I’ve been thinking a lot lately about expert advice.
I crave it.
The alluring notion that there is an objectively best way to do everything in life is pitched to us in every sphere – books, blogs, seminars – if you’re anxious about it, there’s someone waiting in the wings to teach you how to overcome it.
And I fall for it every time.
From obsessing about parenting, driving my husband crazy with my endless evaluations of our tactics and the kids’ needs, to convincing myself that I can offer darn near professional support for my spouse in his battle with mental illness if I just read another book or listen to another podcast. I even find myself daydreaming about all sorts of futures I don’t actually want – degrees I don’t really care to pursue, jobs I know would burn me out – all because the lure of being an expert in that area is so strong.
So, when my daughter started experiencing a lot of school-related anxiety, I turned to the experts. I buried myself in a browser full of tabs about child mindfulness exercises and warning signs of ocd and websites for child therapists in our area. I sought advice on parenting forums and followed each of their leads to websites, books, and studies that promised they had the key insights to solve my problem. One suggested a diet that “transformed” her son. Another tells me about a special kind of massage tool that releases stress and must be used every two hours. Another suggests that my own anxiety is causing my daughters’. Awesome.
I understand, of course, that nobody can be an expert in everything. Expert advice is developed in a vacuum of academia and institutions and isolated variables. Expert advice, by nature, conflicts with previous knowledge. It’s always evolving, always presenting shiny new models to replace the outdated offerings that are now poked through with holes of exceptions and experience.
But I just can’t help myself. I go home and spend a week compiling a long list titled “strategies for child anxiety”. I dedicate a few minutes each afternoon to setting up a stress relieving sensory activity, putting out a snack, and preparing the notebook and markers where she can draw pictures of her big feelings, just the like the experts suggest. I begin to feel more confident as I head out the door. Hopeful, even.
The bus pulls up and I hear it before I can even see her face — that open mouth mournful cry that just tears my heart wide open. Through panicked sobs she tells me she is so sorry she was naughty and didn’t get a green star on her hand even though she ‘sat really still with her legs criss cross and a big smile like Ms. Rosa said!” She wails into my coat that her teachers are always mad at her and she is NEVER going to that school again. Meanwhile, Rowan is at my elbow, tugging my sleeve and waving his hand in my face to show off his bright green permanent marker star. He is beaming with pride, branded with his goodness. The arbitrary way this teacher does discipline and rewards has been a battle all year.
I’m finally full of rage.
And, for once, I let myself feel it instead of trying to fix it.
We went home and dried our tears and drank hot cocoa and read library books all cozy and smooshed together on the couch. It didn’t “fix” anything, but somehow we were all set to right. I wonder how often the expert advice drowns out our own intuition or our ability to really hear the ones we love tell us what they need.
Today, I sat in my friend Jaci‘s beautiful kitchen and asked her how she helps her kids through anxiety. I especially wanted to know how she discerns when she’s overreacting and when she’s not engaging enough. Even with a squirmy toddler on her lap she responded without hesitation, “I don’t think you ever do. I think that’s just how it is, always wrestling between the two. You want to equip them to solve some problems on their own, so sometimes that means letting them work it out with peers. Sometimes it’s more complicated and that means advocating for them with teachers and staff. It just depends. There isn’t one right answer.”
I felt myself exhaling with every sentence. In two short minutes she had offered me advice that was far more practical and a million times more affirming than anything I had read in weeks of late night searches for answers that would fix my kid or soothe my guilt. She offered me her humanity and she opened up space for my own, no certainty required. She reminded me that only in friendship can we find the nuance and grace that no expert can capture.
Last night Rowan re-appeared for the fifth time after being put to bed, throwing himself to the ground and declaring he would NOT get dressed tomorrow and would NOT be going to school. All the minimizing and dismissing and exasperated responses bubbled up inside me, followed quickly by the expert advice that I didn’t have an ounce of energy for. I mustered a half-hearted, “You really don’t like school right now. You wish you could stay home all day and play.”
“I’m SO MAD!” He dives into the couch face first, punching the cushions.
I exhale, slowly. “You know, I remember feeling like that when I was in first grade and had a not very nice teacher.”
His turns his face toward me, his expression changed from anger to curiosity. “Really? You did? What did you do?”
What did I do? At first I’m trying to think of the ‘right’ answer, something practical that will reassure him, some behavior I want him to try. But then I’m transported back to Ms. Felix’s 1st grade class. I focus in on my clearest memory – sitting in a reading circle on the floor and the teacher accidentally bumps a metal oscillating fan off a table and onto my head. I’m blinded by the pain but don’t move because we’re not allowed to leave our spot on the carpet and she’s yelling at me because now the fan is broken and somehow I’m to blame. I couldn’t stop crying so she sent me to the nurse’s office, a tiny windowless room that became my safe haven after that incident. The rest of the year I had a lot of mystery stomach pain and headaches that were cured with a little rest on a cot in that quiet safety. What a gift that nurse was.
I look back up at his little face. The anger is gone but one last tear is still slowly tracing down his cheeks. “Well, sometimes I cried at school. Sometimes I talked to other nice teachers. When I got home I would tell Nanni about it. I always felt better when I played with my friends, and sometimes I told them how I was feeling too. ”
His jaw dropped open. “That’s like me! And I can tell you all of my angry feelings and then I feel better! And mom, I was thinking that maybe we can we have an activity and snack tomorrow after school? I will remember it all day when I am sad waiting to come home to see you.”
“Of course buddy.”
He gives me a hug and then turns to hop back up the stairs, stopping to crouch down at the very top step so I can see just his ankles and his little forehead and eyes peering at me upside down.
“You’re the very best mom for me. Okay?”
Oh my love.
I swear to stop trying to fix everything and just sit with all the emotional children while they stomp and make threats and weep bitter tears from now until the end of time if I can just have this sentence said about me on my dying day.
She was the very best mom for her kids.
And so are you, dear reader.
So are you.