Feeding the Hungry by Master of Alkmaar. 1504
Teenage runaways and Clear-Hearted Compassion
I wasn't sure if it was useful to write about our trials-and-tribulations when my nephew ran away rather than facing his problems at home. Intimate disclosure is painful for any parent (or Aunt)---especially when the topic of discussion is: The Family.
Because 'family' was a guiding principle when I was a child, I considered my role as a mother to be a preordained stewardship--an unquestioned role God expected from women and also expected from men as fathers. I never thought about my role very much before becoming a mother, yet held myself accountable to what I believed to be my purpose in life. A purpose imbuing meaning to the challenges and sacrifices a woman makes when she puts her children's needs ahead of her own.
Family was a way to keep my selfishness in check by focusing on a bigger picture than my little cloddish self. Motherhood was an ideal and in this day and age of narcissistic contraction, having an ideal expanding our perceptions, protects us from a reductive and endless pursuit of self-gratification.
But even a mother, as selfless as this role demands her to be, has ego needs.
She gains self-esteem from doing her job well when contented, well-adjusted, and healthy children exponentially reward her dedication to the role. When the kids are happy, Mom's happy. She's doing great and everyone can see she's competent and effective. She is validated as a human being and as a mother.
When the kids aren't doing well, Mom isn't either.
This is the perfect set-up for enmeshment if we're gauging our performance by our children's behavior. We erroneously assume a child's conformity to social expectations is a direct reflection on our competence...or incompetence as the case may be!
Need I add that this is a faulty way to feel good about our selves if our worth as a human being depends on public opinions? We lose authentic power when we base our self-esteem on our children's decisions.
I believe, and this belief is based on years of experience raising challenging kids, that most people assume any child who is acting up is the result of bad parenting. Sometimes, that's true. Many times, it's not. Feeling good about a role we took as seriously as mothering, is NOT easy in a critical society quick to heap blame on parents. (As if we haven't already blamed ourselves!) I know this is how people think because I've had the same thoughts myself. Critical thoughts that were challenged years ago when my children were rebellious teens and once again, when my nephew's defiance threatened my ego and my self-esteem.
After all, I was focused on Big Picture Ideals when he moved in twelve years ago. I stepped up to the plate, changed my life forever, and did what responsible people do: tucked a hungry kid under my wing and committed my self to a second round of mothering and dishes. Not that I WANTED to do that; but it was the 'right thing to do'. He was a vulnerable child who needed adults to care for him because he could not do that for himself.
When he was eight years old, we noticed he was not maturing normally. There were numerous things that were just 'off'. I had raised two children giving me a basis for understanding child-development; it was apparent my nephew was struggling beyond the normal and expected, even in light of his circumstances (a runaway father and a single mother barely keeping herself together after losing her dreams and her money in a bad marriage). I hesitated for no more than a second when asked if there was any way I could help her raise her son.
Inside myself there was a battle, though. My clod-self said "No" and my Big Self said, "Yes" and balancing both answers has had unpredictable and tragic consequences in my personal life. Considering the sacrifices I made to serve as a second mother to my nephew, I bumped up against my ego when he was unappreciative, defiant, and troubled by episodes of intermittent depression. O how loverly it would have been for him to buoy up my self-esteem with his gratitude, compliance, and contented attitude!
I suppose the good Lord had more work for me to do on my Self. I thought my two kids had worn-off my egotistical edges, but guess not...this ol' rock needed another round in the tumbler.
We took my nephew to a psychiatrist and our concerns were not alleviated, they were validated. He was diagnosed with bipolar and has been in treatment since he was ten years old. I am grateful for advances in the mental health field because several psychiatrists have taught our family coping skills while also assisting my nephew's passage through teen-age years without self-medicating as a result of being 'untreated'. As professionals now tell us about bipolar--it can be successfully treated with medication, coupled with ongoing therapy. There is no pill to magically fix a mental illness as serious as child-onset bipolar.
When I read articles suggesting bipolar is a family illness, well, it is. It takes our whole family to raise this bipolar child. By 'whole', I am not implying intact; but 'whole' defined as the unification of heart and mind, the integration of ego and spirit...an intertwining of God's will with our childish resistance.
When we yield an insatiable ego to the extraordinary demands of mothering, we unexpectedly discover that while we are feeding a hungry child, we are being spiritually fed by God's stewardship for us, as His children.