My teenage daughter, stone-faced, was at the door shoving ear buds in. I did the same, except my face was set with a forced smile. We eyed each other cautiously, but said nothing as we started out with a brisk walk to warm up. I was listening to a really sad song and, if I had to guess, she was listening to an angry one.
Her lean legs, so much longer than mine, carried her far ahead when we began to run. She disappeared around every turn, then circled back to find me. Each time she reappeared her expression had softened a bit, probably because she could see I was struggling to keep up.
“You okay?” she asked, even though it was me that wanted to ask her that, over and over.
She had recently been told a chronic injury would prevent her from continuing the rigorous training she had devoted herself to for more than a decade, and with that a dream ended. I was trying to manage my own pain about the news while also helping her. Even when my efforts were met with contempt, I kept chasing her with suggestions about how to get through it. I researched clubs, activities and part-time jobs and left them like love notes in her inbox and on top of the pillow on her bed — but not without feelings of doubt.
In today’s parenting climate, any attempts to ease hardships for your child will get you labeled as a hunk of metal, like a lawn mower or snowplow, better suited to landscaping than parenting. But as I watched her wrestle with that despair, I didn’t feel like a machine. And honestly a bulldozer would have been a better metaphor for the horsepower of my desire to push that pain out of her way.
Raising young adults has brought a constant hum of uncertainty about when to intervene and when to let the space between us widen. I see the statistics about a growing mental health crisis in this generation, and I pay attention to suggestions that it comes from parents’ failure to raise resilient children. We have to do a better job of stepping off the path our children travel to adulthood, we are told. And I listen, but it doesn’t mean I always heed that advice.
Letting children barrel through disappointments and failures on their own leads to growth, and I’ve succeeded at that more often than not. I’ve made them stick it out until the end of a soccer season, I’ve stepped over a forgotten instrument at the front door and I’ve resisted the urge to email the parents of children who have hurt mine.
“She has to face this so she can she come out stronger,” I told myself on that run. I pressed repeat on the sad song and held onto the tears I didn’t want her to see. “I’ll just run behind her, so she knows I’m here.”
When my daughter was less than a day old, a nurse announced she was taking her to the special care nursery to be treated for jaundice while I stayed in bed to recover from a Caesarean section. Between ragged and uncontrolled sobs I asked how I could be separated from her so soon. When I fled to the bathroom to calm down, my husband convinced the nurses to try something different. Minutes later, a specialized incubator was wheeled in, taking up all the space in the room. We took turns wearing a pair of sunglasses so we could sit beside her as she lay under the blue lights.
Years earlier, before parenthood was even tangible, I on the phone with my mom when I interrupted her to say I felt unwell. “What’s happening?” she demanded. As I began to describe a tight chest, tilted room and tunnel vision, my mother’s tone changed too: “Get down on the floor, I’m coming to get you.”
I was a young graduate student at the time, in the final grueling weeks of writing my thesis and preparing to defend it before a faculty panel. I was feeling a lot of pressure about what came next, sending out applications for further schooling and fretting about whether my live-in boyfriend would finally propose. I was unhinged by all the uncertainty, but I ignored the signs that I was losing control.
It was a relief when she found me trembling and scared and took me to the hospital. She stood like a barrier between me and the waiting room filled with strangers while the triage nurse checked my vitals. When the doctor came to examine me, she took my hand and sat unflinching while he ran through a list of questions about recreational drug use or an unexpected pregnancy — even though hearing a yes to either question would have been hard for her. When he returned with the results of preliminary tests and asked about anxiety, I watched her face shift to surprise as I shared what I had been feeling. He suggested I had suffered a panic attack and told me to go home, rest and figure out how to manage my stress. Since that day — including long after I graduated and got married — she has been diligent with reminders to pay attention to how I’m feeling.
Resilience is a vital part of parenting and it’s our responsibility to lay the foundation that prepares our children for the realities of life. But we have to be careful about implying that the best way to heal this generation is to make resilience an absolute. Our kids need to know, maybe now more than ever, that when they are with us, they don’t have to be unfailingly resilient.
It was a great comfort when my mother placed her body between me and the rest of the world that night. And only hours after feeling the weight of my own daughter across me for the first time, I was adamant about doing the same. That hasn’t changed as I’ve become a more experienced parent; in fact, it’s become easier to act when I think I need to.
“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” she told me as we changed directions to head home. “But maybe we can try again?” She waited for me to nod, too breathless to answer, then popped her angry song back into her ears and ran toward the disappearing sun.
I slowed down to shake out the burning in my legs, along with any doubt I felt about suggesting we run together. I wasn’t trying to smooth the path ahead of her; only time and courage can do that. But I did want all the moments of resilience I’ve collected in my own life to be like a wind at her back, nudging her forward to a new horizon. I wanted her to run ahead knowing I was behind her, and I would be there no matter how long it took or how much my body ached from the effort. I don’t know yet if she’ll see it as a time I was strong enough for both of us — she might not realize that until it’s her turn to do the same for someone she loves.
Louise Gleeson is a freelance writer living in Ontario. Find her on Twitter @louisegleeson.