It’s 11:54 on a Saturday night and the whole house is asleep. Child One is nestled in sweetly amongst the bears and blankets of her wee childhood. Her Macbook and Blackberry are ever present by her side. Child One’s friend, H, is spending the night and snores gently beside her. Child One falls asleep quickly, exhausted from too many tears before bed, the result of not enough sleep and an abundance of activities: honors classes and internships and after school clubs vying for time spent divided between two houses and her beloved horse. Child Two is also sleeping – always a more difficult endeavor for him though blissfully easy tonite. The boy rests on a yard-high downy soft mattress surrounded by clouds of grey bedding. The dogs are down too, although that is an obvious and easy task. A simple “let’s go to bed” will suffice for them any time after the sun has dropped, each burrowing into his and her own side of the couch and hunkering down for the night in the same position, same places no matter the weather or time.
And Sig Other is next to me, the rhythm of sleep clear from his breath. We talked a while before he drifted off tonite – talked about Child One and her anxiety. He wondered if she was suffering, if she was really in trouble, if she really needed help. And I reminded him its impossible to make any sort of judgment about a tired teenager the closer you get to midnight. Having been a female teenager once many, many years ago, I remember the anxiety and frustration and exhaustion and the feeling of being completely lost and totally overwhelmed. I remember not knowing what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go to college (or even IF I wanted to go to college) and I remember that the not knowing was the worst of it. I also remember many a meltdown and that each one felt real and horrible and brutal in the moment and in hindsight was probably the result of a teenage hormonal rollercoaster.
I don’t worry about Child One’s teenage meltdowns. I don’t worry when she cries or gets upset or anxious. It’s natural to freak out as a teenager. It’s natural to be afraid – of change that’s coming, of change that’s happened, of change you can’t predict. What I worry about isn’t the anxiety. What I worry about is what she’s anxious about. I worry that our children worry about the wrong things – that we’ve created a false sense of security, that we’ve cushioned and protected and coddled and cacooned them right out of realistic fear. Realistic fear is “how am I going to fend for myself in the real world?” Realistic fear is about making a living, putting food on the table, affording a decent place to live. Realistic fear can also be about government policy, war, healthcare, the safety and security of our future as a nation. Realistic fear can be about bad guys down the street or across an ocean. And realistic fear can be for the welfare of our family members and those we love.
Realistic fear is NOT “am I going to get into an Ivy League school?” Realistic fear is NOT “am I going to do well or Really Well on my SATs?” Realistic fear is NOT “if I take only two honors courses instead of four, will I jeopardize my future?” But these are the fears that haunt Child One. They are ridiculous. And at almost midnight on a Saturday night, it is futile to tell her so. At almost midnight on a Saturday night, all you can do is shut off the lights, send her to bed and know that the world will look different in the morning.
But after she’s gone to bed, after the house is asleep and four humans and two dogs are lightly snoring in unison, I lie awake and wonder where we went wrong. Of course we’d like the children to want for nothing. Isn’t that what we all want? And giving what you can doesn’t yield a spoiled child. Child One and Two are not remotely spoiled. BUT (and it’s a big but), wanting for nothing does not take away anxiety. All it does is take away perspective about what to be anxious about. Be anxious about world politics and the global economy. Be anxious about how to pay the rent. Be anxious about being kind and attentive to those you love. Be anxious about the Nazis coming. The rest of it, you have to let go. How do I imprint this onto the brain of an anxious teenager???