Kvelling In The Valley Of The Shadow

Kvelling In The Valley Of The Shadow October 19, 2014

A couple of years ago, I joined a group of 4-8 women gathered on Monday mornings in an empty conference room in a suburban church to pray for their twenty-something adult children. The first morning we met, we introduced ourselves, briefly shared a bit about what each of our kids was doing post-college, and whether our offspring were still actively following the Jesus we’d each endeavored to share with them during their growing-up years. I jokingly dubbed us Moms In Touch 2.0 after the prayer groups popular (now renamed Moms In Prayer) when most of our kids were in elementary school. It was in this group I discovered that among a safe community dedicated to interceding for the various messy crises of our kids’ respective launches into adulthood, there are some things that leave us as outliers, even among friends.

It turned out that more than half of the kids represented by that group had hit the eject button on church involvement. Some were of the “I like Jesus but not the Church” variety, others had entirely shed the faith of their childhood like it was a too-small exoskeleton. But the kids were functioning, though too many of them were working as baristas instead of being able to find work in the fields they’d prepared to enter in college. These were problems we could all wrap our hearts around as we prayed for each other. Spiritual strugglers. Kids searching for a leg up into the career of their choice. Relationship woes. And caring parents trying to figure out how to not overstep, not enable, not give advice where advice wasn’t being solicited.

These were the kinds of prayer requests we could all amen.

There were a couple of us who had kids who did not fit in the young adult growing-up pains categories above. We had children whose prodigal journey was complicated exponentially by serious mental health and/or addiction issues. The never-ending chaos gave our kids’ lives and ours as parents the discombobulating feel that we’d already been living on a years’ long ride through Space Mountain. There was no end in sight for those of us in this category. The other woman and I once noted to each other that even with all the prodigal stories the other moms shared each week, our experience was in another category altogether, and even among friends who sort of “got it”. The pair of us were isolated in the intensity of what we were living through in regards to our deeply-troubled kids. Even in a safe context like that group, silence about our respective Defcon 5 situations was sometimes the best prayer we could bring to the gathering.

That wasn’t false humility, or shame. It was, simply, a sense that even in a group like this, we’d kill the group if it was only and always about our crises. My family had been been living this version of a roller coaster ride through the darkness for the last 12-13 years. It’s been high speed loop-the-loops whirling through that darkness. We’d long dealt with the fallout from our beloved young adult child’s wildly unpredictable moods, impulsivity, “You’re my best friend/I hate you like poison” way of relating to others, grand ambitions, and terrifying rages. While I appreciated the compassion and the prayer of the Moms In Touch 2.0, there were many weeks when I bit my tongue in order to keep silent.

Nancy Wolf’s excellent Washington Post essay entitled “About That Mom Who Is Not Bragging About Her Kid“, written by a woman whose child is not following the standard growing up trajectory that gives moms kvell-worthy material to discuss at lunch with their friends about their children’s accomplishments. Even in the context of being among moms worrying and praying about their young adult kids’ 127 job applications and grad school decisions, there were many weeks when I would have loved to share a prayer request about this child that came with just a splash of kvell, as some of those sorts of prayer requests did. My prayers for my other family members certainly fit here, and were interceded for with care and love by the group. But the scale of many of our Crises Du Jour with this one particular child had a way of shutting down the rest of the conversation. When I heard someone begin, “My problems aren’t anything like yours, Michelle…” before telling her story, I realized I would have to think more strategically about how and what to share of our story. I didn’t want to be the high bar others used to measure their family’s problems, nor did I want to suck all the air out of the room with mine.

Way back in the beginning, when this child’s life began to unspool more than a decade ago, I did what most moms would do: tried to figure out how to get help in place, blamed myself (isn’t it always the mom’s fault?) and took too much to heart all the sometimes well-meaning, sometimes over-spiritualized or judge-y advice people were trying to give my husband and I at the time. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was no road map to guide us through this particular kind of grief. Only a determination to maintain a pilgrim’s heart as a compass as I gyrate through the darkness of Space Mountain. Counseling at different stages of this long journey has helped. A NAMI support group helped. The care of some of our friends has been a lifeline. Others who apparently attended the Job’s Comforters School Of Friendship became less a part of our team during these years. Still others distanced themselves from us. Living in the valley of the shadow has certainly clarified relational priorities.

I was grateful for the Moms In Touch 2.0 group, and was sorry I had to stop attending due to distance after our move a couple of years ago. Even when I remained silent about the newest chapter of our family’s ongoing crisis, I appreciated their maturity (as in, no one judged, or tried to fix, us or the situation.) There are others in my life who are now or have continued to carry us in prayer: the women in my Tuesday morning Bible study group, and a small group of long-time friends who’ve walked alongside of us faithfully, even when we’re white-knuckling a particularly hair-raising twisty-turn.

Parents of special needs kids live this reality. They, too, often go silent at a table full of the usual kvelling, kvetching parent conversations. Nancy Wolf noted, “So the next time you are having lunch with friends and the talk turns, as it often does, to what your kids are doing and the kvelling begins — one of the moms is happy that her daughter aced the SATs, the other’s son just got into law school, a third mom glows about her daughter’s engagement — and you see that one of your friends around the table is sitting silently, fiddling with her drink, just waiting for that part of the conversation to pass? Consider that quiet mom. She loves her son or daughter just as much as you do. Smile at her, and ask how her child is doing. She may need to do a different kind of kvelling.”

Even if I choose a noncommittal response so as not to buzz-kill every conversation with my sorrow, know I am grateful that someone else notices my silence, and pierces that isolating space with a kind word. It reminds me that even in my present darkness, I am not alone.

And neither is my child.

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