My kids and I are generally good communicators. That’s less a result of good parenting on my part and more a result of the trauma we’ve been through as a family of four that put up an epic battle against an incurable disease, and lost said battle, and our fourth, to said incurable disease.
Before brain cancer invaded our family unit, when I picked up my kids from school, I’d ask them: how’s your day? I’d ask with whom they played at recess and whether they learned anything fun. I’d ask the whos and whats and whens.
When my husband’s brain tumor grew too large, and when my children began watching their father pour cereal onto the floor because he forgot the concept of a bowl, and hearing their parents argue about whether scissors could be used as writing utensils, the whos and whats and whens became insufficient. The whos and whats and whens and “how are you doing” revealed answers that felt simply underwhelming and superficial and just…not enough.
So we changed the questions.
With the help of a children’s art therapist who specializes in grief and loss, the questions evolved. Instead of just who and what and when, it became how did that feel? and why do you think you felt that way? and what can I do to help make this any easier? And when we, my children and I, moved beyond “how are you doing,” we opened a world of words we’d never used with each other, and a level of depth I didn’t know my kids, just six and eight at the time, possessed.
I learned where the anger and sadness lived in their bodies and that sometimes I used words like “hospice” that they didn’t understand but were too afraid to ask, and that they needed to know the logistics of their father’s death more than I’d imagined—like where was I sitting when he died. I learned who my kids were on a different level, and our relationship, while still parent-child, felt different. Stronger. More balanced and symbiotic.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the world shut down, we (my children and I) shut down in a lot of ways, too. The questions stopped, though I didn’t exactly realize that truth as I navigated the new world, trying to find ways to work and homeschool (crisis-school) and manage my anxiety, along with everybody else. We were around each other all the time (All. The. Time.) and I forget to check in with them because, well, they were right there. I could see how they were doing.
But really, I couldn’t. Because “how are you doing” isn’t enough. And things got to a boiling point. When my frustration and my son’s rage and my daughter’s impatience boiled over, we again saw the art therapist (over Zoom). She asked us each to draw a picture of how we felt when dealing with the other two members of the family. The exercise was eye-opening, not only because I was reminded again how intuitive children are when it comes to understanding the core of their thoughts and feelings, but because I’d lost sight of what they needed from me. Which was for me to be more present and less anxious. For that to happen, I told them they needed to help me—to pull a little more weight around the house because the amount I was trying to do alone, during a pandemic, was physically, mentally, and emotionally too heavy to do alone and attempting to do so meant I had nothing left for them.
Since then, they’ve stepped up, and I’ve stepped down (or really, away…away from my work and to-dos) and we’ve carved out more time for play and cuddles and quiet. And we’ve continued to check in with each other, which has made life at home calmer.
For the second time, I realized checking in with each other, specifically me checking in with the kids, has made our home life better because we were all getting more of what we needed from the others.
When I was presented with this assignment, I was introduced to a new question to ask my kids as another way to check in. The question: What do I need to know about you that will help me be a better mommy?
I posed the question to my children, expecting to hear familiar answers because like I said in my first sentence, we’re good communicators and we check in with each other. And yet, my daughter’s answer was one I didn’t expect at all.
She said, “Sometimes I want to be alone with my grief without you barging in.”
My gut reaction was defensive, and I employed no thought before blurting out, “What? I don’t barge in.” She said, with a very typical-tween shoulder shrug, “You do. Every time. In like a minute.” At that point I regained some of my maturity and took a breath and listened—because this was a check in, not a time to be defensive. If she felt like I was barging in, then I was barging in. Even if my intention was positive. Even if I was only trying to help. Even if I thought I wasn’t. And now I know. The next time she needs to be alone with her grief what she needs is space, not comfort, and I won’t barge in. And she’ll get what she truly needs, not what I think she needs.
As the pandemic continues to ravage our country (because that is what it’s still doing, regardless of reopening conversations), it’s important to check in with our kids. Because what I learned through trauma, and parenting through a pandemic, and just in life, is that relationships with our kids need as much work as other relationships—your relationship with your child needs as much work and effort and reciprocity as your marriage, and your friendship, and any other important person in your life.
The fact is, we should all normalize checking in with our kids. Asking more than “how are you doing?” Asking questions in different ways. Asking new questions. Nurturing the relationship. Because doing so will help us be better parents, will strengthen the bond with our children, and be the game changer that makes tomorrow better.