Stress and growing pains (a back-to-school post)

I didn’t get much uninterrupted sleep over the last week. Fred was struggling with a cold and an on-again-off-again fever, night terrors, and complaints of mysterious leg pain at odd hours of the night.

I can attribute all of this to any number of things — the hectic travel schedule we had this summer, summer camp fatigue, recirculated air, too much t.v., too much video game playing, too much sugar…and/or…I can blame it on August, the ending of summer and a time when his half-brother returns home 7,000 miles away, and the anticipation of a new year at school.

As in tune to my child as I’d like to think I am, I haven’t always been successful in seeing when he is anxious. After all, he is not likely to come to me and say, “Mommy, I’m nervous about starting school and about the academic and social pressures that I’ll be facing this year.”

Of course part of it is because it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day to always see beyond the surface, to know that your child might be talking back to you or overreacting over small inconveniences not because he’s being difficult but because something deeper is unsettling him.

It can be hard, too, because we might have forgotten exactly what it’s like to be 5 on the verge of starting kindergarten or 6 about to head into 1st grade or 10 wrapping up the final year before moving on to middle school. By now, we’ve conquered so many feats from surviving high school to passing any number of job interviews to graduating from the dating world to giving birth. Our adult brain with all its experience and wisdom and a certain amount of amnesia now ranks moving on to the next grade in school as nerve-wracking as taking that first step into a cocktail party; it’s uncomfortable but after a couple of drinks and some introductions we know we’ll sail through.

It’s also harder for me to notice the signs, I suppose, because I had it harder, just like my parents had it harder than I when they were in China. Growing up in my family we’d heard so many versions of “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school without shoes.” (The joke for our generation is “When I was your age I had to get up to turn the t.v. channel. ;-)) As a first generation American, though, things were quite difficult for a good number of years while my parents were trying to get established in a country where they didn’t know the language or customs. They fought all the time from the stress, to the point where I used to run into bed and hide as soon as I heard my father coming home from work. For the first 10 years we lived in a 2-room apartment in a pretty bad part of town, and one night when I was about Fred’s age I heard a woman get shot outside my bedroom window while I was trying to sleep. I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling, but my body was screaming through headaches, stomachaches, tics and canker sores. And I coped by turning inward, to reading, writing, drawing, and daydreaming.

Those years feel like a lifetime ago, and today we have everything – my modest definition of everything. We live in a safe community, a beautiful home (once I organize it), and we have the luxury (and burden) of knowing that Fred never needs to suffer or want for anything. He travels, takes piano and martial arts lessons, studies foreign languages, reads books he is running out of room for, plays freely outside with his friends. He is safe and he is incredibly loved. To me, he has absolutely everything.

Interestingly, though, that is how my parents saw me as well: blessed and privileged. In their eyes I got to grow up in America, to know English, to attend school all the way through graduate studies without ever needing to question otherwise, to not know the threat of soldiers or invasions, to never have to go a day without food, and to grow up with both parents (my father was on his own from 16 and my mother never saw her father). My parents had not seen the stress I was suffering, because they thought I had everything.

Nine years ago when I was an expat in Japan and home alone with a new baby, I spent a good deal of time on a mothers’ forum on the internet. I was living in the suburbs then and knew no one and couldn’t speak the language well. I was grappling with some level of post-partum depression or “blues” as well, and though new to the whole world of social media, decided one day to reach out and talk about my feelings of isolation, especially with my husband away at work 16 hours a day.  I received many sympathetic and encouraging responses, but one woman brusquely responded that at least my husband wasn’t stationed in Afghanistan, that those wives were the ones who had it hard.

Her response humbled, hurt and angered me. If I were to compare my troubles against the troubles of the world, then I should simply keep my mouth shut, something I had been doing my whole life anyway, up until I posted that message to the forum. Absolutely many have it harder. There are women raising families alone, women living with disabilities, women being beaten by their spouses, women being sold into prostitution, women being raped and mutilated and murdered — where do I stop? And yet the fact that others have it harder or worse – and even the awareness and appreciation that they do – does not lessen my need for comfort during my own times of difficulty, even if the difficulties seem paltry against the world’s larger and innumerable problems.

And so for all the parenting mistakes I have made, I am grateful that I have managed to not belittle the stresses felt by my son, comparing his experiences against mine. Over dinner with family friends the other day, Fred said, “Teachers yell more in the 4th grade. In kindergarten and first grade they’re nice to you and they take care of you, but they yell more and more after that. And there’s going to be bullying, and bullying tends to take place around lockers.” This is thanks to stories, rumors, books, and too much Nick at Night. But this is also the reality that my rising 4th grader believes he will face in the coming year – the certain extrication from childhood, the entry into a more unknown and threatening stage of boyhood – and that can be pretty stressful for anyone.

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