This week, like most, had its ups and downs. Unfortunately, I seem a little more susceptible to the downs recently. The kids are wearing me out. With Zander, it’s about trying to help him do better in school — encouraging him to slow down, get organized, write more neatly, take pride in turning in good quality work. I feel like I’m on him constantly. It’s exhausting. With Zoe, it’s a completely different dynamic. She and I seem to be engaged in an endless, complex power struggle, which is constantly manifesting in new and bizarre ways. This, too, is exhausting and leaves me with a continuously short fuse.
On Wednesday, we tried something new. After I picked up the kids from my mom’s, we went to the University library to do homework. The atmosphere seemed perfect, and I had high hopes for a pleasant and productive evening. Turns out the kids had a lot of homework that night — especially Alexander. And things were not exactly “pleasant”. After almost two hours of slogging away, we left the library, stopping for a quick hot chocolate at the coffee shop on the way out. That’s when Alexander dropped the bombshell: he still had some unfinished homework for AIG math. But not just “some homework”; he was required to create a math board game, for which he still had to make 25 cards with math problems and answers. He also had to write detailed directions for the game. It was due the next day.
Despite the fact that this was not MY homework, I immediately felt completely freaked out, along with being angry and frustrated that the assignment had been left to the last minute. We got home a little after 8 p.m., and Alexander immediately got to work. I was impressed by his determination, but there simply wasn’t enough time to get it all done — and the law of diminishing returns started kicking in as he got more tired. He went to bed with a plan to get up early the next morning and finish. The next day, he did wake up early, though not quite as early as planned. There was still a lot to do, and he was overwhelmed and frustrated with trying to write the math questions neatly on the cards. But then Zoe got up and started helping him make the cards, and things took a turn for the better. Though they didn’t get them all finished, they had a substantial number, and Zander had also fleshed out the game instructions. He had a plan for how he was going to present the assignment to his teacher.
Overall, based on past experience with how Alexander responds to school work challenges, I was surprised and encouraged with the way he had handled things. It was also great to see Zoe and Alexander work together, which had turned it into a much more positive situation. Suddenly, instead of another 5th grade homework debacle, this felt more like an “all’s well that ends well” scenario. With the homework dilemma solved, I was able to assess my own role and recognize how I could have toned down my reaction and not been so distraught.
But what if things hadn’t turned out well? What if, in fact, things had turned out very badly, with serious negative consequences? What if I or our family was confronted with a real crisis, not just the threat of a late homework assignment? How would we handle it?
At a recent Unitarian Universalist service, visiting minister Reverend Audette Fulbright shared this story about Thomas Edison, which was adapted from Chicken Soup for the Soul:
“On December 9, 1914, fire broke out in the West Orange district where Thomas Edison’s laboratories were. The fire destroyed most of the labs, and although the damage exceeded $2 million dollars’ worth, they were only insured for about $240,000 because they had been built of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. Edison was 67 at the time.
At the height of the fire, his son, Charles, went racing around, trying to find him. He finally found Thomas standing nearby, white hair blowing in the wind, soot and smoke surrounding him. ‘Where’s your mother?’ his father shouted at him. ‘Go find her. She’ll never see anything like this as long as she lives.’
Charles later wrote how sad he felt for his father at that moment. What must he be feeling, at age 67, watching much of his life’s work go up in flames? A disaster, surely. The next morning, the two went and surveyed the ruins. ‘There is great value in disaster,” Thomas suddenly said. ‘All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew!'”
Reverend Albright went on to elaborate on the individual differences in how people respond to change, the unexpected, and crisis. “I consider a fire that burns almost all one’s life work to be one of those big moments of unexpected change. Some people are devastated by such events. Some people look at the flames and see an opportunity to start over. What is the key to that difference?
My suspicion is we can’t begin with the fire. We probably need to start much closer to home, somewhere in the realm of the daily, with those much smaller, much more frequent opportunities for dealing with the unexpected that visit us. We’re stuck in traffic when our meeting is beginning across town. We burn the biscuits the night we hope to impress someone with our cooking. A child drops and breaks our favorite coffee mug. How do we deal with these little things? Do we get angry, do we sulk, sigh with resignation and move on, do we laugh? It makes a difference, each time we face that choice of how to respond.”
Ah, how that hit home for me. I often think about how I want my children to be more resilient and adaptable — but I really need those characteristics for myself! In the area of my family life, more than in any other arena, I find that I do not react the way in which I would wish to change, the unexpected, the (minor) crisis.
In her service, Reverend Fulbright discussed ways to combat our negative reactions to unexpected and uncontrollable events in our lives. She remined us that we have choices about how we see and respond to change and suggested the use of humor, which “allows us to flow through difficulties instead of being broken by them.”
It was a lovely sermon, and I left feeling refreshed and excited by the ideas she had described. I’m not a particularly spiritual person — and I’m definitely not a religious person. But there are those moments of transcendence — glimpses into another world that are inexplicably uplifting and inspiring. Mostly, for me, they happen outside in nature, sometimes during truly good times with friends (or with my children!), and very occasionally even in a church. At earlier times in my life, it seemed those moments were enough — enough to buoy me through the mundane and the trying. But I’m realizing (ten years in) that successful and happy parenting requires more than just moments of transcendence; it requires a true sea change in one’s attitude about life. It requires becoming Thomas Edison! And that, my dear friends, is something I’m still working on.