The other night, as I left the grocery store in the all-too-familiar rush to get somewhere, I heard Sting's song "Fragile" pour through the speakers.
“On and on and on and on. How fragile we are. How fragile we are…”
Hearing the song — when did I last hear a Sting song, I wondered, especially from his solo career? — made me pause as I watched my daughter walk quickly toward the car.
How fragile we are — indeed.
Jill and I have come to dread this time of year, when the days get shorter, the gap seems impossibly wide between fall and spring sports, and the mundane, day-to-day nature of the school year moves into a high-pitch duet of sharps, flats, and off-key moments in time.
Our oldest daughter, who turns 16 next month, is ADHD/bipolar. For the past two years, the period from November to March has been an unsettled, contentious time in our household, tension always simmering under the surface.
Tension that, like a pot of boiling water, sometimes overflows.
Writing is my form of therapy. And over the past three years, I’ve written about Kate and the trials she and we have faced many times — in this space and in other places. If anything, this blog is as much about raising her as it is about raising a family of performers.
I haven’t written recently, even though my Facebook friends will attest that I haven’t lacked for things to say. I’ve even started using Twitter, if for no other reason than I can’t seem to focus for more than 140 characters at a time.
I’m definitely the ADD part of Kate – the “H,” if I had it, was squeezed out years ago by parenting and my profession. My gene pool also contributed to her stubborn, dig in your heels, and win-at-all-costs nature of rhetorical discourse, even if that discourse is simply yelling at the top of her lungs. Our arguments feel like they come from some bad sitcom featuring ethnic stereotypes, or a reality show on TLC.
In the end, however, it’s “our reality show,” and fortunately for us, the cameras are not on when these things happen.
Five random thoughts about parenting:
• Nothing exposes your flaws like being a parent. It’s the single hardest job anyone has.
• Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids – all four of them. And I can’t believe how quickly time seems to be flying by, especially since they’ve become teenagers. I realize that, in many cases, we’re coming quickly to the end of the adolescent marathon.
• Parenting has taught me about life in a time-suck continuum. Blink and your toddler is a teenager. Blink twice and they’re off to college. (A three-time blink is not recommended, however, because that means your now-grown child will be living on your couch.)
• There are days when I would rather take shelter in a Home Depot than face another parenting problem, and I can’t stand Home Depot.
• I don’t see how President Obama does it. Being the parent to two adolescent girls is enough to turn anyone gray.
This is the time of year, however, when my flaws are more exposed than ever. The usual stress that the holidays bring, along with the addition of four teens’ birthdays in a single month (December no less), is enough to put anyone on edge. And then there is “It.”
“It” is our name for the illness, which always lingers but tends to take a long-term sublet in our daughter as soon as the sun starts setting before 6 p.m. I’ve always said that Kate’s implied motto is, “If at first you don’t succeed, try something else…” The always-restless nature of the ADHD child exacerbates that, and puberty has been no help.
“It” is interested in stirring things up, in keeping the family’s mood on a flying trapeze. When her body runs out of energy, or when faced with something too difficult to deal with emotionally, “It” shuts down and takes a brief nap in the middle of a conversation.
“It” is what happens when the days become shorter and less structured, and she starts to run out of options. “It” tells her to stay home from school, to raid the fridge for comfort foods and sugar, to be combative when confronted.
“It” is all about feeding “It.”
Early on, Jill and I made the conscious decision to be open about parenting and this illness. This summer, representing the American School Counselor Association (where she works), Jill spoke to a group of dance teachers from around the state and country about the dealing with teens with mental health issues. It was a huge success; everyone in the audience appreciated her advocacy and sincerity.
Being open pays other dividends. Over the past couple of years, Kate’s siblings and relatives have become much more sympathetic and understanding as their knowledge has deepened. And we have had conversations with other parents who, like us, find themselves in a quandary about what to do and how to help their child navigate the social and emotional landmines.
We don’t know any more than anyone else, but we can listen and share.
And that’s important, because the day-to-day intensity and lack of stability that this illness nurtures is tough for us as parents. Navigating the teenage years along with the frustrations that build among others and us in dealing with “It” is never easy. How I respond to those frustrations and confrontations is imperfect, even on the best days.
Nowhere am I more flawed or vulnerable than in my role as Kate’s father. But the same can be said for my dealings with Ben, Emma, and Nicholas as well.
How fragile we are. Indeed.
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