When I was about 13, my best friend at the time and I memorized every word of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” We wrote down the words by playing, pausing and rewinding a cassette tape, which we had recorded by placing the tape deck beside the radio. Yes, I’m that old.
“Sound of Silence” became “our” song and to this day I remember every word of it. The haunting words appealed to our dramatic teenage angst and supported our growing realization that life could be sad simply from living. We had lots of big questions with no answers but it didn’t matter because delving into the questions made us feel mature and acutely aware that we were no longer kids. The song comforted us as we transitioned from childhood into no man’s land of pre-adulthood. At that time I never thought about the lyricist’s life experience that lay beneath the words of the song. Today I think particularly about the first verse:
“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again”
I have lived with depression for most of my life and through the crests and valleys I understand how I must face this disease. This past year, I took on too much, got sick with a month long virus and together with the start of fall, I had the perfect storm for depression to pay me a visit. Depression, as reliable as ever, didn’t disappoint. At some point, when I was able, I shared with a new acquaintance the reason I had not responded to her email promptly – I called depression “my old friend.” With the best of intentions, because she is a lovely lady, she told me to never call depression my friend and that it is no part of me.
I have never felt the need to defend my perspective of my disease but here’s what I believe. Depression is a part of me – a big part. It has shaped the way I think about life, my family and my friends. I choose friends who accept me for all that I am, not for the best of me. It has made me a more empathetic person towards anyone suffering with anything, mental or physical. It has broadened my perspective of people, understanding that there is a place for everyone at life’s table. It has helped me be a better wife and parent (I hope) because I have become a good listener and kinder person.
I must make depression my friend or it will be my enemy and the more we hate something, the greater its power.
Depression is my old friend and I accept that it is a big part of me. It is not all of me, in the same way that people with other illnesses, mental or physical, don’t become their disease, so I don’t become mine. Acceptance, however, is key. Acceptance diminishes the impact of this disease immensely. With acceptance I lose shame. As a result, I can open up to new ideas and different ways to help myself. Most importantly, I can love myself.
So, depression, I will tend to you when you need me and when you are quiet I will keep you by my side in my warm, protective embrace, so that you can feel safe. I will not abandon you, my old friend.
At his wedding, my youngest son stood up to give his much anticipated speech. His reputation as a public speaker is well known and he didn’t disappoint. His two older brothers had spoken about his eccentricity and how, as much as they love him, he is the weirdest guy they know. Half way through his, on point, hilariously funny speech, he calmly addressed his brothers’ comments by walking to the centre of the dance floor, pulling down his pants and slowly mooning everyone, possibly performing the first ever groom-moon.
Along with many others, I gasped and I held my mouth, muffling the words – OMG. I can only describe what happened next as a piece of my life flashing before my eyes. I realized many things in a matter of seconds. Here they are:
I raised my kids to follow their truth, so put my money where my mouth is.
Just because I wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
This kind of humour makes him uniquely him and I love all of him.
Who cares what other people think.
My perception went from horrifying to hilarious in seconds and I laughed harder than anyone. Turned out the “moon” was hilarious to most and to those who weren’t amused – tough! I felt incredibly proud that I had raised a kid who could step away from the expected and be so okay with it. And seriously, is this any more risqué than string bikinis?
My quirky son is a paediatric resident and appreciates fully the frequent tragedy of life. He has more than his fair share of anxiety and holds onto a strong moral code, heading, each year, a Movember team – in great humorous spirit as his moustache growth is puny at best. His ability to find the fun in a life that so often feels overwhelmingly heavy is completely necessary so that when he has to, he can be his best.
Unlike others, I am privy to my son’s back-story. I don’t feel I have to explain to anyone why I am so proud of his “mooning” but I am doing so, as I believe the lesson to us all is to judge the actions of others less quickly and less harshly. My son would laugh at this last statement as one of the things he is fond of saying is “I judge people quickly and harshly with very little information!” Did I mention he’s hilarious?
Should parenting be about negotiation? The answer is yes and no. Much of our parenting direction comes from knowing who we are and what we want. Some of these things are up for discussion and some aren’t and it’s important to know what belongs where. For example, one of my “non-negotiables” was that my kids could never swear at me (they could swear, just not at me or my husband). Bedtimes were negotiable. I don’t care much for routine and I didn’t expect it from my kids. When parents don’t know what belongs where, it can result in unnecessary conflict. When we identify our non-negotiable expectations we are more likely to stick unwaveringly to them and kids sense that. Children push the boundaries when they think there is the tiniest bit of room for things to shift in their favour. They become surprisingly compliant when we really mean business, and that means consistency over time and between both parents (if applicable). It goes without saying that “non-negotiables” must reflect our behavior. You can’t have zero tolerance for swearing if you swear at others yourself. Walk your walk and talk your talk.
To know what’s non-negotiable for you, check in with your feelings. They are usually your best indicator. It can take some practice because we come into parenting with many pre-existing “non-negotiables,” usually from our parents, and often persist with those even when they don’t really belong to us. I was raised to never leave the house un-groomed and it took years of fighting about un-brushed hair and low-lying jeans to realize that I just didn’t care. I transferred this to the negotiable pile and my kids and I were much happier! I learned to ask the question, “Is this important to me or does it need to be examined?”
