Why did I get the child who doesn’t work right?
What did I do to deserve the child who doesn’t eat when she’s supposed to — if she eats at all — who doesn’t sleep when she’s supposed to sleep, who doesn’t learn what she’s supposed to learn, and often doesn’t do what she’s supposed to do?
I really hate to admit it, but in some of my most trying moments of parenthood, the word “unlucky” plays in my mind like a background song, trying to be heard. “I’m unlucky,” I’ll find myself thinking — even though, intellectually, I know that of the 7.4 billion people on the planet, I’m in the top one percent when it comes to luck. I’ve got two healthy children who shower me with affection; a loving spouse; parents who are actively involved in my children’s lives; a fine house in a desirable, safe neighborhood; a rewarding career. I could go on and on.
And yet, I can’t shake the sense that within my greatest joy I’ve experienced misfortune. Sometimes I’ll remember that I’m far from alone: my partner is with me in raising a child one could call “challenging,” and there are clearly millions of other parents in similar situations. Undoubtedly, when the word “unlucky” resurfaces in my mind, I’ll feel guilt or shame. But the word remains, ready to reveal itself at the exact moment when I need positive, life-affirming thoughts.
You see, my older daughter has been “diagnosed” with Attention Deficit Disorder. Whether you’d call it a diagnosis — and whether or not this is something to lament — is a question that can fill many books and blog posts. But now that she has this label, it’s all too easy to overlook my daughter’s many wondrous qualities, like her creativity and curiosity. But you take her ADD, throw in some anxiety and a litany of food allergies and eating issues, and you’ve got a combustible cocktail.
Being a parent of a child with ADD can be so much more demanding than I ever realized. And while I truly believe being a parent is my most important mission in life, there’s so much I want to do: I want to write, be fit, be active in my community, maintain a romantic relationship with my partner, advance my career. Yes, I can practically hear you say, “being pulled in multiple directions is the essence of modern parenthood.” But so often, attending to my child’s unique needs seems to require skipping a workout, putting off the latest essay, or surrendering any semblance of down time. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but when you look forward to small things, missing them feels like a big sacrifice.
With the High Holidays upon us, I take solace in the fact that Judaism places a much higher value on what people do and how we act — and not what we think. I also know that so many parents lose patience or have selfish thoughts. That doesn’t mean we don’t love our children or that we’re ineffective parents.
At the same time, however, everything from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy to modern psychology reinforces the notion that what and how we think influences how we behave. So, as I prepare to sit for hours in shul, I’m pledging to work on my thinking, to reframe the narrative from one of burden to one of gratitude, to focus on nourishing my child’s gifts rather than lamenting her faults. I hope to use this time to focus on what I’m gaining through the joys and challenges of raising both my daughters, rather than what I am losing. I don’t think I’ll make it all the way to my destination, but I’m optimistic I can cover a lot of ground.
I’m being aided by a wonderful book, Superparenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach to Raising Your Distracted Child. Both authors — Edward M. Hallowell and Peter S. Jensen — are leading psychiatrists who have also lived with ADD in their families. They offer a range of parenting techniques and medical advice, but more than anything, they remind us that, at its heart, parenting is about love and empathy. The book provides real hope that with love, expert advice, passionate teachers, and possibly medication, my daughter can fulfill her potential in school and in life. She can lead a life of joy, meaning, and achievement.
Over the years, I’ve worked to cultivate empathy for others — those with stark differences in life situations, socio-economic backgrounds, or political views. But I’ve recently realized that, on some level, I’ve failed to empathize with my own child. But my book got me thinking about what it is like to be a 7-year-old with ADD, to have a brain that works too fasts, to want to please but to be unable to refrain from “bad” behavior — and to therefore face criticism from well-meaning adults and, at times, cruelty from other children.
Our fractured society suffers from a lack of empathy. But maybe a first step toward a broader societal healing might entail parents taking a closer look at their own children. What if we encourage our kids rather than find fault with them? What if we comfort them rather than chasten them?
This is my assignment for the Jewish New Year. I know it’s a tough one. As I confront the liturgy and life’s frailty and impermanence, I’ll try and focus the mind and spirit on how lucky I am. I’m sure I’ll falter — I’m only human. I’m just a dad, trying to do the best he can. Here’s hoping my best gets better.