Last Friday while returning to our car after attending our local Christmas parade, I tripped and fell. While this is never great for one’s pride, it turned out it was a lot worse for my knee too. Not wanting to put a damper on the festive mood, I sucked up the pain and continued to the car, reassuring my son that I was fine which was not accurate or honest. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to look old or fragile. I prefer to convey independence, self-reliance, and strength—or at least the appearance of strength.
Ironically, my lack of honesty reveals a greater inadequacy; lack of courage and trust. I didn’t want to reveal my weakness, admit my vulnerability, and neediness. Long story short, I wasn’t fine. After an excruciating night, I ended up at the ER anyway. Much to my surprise, it turned out that my knee wasn’t broken. Yay! I couldn't believe it could hurt that much and not be fractured but I did require stitches
What has this anecdote got to do with Intentional Parenting?
More than you might think.
In a fairly common “mom” move, I had minimized my situation, denied my need for help and suppressed the expression of my pain. At first glance this may appear selfless—a much-lauded standard in American culture. But this kind of ‘selflessness’ can be dangerous and destructive because it denies the truth. It invalidates the perceptions of those with whom we share the situation, sets up an unhealthy model that suggests we must suppress our needs so we don’t inconvenience others, that the desired response is to handle challenges on our own and not impose on others with a request for help.
This minor incident goes far beyond an effort to salvage one’s pride or not wanting to spoil a family event and is especially damaging in families formed through adoption. It reinforces a paradigm that values maintaining the appearance that all is okay EVEN IF IT ISN’T. It implies that neediness might be a dealbreaker in the relationship, that only as long as one appears stable and independent, the relationship remains secure. The unsettling corollary of this suggests that neediness or vulnerability might break the relationship connection and exposes a fundamental mistrust. The inference that might easily be drawn is: choose role-playing over truth-telling. A sad lesson indeed.
Back to Friday night...
In actuality, I had seriously injured my knee; this was much more than road rash and damaged pride. My knee was bleeding profusely and it took until well after midnight until we got it under control. I rebuffed my daughter’s repeated requests that we go to the hospital. Instead, I faked a "wellness" I didn't feel and insisted she should go home. (In spite of the fact that I take blood thinners and I live alone.) This was not only dishonest but also risky.
selflessness’ can be dangerous and destructive because it denies the truth. When we invalidate the perceptions of those with whom we share the situation, we set up false reality and an unhealthy model that suggests we must suppress our needs so we don’t inconvenience others.
My insistence on preserving face invalidated and undermined her accurate assessment of the situation. I had contravened the truth of my children's experience. While this is a small incident, we actually shared a very emotionally intense experience. They were both frightened and concerned. Since their dad died, they have been hyper-vigilant about my safety. (Sensitivity to loss is a well-documented trigger point for adoptees.)
Consider how often we parents may have engaged in this kind of reality-denying interaction. The cumulative effect can be very powerful. As Adoption-attuned parents, we are aware of the many layers of complexity, ambiguity, grief, and loss which accompany adoption. Our children can easily infer that they must keep these painful wounds under wraps and act as if all is okay, as if they are not in pain, as if they do not need our assistance or the help of more skilled professionals.
This soul-destroying, heart-breaking message of denial, invalidation and self-neglect is certainly not what we intend, however it may be the message we have taught.
Take the time this holiday season to clearly assess how you care for yourself. Modeling this important practice may just be one of the most important gifts you provide your family. Equally important, strive for emotional integrity. For example, if you or your partner are angry or emotionally overwhelmed and your kids observe it, don’t whitewash it as fatigue. Own it. Kids don’t need the adult-appropriate details, but they do deserve the truth which they can plainly observe. This is an important part of teaching them to trust their instincts and that it is okay to have emotions it’s all part of learning how to handle them and how to develop relationships built of honesty and openness. Be conscious of how you model permission to be vulnerable or to need help. It might be one of the best gifts you give your children this holiday season.