I’ve read some really sad things lately and have been experiencing some of my own sad moments (hey, I’m 39, so it’s time, no?), so I’ve been thinking a good bit about grief lately and about what grief looks like once you’re a parent. And I’m wondering where the owner’s manual is in terms of experiencing life with your children as witnesses. (That missing owner’s manual has been a thorn in my side for nearly 16 years.)
Does becoming a parent necessarily have to change the way we experience our emotions—particularly the sad and difficult ones? I can be pretty emotional—both in terms of wildly happy moments and loud laughter (so much loud laughter), as well as tearful and lonely moments. I’m good with the happy displays, but I tend to shy away from public (meaning in front of my kids) displays of sadness. I don’t do it on purpose, but I’ve learned—through a few experiences—that it’s very disturbing to my kids to see me really cry. It scares them. It unsettles them. It makes (some of) them cry.
It seems unwise, I think, to hide the tough things from our kids. It also seems impractical, as in, how would it work, in a family, in a house, for your kids not to see visible evidences of their parents’ real lives unfolding before them? Think of all the things that might cause us to experience grief as adults: illness, depression, suicide, loneliness, divorce, regret, confusion, death, anger, professional problems, etc.
My kids have seen us get frustrated or down numerous times over little things. That’s no big deal, right? But they’ve only seen us be really sad or mad a few times that I can recall. I wrote about one time here. That was about a year ago, but my kids all remember it and have mentioned it to me more than once in the last year. Another time a few years ago, Brent was really mad and really frustrated about, umm, a whole slew of stuff. He lost his cool (which he pretty much never does) and the kids and I were there to witness his meltdown. He slammed the desk and threw huge accordion-style folders full of papers across the room as I scurried around, elbowing the kids into the other room like a momma bird gathering her chicks back to the nest, before he slammed the door and started walking down the street. Without even putting on his shoes.
Those first few seconds after he left felt pretty long. The kids looked worried. I was worried. Kennedy just stood there. Marin right away asked whether she could go out and walk with Dad. Stuart grabbed Brent’s shoes and headed towards the door to bring them out to Brent. I told them it probably wasn’t the best idea and then distracted them with another activity for a couple hours. Brent came back after he had cooled his heels and we all lived happily ever after.
That story has become something of a family legend now, however. I swear, the kids will never forget it. Every once in a while, one of them will say, “Oh, man! Remember when dad freaked out and got SO mad and started throwing stuff all over the living room?!” And another will say, “Yeah! And then he just stormed out of the house without even his shoes?” Everyone chuckles (and I look for a chance to change the subject, all the while thinking to myself, “Sheesh. Can’t a guy go postal in peace anymore?”)
So what do you think? How should we handle big emotional moments as parents? Do we let our kids see us experience big, tough emotions? Let them see what red hot anger or grief really look like—even if it worries or frightens them? Or should we mostly grin and bear it and keep our big emotional displays behind closed doors?