Often in life things have to get worse before they can get better. Whatever’s going on in your life, some things are going well and some things are going not as well. While we may gravitate toward that which brings us pleasure, is fun, or makes us feel good about ourselves, those challenging, frustrating, and difficult moments are actually the ones which help us grow. Whether that is writing a book and receiving helpful criticism, working through a difficult time in a relationship, watching your children struggle with an issue, or working with your aging parents.
When my children were little, I discovered a series of books that Louise Bates Ames co-authored with various authors for each year of a child’s life. They have titles like Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy and Your Seven-Year-Old: Life in a Minor Key. As new parents when leaving the hospital, we felt like someone should have provided an instruction manual for these little human beings which were now 100% in our care. Did they know we had no idea what we were doing? They were just letting us drive away with this baby! While no book has all the answers on parenting, this series offers many suggestions and examples about the different phases children are going through during each year of their lives.
From Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames.
My favorite thread through all the books was the “equilibrium versus disequilibrium” component, which points out that there are periods of equilibrium for your child when things are going well; they are mostly pleasant and interacting with them is enjoyable and satisfying. On the other hand, the periods of disequilibrium are those times when children are particularly challenging, they are not pleasant to be around, you find yourself frustrated with them or yourself (or both), and as a parent you are not sure exactly what to do during this period (and worse, you feel guilty about feeling less-than-generous towards your children). This is the period where your child is trying out new behaviors, attitudes, and growing into the next stage. Sometimes a year is split in half, where as much as one half of the year your child is in a state of disequilibrium. How daunting! Six months of their adorable four-year-old life where you are constantly challenged to the point of exhaustion. (Calgon, take me away!)
Knowing that all phases will eventually end is a small consolation when you’re in the moment, battling the tears or the tantrum, the arched back of the screaming baby who refuses to fit into the carseat when you’re hungry and running late, or the noodle-body child who won’t stand up when you put them on the floor. But knowing that it will pass sometimes helps you through the most trying minutes, hours, and days. (And do you know what also helps? Using the ace-up-your-sleeve solution: a babysitter.)
Whatever your current struggle, whether it be at school, at work, or within the family, these most challenging times are when we learn and how we grow. However clichéd, the metaphor of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly is one that we can look to for guidance. You don’t grow into an amazing and strong person without working through difficulties at every stage. Yes, there is a happy equilibrium caterpillar at the start of every stage, and there is also disequilibrium–the work of eating, building the chrysalis, changing within it, then breaking out of it with a hearty and sometimes prolonged physical struggle–at every stage to emerge into a different state of equilibrium. You can’t just go from child to adult without experiencing adolescence, puberty, failures, disagreements.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
― Maya Angelou
If you have written a book, once you have written the words “the end” (and isn’t that a satisfying moment?), the book is not ready to go on the bookstore shelves. It needs to go through the grueling process of editing again and again and again. It must be honed, it must be finely tuned, you must strike entire parts that you thought were amazing and unforgettable. Wonderful and smart people will say, “this doesn’t make sense” or “where are you going with this” and you will need to thrash around in the chrysalis to incorporate their suggestions, questions, and suggestions. This must happen before it is ready to go into the hands of readers.
An aging parent might not want to accept the next stage of their life. Maybe they have a perception of themselves that’s unrealistic–I can drive, I can cook, I can take care of myself. For an adult child–even the most caring, courageous, and loving–it’s an understatement to say that this is difficult to handle. And whatever the right solution is, often the disequilibrium is so potentially scary and intimidating that it is hard to face. But face it we must, so that on the other side, that parent can be cared for lovingly and with dignity, in their own new state of equilibrium.
“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.”
And that is why we must keep going, keep going, keep going. We must persist. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean you should give up. In fact, these moments when we are most challenged are when we know we must persist because success, growing, and learning are not defined by how many times you fall down, but how many times you get back up.
What has been a challenge for you lately? I’d love to hear about it.