October 1st, 2018

As new parents, we’re responsible for everything in our children’s lives. From eating, to sleeping, to playtime, to rest, we govern their lives like all-powerful gods. Or at the very least, benevolent dictators. But as they grow older, good parents learn how to let go of that control, so their children can learn how to take responsibility for their own lives and their own well-being. It’s arguably one of a parent’s most-important jobs, but at the same time it’s one of parenting’s greatest challenges.

I was reminded of this recently as Kristi and I ate tacos with great friends of ours. I love tacos, particularly with these friends, because we get great insight. Or at least we think we do…

On this particular morning, we were discussing a family with an adult son who’s experiencing a mental health crisis. They’re actively trying to help their son deal with his challenges, and as bystanders, it’s easy for us to tell them how to handle this situation. But we aren’t living the situation. As parents, we try to help our kids suffer as little as possible, and to get through as many things as possible. However, when it comes down to it, our real role is to help them own their own life. But this is harder than anyone can imagine.

Allowing Her to Fall

As a single mom of a woman who experienced many challenges, I thought my job was to help my daughter avoid all the problems she could, because she had so many problems of her own to deal with. But the day came when I had to step back and say, “Whoa, she has to do these things on her own. I can’t do it for her.”

I remember, she would lose her balance, fall to the ground, turn and tell me it was my fault. Well, she was a grown woman and I wasn’t strong enough to catch her as she fell! I had to do something different, so one day I didn’t step in. The first time I let her fall, she lashed out, cringed, and made a lot of noise. People around her turned and gaped. She couldn’t believe I didn’t step in.

The second time she fell, and I didn’t catch her, she looked at me, made some grumbling noises – quieter this time – and moved on. The third time we were with friends. The other mom looked at me as if to say, “how dare you not catch her!” I said, “She’ll be ok.” I went over and helped her up and asked her if she was okay. I got a dirty look this time, but she was quiet. After that, there was no more yelling. It was just sadness. We both cried because we knew how hard it was for her when she fell. I encouraged her to be independent, but I also helped her learn to watch out for curbs and uneven ground.

Mourning a Loss is the First Step Towards Accepting a Disability

So, this story kept reverberating in my mind when I was thinking about this family. It’s excruciatingly hard to step back and not intervene when our kids are in trouble, I know. But at some point, my friends and I were saying, “They can’t continue to rescue their son. Somehow he has to own his disability.”

He has to create his own life, and make it work. He has to continue to fulfill his responsibilities and sort out for himself how he is going to run his life, or he will forever be falling back into the arms of his parents.

Therein, a couple things happen:

  1. He can name his demon.
  2. He can legitimately mourn that he has to deal with it.
  3. He can begin to move forward and make decisions on how he’ll manage that demon on his own.

Until he mourns the loss of what could have been, and his parent mourn and let him own his disability, nothing will change. Mourning this means giving up so many expectations about what life could have been, and instead facing the reality of what it really is. Through this we can also begin to see our children’s potential, which as parents is something we are constantly monitoring. That doesn’t become apparent until we step back and allow them to make mistakes and try new things.

Finding Hope in Struggle

And it won’t all be painful failures. As our kids begin to stretch their wings and take those first hesitant steps on their own, they’ll also experience profound successes, which compounds in their lives and will ultimately build a more positive self-image.

Of course, all disabilities are different. Not every child will be able to self-manage in the same way and some require more support than others. But the principle in universal. Having a disability can make one feel like a victim, but each of us is given challenges in life to help us grow and become the person god intended us to be. It’s through these challenges that we can learn, grieve, and begin to see how to use our stories to help other people. Because it’s in sharing our stories that we learn to connect with other people, learn how to move forward, and begin to create a life worth living.