no matter what.
My mistake with my two other children is that I wanted them to not experience any pain. I sheltered them as much as I could, but of course when they got older, they did bump up against pain. Nobody is guaranteed a pain-free life. I didn't teach them how to deal with the crappy emotions because I just wanted them to be happy all the time. They had to figure that out themselves. I hope I improve as a mother with each child, with apologies to Isaac and Ella.
Of course, I have lots of reasons I parent the way I do, and much of it is about how I grew up long ago. This is the part of my mental health I don't want to talk about, so I'll only say: If you were pressured to be a good girl or to stop feeling sorry for yourself, you might struggle with handling the big ugly emotions like rage as I do. Sadly, this means that I grapple with feeling the big emotion of joy too.
There is no fixing this, but there is understanding this, so I see a therapist once a month. I have been going to her for four years and I trust her implicitly, so I tell her things I don't say to anybody else. How I wish everybody had access to someone non-judgmental like that in their lives.
I'm wandering in this essay. I saw the movie Roadrunner, the documentary about Anthony Bourdain and it reminded me that you can never know the pain that someone carries. A few quotes stood out that I scribbled in my notebook as I watched the film:
You aren't going to outsmart pain.
We don't get to know. We don't get to understand.
Open-ended ambiguity is where the answers lie.
I have been thinking about Erin Gilmer, who also died by suicide recently and have no commentary except I am sad that she is gone.
If you want to learn more about loving children unconditionally, watch Andrew Solomon's TED Talk called Love No Matter What.
It is challenging to write a tidy story about mental health and put a neat bow on it. So I'm going to end here. I'm 53 years old and I am a work in progress. I'm trying to love myself no matter what too, but I've realized that this is the hardest kind of love of all.
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