I have been thinking a lot about adversity lately. I believe most of us are programmed to avoid pain. At least I am. We set up controls that minimize heartache or engage in behaviors that mask the pain. For each of us those behaviors can look very different. I admit, I grew up without a lot of adversity. Yes, my parents got divorced before it was the acceptable thing to do and yes, I, had seasons when I wasn’t sure how I was going to put milk on the table for Sam. I lost a brother to cancer, went through a divorce and have had some pretty ugly debt issues, but true, chronic, childhood adversity…nope.
I haven’t been hit, I haven’t been sexually assaulted, I have, for the most part, always had a place to call home (minus the few weeks that Sam refers to as our “homeless summer” when Sam and I and the two dogs couch-surfed and lived out of my Honda element in between homes). I have always had enough food to not go hungry. My parents were educated. I was raised in a loving home where I was hugged and loved and read to and nurtured and wanted from the time I was born. I am a white girl in what is still a white privilege world.
So, there you have it. A life with some really painful seasons but without real chronic adversity, and for that I am thankful. There is a huge amount of research on a child’s early years and the effects of chronic adversity and trauma. The kind of research that says if a child isn’t talked to and hugged and fed and nurtured from 0-3 that the challenges they will face are insurmountable. That it will affect their lifelong happiness. They will struggle to form deep and lasting relationships. Their lives as children and as adults can be plagued with violence and substance abuse. They lack empathy and often struggle to integrate into society. I sit and listen to adults talk about how critical it is to hug and love and nurture our little ones and my heart aches as I wonder what this means for my younger two. I fight the thought that they missed something that cannot be fixed or healed. But I know (and even some new data suggests) that although this is true for many kids it is not always the truth and that sometimes resiliency wins out. So, with that hope, what else is at play when we face adversity?
I recently helped manage someone close to me who went through a situation that was an inaugural head on collision with adversity. I remember saying to this person “no matter the outcome, how you respond to this can make or break your future. You can let this take you down or you can learn from it. You get to choose”. And the hope is that in the choosing we have a story that makes us stronger. Thankfully this person was a young adult with the capacity and strength to make good choices and face the adversity.
When the boys first moved in I thought a lot about this. What do I do with a couple of kids who did not have that nurturing as babies? That didn’t have a place to call home or new shoes for school or food at times and weren’t sure whether any adults could pull it together enough to be a part of their lives permanently. I won’t say that they were not loved. I believe they were loved, but for whatever reason their bio parents didn’t have the capacity to care for them. They too probably faced adversity as children and were doing the best they knew how. I thought that enough love would heal them. I realize now that I am tasked with parenting a couple of kids who were too young to make a conscious choice about how they managed their adversity. Now, don’t let this statement fool you. They each managed it. One of them went inward, set up a wall so thick that nothing going on around him got through. He could sit in a room with chaos all around him and appear as if nothing was happening. Still can to this day when he needs to. The other lashed out, yelled at the world, inflicted his pain on others. And yes, this one can still do that too. Maybe it was just the nature they were born with but they both dealt with their adversity. In the only way they knew how. Those behaviors gave them a sense of control. But guess what, now that they are safe and fed and warm and unconditionally loved those behaviors no longer serve them.
In this process, I had to ask myself – what behaviors have I created that no longer serve me? The behaviors that protected me when I needed protection? My dad and mom split up when I was a freshman in high school. They met in college – he a football player and she a cheerleader. They went to a Christian college and married when my mom was just 19. She dropped out of school to follow my dad and his dreams for his career. That is what most women did in the 50s. Now I don’t want you, for a single minute, to think that my mom is not insanely smart and incredibly talented, but when they split she had no career and little secondary education. She had no money of her own. She had sacrificed all of it to be the stay at home mom that my brothers and I benefited from. I didn’t realize how much this affected me until I did some introspection after my ex and I split up. In a moment of clarity, I realized that I had unknowingly set my marriage up as if it was going to fail. I had a Master’s degree, I made decent money, I could pay the bills and mow the lawn and I didn’t needa man. I kept my true emotions close to the vest not ever exhibiting real vulnerability. When he and I split up I moved on without a beat. Yes, I was emotionally devastated because I was never the girl who was going to be divorced. But I was prepared. I didn’t want alimony or child support or any support at all. I didn’t want to have to count on anyone because if I counted on someone and they left then I was just screwed. I now realize that I had created behaviors that contributed to my marriage falling apart. I made sure that I had control of it all, including my emotions. In some respects, they served me well but if my life was going to be what I wanted it to be, if I wanted to create real relationships with real intimacy, I might need to look at those behaviors and make a change.
I met my boyfriend nearly 4 years ago. Maintaining an adult relationship has taken a lot of introspection and honestly a “jump off a cliff “mentality. It took a really patient man for me to realize that this relationship wouldn’t work unless I learned to be vulnerable. Unless I allowed someone else to help me, unless I could be a true partner and mostly that I could be honest with my feelings and my vulnerabilities. I am learning that I don’t have to try to be perfect (as if that is possible!) but that I can even give up the notion that perfection exists. That someone can love my flaws and actually appreciate them. That I can let go of enough control to count on the fact that he will be there when I need him, that he honestly loves me with all my faults and only in that can we have true depth of relationship. The old behaviors worked for a minute but never allowed for intimacy in my relationships, so the truth is that those old behaviors no longer work, and honestly, they never did.
Circle back to my kids. And guess what? I can’t fix their early years. I can only love them and let them know I am never going anywhere. There is no magic wand. I see moments of healing, but it has been a roller coaster ride of parenting. And in it the MOST important thing I have learned is that this is the place where God showed me that I can never do it on my own. My whole life was set up to do it on my own. To not count on anyone, to set myself up for independence and control. Up to this point I honestly thought that I was strong and smart and could do anything on my own. Kind of my own personal sin of pride. You know that idea that God won’t give us more than we can handle? That isn’t in the Bible. It is something we like to say to people because it makes us feel good and gives us hope. But you know what? I believe God gave me more than I could handle, way more than I could handle on my own, so I could learn to let Him handle it. So, I could learn that I can’t control everything or really anything, so I could learn that not only can He heal my kids, but He can heal me too. And in that letting go, not only is their hope for my kids, there is hope for me.