The Myth of Control in Parenting

Raising children is the most harrowing, as well as life-affirming, experience there is. We live our lives under the illusion of control because to do otherwise would make us feel helpless and crazy. When we’re faced with things we can’t control, we can feel overwhelmed by worry.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I tried to eat right. But all day, every day, I had severe morning sickness. I ended up eating whatever I could keep down: Italian ices, lemonade, pizza, and grilled cheese sandwiches. So much for eating right.

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Then I had a positive blood test that triggered an amniocentesis to rule out neural tube defects. I didn’t want the amniocentesis because of the risk of spontaneous miscarriage.

“You have to have this test,” my doctor said angrily. “Otherwise, what was the point of the blood test?”

I could have refused, but then I’d be tortured with anxiety that I’d give birth to a severely damaged baby. Luckily, the test was negative and the baby was fine. During my next pregnancy, I used a midwife instead of a doctor, and avoided the blood test altogether. Although I was in the hospital in case of an emergency, it was another difficult decision to make.

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A pregnancy is only the beginning of a lifetime of lack of control over parenthood. If we want to stay sane, we have to learn how to live with uncertainty.

Every time my children had high fever, hacking coughs, and ear and throat pain that made them scream all night, I was full of anguish. A friend said, “Bringing up your baby makes you feel like you’re constantly saving their lives.”

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It feels exactly like that.

One of my sons had recurrent blinding headaches. I felt heartbroken watching him lie on his bed, the lights dimmed, the sound muffled, his body motionless, until he recovered. I felt helpless holding his hand when he was subjected to a battery of tests to rule out the diseases that might be causing those headaches – blood tests, MRI’s, CT scans.

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Once again, we were lucky. No illness was ever found. Over the years my son learned to avoid things that triggered his headaches, and how to soothe himself. Still, I always had a feeling of impending doom when he suffered.

My other son was punched in the nose by a school bully and needed surgery to correct the damage. I stood beside him in the operating room and held his hand as the doctors put him under anesthesia. “Will you be okay with this?” one doctor asked.

“Of course,” I said. I was never squeamish about blood, stitches, bone-setting and other bodily crises. But when my son suddenly stopped speaking and fell into an instant comatose silence, I heard a doctor call out, “Catch the mother!” as my knees buckled and I almost hit the floor.

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When we lose control over our own health problems we feel betrayed by our bodies. But when we lose control over the health of our children we feel like terrible failures. We wish we could trade places with them.

What can you do in the face of their suffering?

Some people turn to prayer for comfort. Those who aren’t religious may still find themselves pleading silently with the universe.

When I’ve done everything I can to help my children, I do these things for myself:

  1. I remind myself to take a deep breath and stay in the present moment.
  2. I stop myself from predicting future outcomes.
  3. I concentrate on doing things one step at a time.
  4. I tell myself that sometimes the only thing to do is wait. Endless worry over the problem will only make things worse. My suffering won’t lessen their suffering.
  5. I do my best to listen to them when they want to talk, and comfort them when I can.

How do you handle your feelings of anguish when someone you love is suffering?

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