When the Experts Fail Us

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 It’s always evolving, always presenting shiny new models to replace the outdated offerings that are now poked through with holes of exceptions and experience.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.

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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.

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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.

“Hey mom?”

“Yes bud.”

“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.

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what does she call herself

I’ve been trying to muster the confidence to tell people that I’m a writer.

I feel like such a phony even typing that sentence – a little kid playing dress up in her mother’s clothes. Pretending. Wishful thinking. The last English class I took was in high school. I have no formal training. Nothing published. “Writer” is a title I try on in the privacy of my own home, comedic anywhere else.

And yet, when people ask me what I do with my time while the kids are at school, something deep inside me pushes out the words “I write!” And in that moment, I believe it. I feel a rush of gratitude for this season of life. I feel proud. They smile, leaning in a little, and say, “Wow! That’s wonderful!”

But of course they can’t stop there. Oh no. Friends, strangers, even those endlessly cheerful Trader Joe’s grocery baggers, all united in delivering the gut punch that both affirms my vocation and decimates my confidence: “So, What are you writing?” They smile expectantly. I blink and think “WHAT AM I WRITING?”, internally spiraling into an identity crisis while they wait for my answer. I stammer out “I’m doing this workbook…it has exercises…there’s a group I go to sometimes…” and the silence hangs heavy, pulling my head down in shame as they give a little confused nod, drawing back a step or two, glancing sideways for the exit.

And then, and I cannot believe I am admitting this because it is HORRIFYING, I hear myself saying, “I actually have my workbook here with me…if you’d like to see it” and then I watch helplessly as my hands (My hands! What are they doing! Make it stop!) rummage through my purse and, in painful slower-than-slow motion, produce the workbook. I hold it out to them with holy reverence as if they will, upon feeling it’s paperback glory in their own hands instantly understand the authority it grants me to do seemingly frivolous things like sit at home and do writing exercises instead of getting a real job and paying off my student loans. (I am so sorry if I have done this to you. I have lost all control. Forgive me.)

Needless to say, I’m staying close to home these days.

And that is how I find myself here, sitting at my dirty kitchen table, surrounded by abandoned breakfast dishes and wondering if this was a mistake. Wondering where to begin. A mug of half finished tea sits cold in front of me, an oily film forming on top. I can hear our unwelcome mouse guests scurrying through the heating vents. Sunlight is streaming in through the window, warming my slippered feet. It’s beautiful outside. One of those perfect fall days that starts with frost on the grass and has you shedding layers by lunch.

I glance at the clock every two minutes, feeling guilty. I need to get groceries. To fold laundry. To finish sewing a baby gift. There are emails to respond to. A ballet costume to arrange payment for. Dishes.

So much of writing, like any creative work, seems to be just holding space for what could be. Like a weekly coffee date with a friend, creative work is sacred time that can only come alive without the weight of expectations. Sitting across from a person I love I must set aside my desire to control the conversation and simply be open to where it leads. Maybe today we will talk about our parental failures. Maybe we will speak our greatest hopes and fears into our mugs. Or maybe we will trade brownie recipes and Netflix recommendations. The gift is in the presence.

So I keep coming back to this question: How much should I try to shape this work to be one specific thing – an answer for an identity crisis, a launching point for a career, an exercise in embarrassing oversharing; and when should I honor the unknown and let it simply become whatever it can be?

This creative crisis seems like a mirror reflecting something much larger about life. In the work of writing I notice how fragile we all are. Longing for connection. We struggle to see through the humid anxiety of our insecurities to understand that a lengthy Netflix binge list is probably code for “I’m lonely too.” Code for “invite me over”. Code for “I’m stuck and need encouragement.”

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I want to tell you about this flurry of writing that came to me this morning, memories of high school and college rushing in faster than I could write them down. The smells of cleaning agent on linoleum, the feeling of the scratchy dorm furniture, the metal sound of a hundred slamming lockers, all of it came flooding right back. But what I wanted most was to remember how it was to BE that younger version of me. To understand why that person didn’t, or couldn’t get off the fundamentalism train for so many years. What held here there?

I want to tell you about the challenges of our marriage and also the enormous progress we’ve made as we practice better emotional hygiene and boundaries and extend more grace. I want to tell you how confused I am by people who don’t seem to struggle in marriage – how I wonder if my expectations for honesty and intimacy are too high or theirs too low. How I hate the comparison game but I honestly do not understand how it is possible to live life without doing it. How mental illness has been a monster but also a freedom – forcing us to name rather than ignore our beast. With a name, it can be conquered.

I want to tell you about the loaded conversations Evelyn keeps lobbing into our laps at the dinner table, challenging my lofty ethics to engage in the mess of real life. How she says these things that cut so deftly to my core that sometimes it feels like she’s knocked the wind right out of me.

I want to pour these things out, clear the piles of ideas I’ve got stacked up in the corners of my mind. I want to invite you in. To hold the tension of these difficult questions together.

But.

I’m worried about hurting family and friends as I recall memories of difficult times. Painful beliefs. Unresolved conflict.

I’m worried about exposing myself to criticism of my heartache, my questions, my dreams.

I’m worried about accidentally sharing stories that are not mine to tell, and also about not sharing stories because I am too afraid of what they will stir up.

And, ultimately, I’m anxious about marking the way I’ve come, exposing all the cringe-worthy moments (years) of life lived in zealous pursuit of something I now realize was so dangerous and dehumanizing. I’m terrified that I could get duped into something like it again – even after years of therapy, of unpacking these questions and hopes, dreaming new dreams and daring to step into them.

And that’s the core of it: I’m still staring down the same perfectionist fears I’ve been facing my whole life.

I want to share this journey because I know I’m not the only one with baggage and questions, trying to settle in and do the slow work of growing, always yearning for the curious unknown.

I want you to know you’re not alone. I want more than your Netflix recommendations. I want to help you honor who you have been, who you are becoming, and the magnificent wisdom, love, scars, and light you carry with you today.

Because it’s the becoming AND the unbecoming that marks the path of growth.

So let’s un-become together. Honoring our histories, loving our younger selves. Let’s look with anticipation to our future wisdom and her warm embrace. You are beloved. You are just right. Can you believe it?

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