Swimming in the Well

A couple years ago my husband and I bought a house and moved our family across town. The plan to move was hatched well in advance, but the house we chose was a last-minute find, the circumstances of which sparked anxiety in me. We had spent the better part of a year looking for homes in a variety of neighborhoods, but this home was just outside our previous searching radius. I was not familiar with the neighborhood or the surrounding area; I didn’t know where I would do my grocery shopping; It was far enough that finding a new dentist or a new hairdresser just might make sense. It was in a school district I had not investigated and suddenly required a 30-minute bus ride to school rather than a half-mile walk. In a nutshell, even though I was only moving twenty minutes away, a part of me felt I was leaving everything familiar and comfortable behind.

All of a sudden the eager anticipation with which I had shopped for houses and dreamed of how to fit our lives into a new package called home morphed into an anxiety that gripped me with disturbing strength. We made an offer on the house and promptly went into contract. In my head I could reason all day why this house made sense and suited our needs and desires better than any home we had viewed before, but I couldn’t quell the worry that took hold in my heart. While we awaited the inspection I took a morning to visit the new school my kids would be attending. I introduced myself in the office and asked for help in understanding what I would need to do to transfer my kids. When I got the part about the school bus schedule, unrelenting tears began streaming their way down my cheeks. At that point it was clear to me that this move, with its accompanying uncertainties, unfamiliarities and unknowns was hitting me in a way I couldn’t logically explain. I just didn’t quite know how to unravel all my emotions.

Then a conversation with my mom helped me sort through some of my anxiety with a fresh perspective. I explained to her all the logical reasons the new house was great, the advantages of the neighborhood, and the compassionate welcome I had experienced by the sweet and unsuspecting administrative staff at my kids’ new school. But then I also explained my overwhelming anxiety—my inability to reason away my distress about the length of the school bus ride, the mid-year school transition, and the longer distance we would have to drive to get to church, around which most of our social network centered. I felt as though I had no legitimate reasons to feel as overwhelmed as I did, and yet there it was—worry was my unwelcome new constant companion.  

And then my mom pointed out to me that my kids, at the time this was all taking place, were the same age I was when my own life got flipped upside down. When I was six years old my parents separated. A couple years later they divorced. A year or two before their separation the cracks were already showing, as evidenced by an intense attachment I formed to one of my preschool teachers, whom I began calling Mom. The school had contacted my mom suggesting they remove me from this teacher’s class; my dependence was too great, perhaps they ought to sever the tie. My mom mercifully requested they leave me where I was—things were tumultuous enough at home it would do me well to have some security and predictability at school.

My kids were six years old at the time our family was planning a cross-town move that unexpectedly required more change and challenge than I had anticipated. Could it be that my own experiences as a child wrestling with security, attachment, and the meaning of home might be clouding my view as a parent walking my children through a significant transition? Thankfully the nature of our family move was not colored by the tragedy of brokenness and loss as my childhood experience was, but it made sense to me that when I worried about how my kids might adjust to a mid-year change in schools, what I truly feared was based more on my own childhood uncertainties about where I belonged and how safe I would be there than any struggles my kids’ actually experienced or anticipated.

Humans are not formulaic in nature. We parent from all different facets of ourselves. As a kid I remember countless times my mom insisting I put on a sweater because she felt cold. That didn’t have anything to do with me; it had everything to do with her. As people we are limited in our perspective, sometimes locked into a frame of mind we are not even aware of because of the familiarity with which we wear it. I think this is one of the more frustrating, but also more fascinating aspects of parenting. How many times have you said something or done something with your kids only to have a flashback of your own mother or father saying or doing the exact same with you? We are all deep wells. The waters are sometimes mysterious, churning in ways we least expect, but they always invite us to know ourselves more deeply. I have not always been pleased with the invitation at the time, but I have yet to go through a time of struggle like that and not come out just a bit wiser and a bit richer on the other side.

Two years ago I stewed over a house purchase and a move that I worried might somehow sabotage the good foundation we’d started for our kids. But when I realized my fears were based more in the past than in the present, I was able to move forward with a fresh perspective. I was able to let my kids have their own experience of change and transition at the age of six. I was able to watch them thrive through it, gaining confidence, courage and even grace. I learned that my kids are living their own lives, not a repeat of mine, and they’ll have their own memories to sort through when they grow up to be the age I am now. Perhaps, when that time comes, I’ll be able to do for them the favor my mom did for me. Perhaps I’ll be able to tell them that whatever feeling they have is real, there’s a reason for it, and it’s an invitation to know themselves more deeply.