Heart hurts

March 11,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Yesterday, as I waited outside T.'s preschool for the doors to unlock, I got to talking with a mom I sort of know, who has a child in preschool and an older son away at college. I told her I teach college kids, and we talked about the gives and takes of parenting as your kids grow older. She told me that her son will often come home from college for a night or two when he's tired, his "heart hurts," or things just aren't going right at school. He never wants to talk much about it (he's 18, after all, and a young man), but he craves just being home, the comforting rhythms of the familiar settling around him like a cozy blanket--returning like a homing pigeon to his old room and his old ways. "When your kids get older," the mom told me, "sometimes just being there for them is the best thing you can do." ************* Like most parents, I strive always to fix the things that are wrong in my children's lives--even the things that aren't easily fixable, like bad moods, sadness (or the "mean reds" as we call them around here), fear, and general moodiness. This is always easier with T. When she mopes around, grouchy or snappy, I'll grab her and look at the label on the back of her pants. "Ah ha!" I'll declare. "Just what I thought! Grouchy pants, size 4T!" And she'll laugh and wiggle away, her bad mood vanishing like a puff of smoke. I'm sure this technique of mine has a definite shelf life, and I have no delusions that this will work for much longer. But for now it never fails to produce a giggle. If she's droopy about something and doesn't quite know what's the matter, a cuddle on the couch or a few minutes spent playing a game with her will usually bring her right out of her funk. The other day she woke up in her own bed and called out for me, in a panicked voice. When I peeked in on her, she was sitting up in bed, her mouth turned down at the corners the way it does when she's fighting back tears. "What's wrong, T.?" I asked her in alarm. She was sad, and didn't know why, and just needed a cry on my shoulder. I held her for almost ten minutes and she sobbed and sniffed, purging herself of whatever demons had bothered her in the night (a bad dream? Panic? Worries about life and death?). Then she was done, and all was right with the world again. But I carried the burden of her tears with me all day long, wondering what she'd seen in her dreams. I wanted to encircle her with my arms constantly that day, to protect her and keep her safe. To fix every bad dream for her from that day on. Forever and ever. L. is more of a challenge. He can almost never articulate why he feels the way he does (or what those feelings are), and his emotions run the extreme from elated and hyped-up to angry and stressed out, with no in-between. Fixing the things that go wrong in his world involves a skilled mixture of detective work, psychology, infinite patience, and a thick skin. Most of the time we stand and let him pile the anger and insults and meltdowns upon us, as he works through what's bothering him. Sometimes he seems so very far away from us, spiraling downward into rages we can't understand or help him through. At night we pull tricks and rituals out of a seemingly bottomless box of them to get him to sleep, or to allay 3:00 a.m. worries. But we're noticing more and more these days that we're reaching the bottom of the box of tricks. It's not enough to just spray "bad dream begone" into the air, or adjust the dream catcher hanging above his pillow. Last night I woke at 3:00 a.m. to find him standing silently by my bed. Before I could even ask him what was wrong, he scurried off again into the dark. The next day I asked him if he remembered his nighttime visit to our room. "Oh yes," he said. "I came in." "Why?" He shrugged. Maybe, I thought, maybe he just needed to know we were there--some instinct propelling him through the dark to us, his safe haven, his home. How about you? How do you chase away the grouchies at your house? Or a case of the mean reds, or your children's heart hurts--the ones that can't be fixed with a bandaid and a hug?