When I became a parent for the first time thirty years ago, I was focused on sleeping through the night, first colds, milestones and solid foods. I think it’s just as well that parents don’t get to see the whole journey at once. There may be far less children born if we did.
From the moment my children were born, I did everything in my power to ensure their happiness. For every unhappy situation that arose, I was right there to provide a solution. If they felt anxious about doing something, I would tell them they were wonderful and they could do anything. If they felt unloved by friends, I would make sure they knew how lovable they were. At every turn, I tried to take away their pain because I understood happiness to be the absence of emotional pain. This unrealistic perspective and my inevitable failure to control my children’s happiness left me feeling, on a regular basis, that I was falling short as a parent. I now understand that I was attempting to do the impossible. A person’s feelings belong to him or her, as do the experiences that produce those feelings. My children’s feelings were not mine to have, to face, or to deal with.
This new understanding forced me to recognize that my parenting perspective needed revision. Facing adversity, disappointment, envy, sadness, and fear are natural and inescapable emotional experiences in all our lives. A child not doing well on a test, being rejected by a friend, not being chosen for a team, losing a pet or loved one, or fearing monsters under the bed are all situations that most parents can identify with. At times like these it would feel counterintuitive as a loving parent to withhold comfort, and I’m not suggesting we do. Comfort and love are to parenting as air is to life. I would like to suggest, however, that we add another layer to our parenting realm that I believe can dramatically increase our children’s chances for both a happier childhood and a happier adult life.
Emotional pain exists for similar reasons that physical pain exists. If we heed our physical pain, we learn how to live away from danger and harm. Similarly, emotional pain, if addressed properly, can help us live harmoniously with ourselves and with others. To learn from our emotional pain we must face our feelings, understand them, and ultimately deal with them in healthy and productive ways.
Children who learn to deal with all their feelings, not only the happy ones, do themselves a great service. These are the children who will develop a strong sense of self and will be more able to stand up to bullying, develop leadership qualities, and have the determination and perseverance that will make them more successful in school, in relationships, and in their adult lives.
When your child tells you they are feeling sad. Spend time exploring their story and let them know that you have heard it and understood it. You can do this by retelling it using words that they can understand. Use this retell as an opportunity to introduce them to other feeling words that describe their feelings – this can be a word they are unfamiliar with – as this is a great opening to increase their “feeling vocabulary.”
Once you feel your child is satisfied that you have understood their story and their feelings, you can elaborate, using questions like “Have you felt like this at another time?” or “How do you think the other child felt?” or “Why do you think they behaved that way.” These questions put your child in the mindset to learn from their experiences and to problem-solve.
Here’s a fact. Humans are capable of a full spectrum of feelings. So when we avoid the less comfortable ones or minimize their importance, we in essence understand less of ourselves.
Babies exhibit mostly negative feelings, intuitively understanding that these are the ones that will get the attention they need. Not to distract us from attending to their needs, babies hold back on smiling for four or more weeks. And a cry is not a cry. Parents, in particular mothers, can identify the reason their baby is crying by subtle changes in pitch, intensity etc. almost from birth. Crying can be from physical reasons like hunger, pain or a wet diaper or from emotional reasons like loneliness and needing a hug.
When our baby smiles for the first time, we do everything we can, short of standing on our heads, to get them to smile again. This is the moment when many parents, unintentionally, begin to focus on positive displays of emotion in an effort to keep their baby happy. Now when their baby cries they will do things to make them smile, rather than focus directly on the crying. This change is subtle but important as it sets us on a path where we focus less on negative emotions and more on positive ones. Many might ask, “Why is this a problem?”
There is a generally held belief that when we focus on our child’s negative emotions, we encourage negativity and pessimism. This is simply not true. When we teach our child to accept and deal with a negative emotion we help them understand what they are feeling and why. Children (and adults) need this information to resolve problems and to learn how to deal with similar situations in their future. When children (and adults) identify their negative feelings, face them and deal with them, they will be able to put them aside and embrace their happier emotions. Ignoring, avoiding or minimizing negative feelings, gives them a power that they neither need nor deserve.
When we focus on all of our child’s feelings, we see them as whole, and they will learn to see themselves in this way too. Life provides us with challenges and adversity with high predictability. Our child’s ultimate success and happiness depends not on the challenges that she faces, but on how she faces them. When we teach our child to give negative emotions equal status to their positive counterparts, we raise their emotional intelligence and give them the tools to reach their full potential.
Hi, I'm Marsha, mother of four, grandmother of one (soon to be three). If anyone could be called an expert on my children it would be me, but I am certainly not an expert on your's. Parenting is a relationship, one that requires us to connect our unique personality with our child’s so that we can create the best possible environment for healthy development. This website offers ways to help parents make the most of this special relationship so that they can raise happy, emotionally intelligent and successful children.