The Hardest New Year’s Resolution I’ve Ever Made: Stop Parenting from Fear

(This is a guest post from Paula Fitzgibbons of Mommy Means It.)


Lose weight. Write a book. Read long, classic novels. Volunteer somewhere.

Noble and righteous, good-person, headline-making resolutions.

I long for them, these trendy resolutions full of moxie

with their accompanying hashtags and meet-up groups.

Join us each Sunday at the bay, the profile says

We’ll spend a half hour cleaning the shoreline and then hang tricot for aerial fabric dance,

set up equipment for bar calisthenics,

get in shape circus style.

#resolutions #NewYearNewYou

It’d be easier,

all of it.

Easier to propel my fleshy, arthritic body ten times around an un-anchored bar in the sand,

risking bones and dignity,

than to resolve to end the revolutions of fear

that propel me as deep as an anchor can fall

into darkness.

Fear is heavier than a resolution to lose a little weight, exercise a little bit more.

Fear is uglier than a dirty beach begging for volunteers.

Fear is meaner than muscles after aerial dance, more brain-piercing than novels and plot lines.

All these respectable resolutions that once seemed insurmountable to me

amount to minutia

against the backdrop

of fear.

2014 was my year of fear.

It was different than the years when my mookies were younger and I felt a general undertow of anxiety. Largely due to parenting resources and experts, I now believe, we parents are often jumping to the what ifs.

What if I need a c-section?

What if the adoption agency leaves out important medical information?

What if I don’t nurse long enough? What if I nurse too long?

What if I don’t vaccinate in time? What if vaccinations do cause autism?

What if the babysitter doesn’t know the Heimlich Maneuver?

And then there are the what ifs too scary to mention, the ones we tuck back into our brains in an unrepentant act of parenting compartmentalization.

It can be easy to what if our way into escapes: wine, chocolate, Netflix, Crossfit, often in binge proportions.

To be honest, I long for that what if brand of parenting anxiety now. It came with a community — parent friends all sitting on the couch, ruminating, bonding. There were smiles of encouragement from strangers and suckers offered up to my little ones all squished together in the grocery cart. I chuckle a bit at that mom I was, how I cradled the luxury of stressing over all those checkers offering my kids sugary treats. Dental hygiene, hyped-up kids. That was pure parenting glory.

I don’t want to minimize that stage for parents going through it now. Parenting from a place of generalized anxiety can be stressful. It can impose unnecessary limits on our ability to enjoy our children. It often induces push-back and 360 degree eye-rolls from our kids and arrogant tsk-tsks from other parents.

But it doesn’t cause our kids potentially paralyzing pain or send us spiraling into a dark parenting place.

Those are the jobs best executed by parenting from fear.

Fear, deep fear, started creeping into my parenting when my adopted black children hit their first pre-pubescent bone-stretching growth spurts. Suddenly, they were no longer looked upon by the general white public as adorable representations of diversity and happy endings — a misinformed and spurious characterization that often had me cringing, but at least offered them a cloak of safety. No — the growth spurts re-packaged my black children to those who hadn’t known them and loved them before.

The reality of it injected fear into my bones in tempestuous waves.

The first wave was subtle, brought on by the switch from books about parenting young adopted children to books about parenting adopted teens — books stressing the effects of adoption-related trauma in teens, and the common stages of behavior, pain, and acting-out a parent might expect from adopted teens. Then there were the books and blogs by and about adult adoptees of color who had been raised by white parents.

Really, isn’t any book on parenting any teen enough to make a mother tremble?

Then the next set of waves rode in without warning, a tsunami I could not have predicted, a shock that would have rattled even the most composed, unflappable of children, their parents grasping for them at all costs.

They would be scolded by perfect strangers for playing too loudly and running too fast at the beach — while the white friends chasing them and squealing with laughter alongside them would be left alone.

They would be told they did not belong on the playground by white moms and white dads of white kids who translated their blackness into years, assuming them much older than the other children, their same-aged peers, waiting for the tire swing.

They would be followed in stores and scrutinized at jewelry counters, where they just wanted to look at pretty things. They would shift from reveling in paying for their own ice cream cones to asking us to do it for them. And then to just skip the ice cream all together.

They would be criminalized for exploring when curious, running when scared, and acting-out when angry. Shamed for making emblematic mistakes and trying on the world they see around them — rites of passage they would learn are reserved for white children. They would learn without doubt that there is less compassion for the confused black child forced to come of age too soon, less concession for delays and challenges, less praise for working it all out, rising above.

There would be terrifying situations and startling interactions. Remorse where it wasn’t required. Blame where it didn’t belong. Betrayal. Denial. Sudden bursts of too much reality.

While trying to preserve what youth they have left, I would hear how another person like them was killed, how they deserved to die. People I would never know and people I thought I knew would spend inordinate amounts of time working to convince me that any punishments or death that might befall my own children, like the deaths of those “others,” would surely be deserved. That the motives of white mass killers like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold (bullying, mental illness), and Adam Lanza (Autism Spectrum Disorder, mental illness, poor parenting) were tragic and the collective fault of a society that does too little about bullying and mental illness. But the misdemeanor crimes (or lack of crimes) of black kids like Trayvon Martin (marijuana use), Mike Brown (alleged theft, resisting arrest), and Tamir Rice (being the child of parents who allegedly committed crimes) fully justifies their deaths.

Those were the waves in which I let myself drown, the ones that anchored me in fear. The ones from which I emerged wanting to control every move my children made.

It was then that I resumed checking on them in the middle of the night, as I had done when they were little and checking was common. I yelled more, imposing on them some of the same strict requirements I was arguing against: be quieter, be gentler, keep your hands and heads visible, don’t fight, don’t resist, don’t show strong emotion. Don’t mess up.

I was telling teenagers who’d been through adoption (a potential trauma in and of itself) away from their home and culture and into a white family that had never experienced what they were experiencing not to mess up.

Strike the first part of that. I was telling teenagers — period — not to mess up.

But that’s not my job. And therein lies my resolution: Stop parenting out of fear.

My job is to teach them right from wrong, and when they forget those lessons or confuse those lessons, to teach them again.

My job is to walk with them as they figure things out.

My job is to be the soft place they can land when they can’t figure things out.

My job is to create for them a foundation upon which they can build their own integrity.

My job is to convince them that their messes do not define them.

My job is to mirror back to them all that they are learning and becoming, all the ways they create and emanate beauty and goodness.

Though I am also charged with the sometimes heinous job of teaching them about the world, about keeping themselves safe, about serving others, I can learn to do so without burdening them with my own fear-based reactions and irrational controls. Right now, their own substantial fears, teen fears, black teen fears, are enough for them to handle.

My job is to guide them, provide arms to hold them when needed, and love them while they try.

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Paula M. Fitzgibbons is a former Lutheran pastor, who is now an educator and writer. She has been featured on BlogHer and Scary Mommy and written about in the Washington Post. You can read more about her many passions, including adoption reform, parenting, education, and social justice at Mommy Means It! You can also find her on Facebook , Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (See icons above bio.)

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