In the classic novel, Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney the narrator flashes back to the scene of his mother’s deathbed. Battling cancer, aware the end is near, she takes just enough pain medication to be uninhibited but still lucid.
The walls between parent and child fall away. They talk openly of the things they never managed to broach in life without embarrassment. They talk about sex. They talk about love. They talk about their fears and worries. They shared their insecurities, their feelings of inadequacies.
“You described the feeling you’d always had of being misplaced,” the narrator says of himself (the book is unique in that it’s in the 2nd person), “of always standing to one side of yourself, of watching yourself in the world even as you were being in the world and wondering if this was how everyone felt. That you always believed that other people had a clearer idea of what they were doing and didn’t quite worry so much about why.”
And his mother heard him and saw him in a new way. He went on to explain how on his first day of school, he had been so scared and nervous that he ran and hid in the woods, missing the bus. Eventually returning to his house, his mom drove him to school where he arrived almost an hour late. “Everybody watched you come in with your little note,” the narrator says, “and heard you explain that you missed the bus. When you finally sat down you knew that you would never catch up.”
“Don’t you think everyone feels a little like that?” his mother says in reply. Yes, yes they do. All kids do. All of us do. But the terror, the struggle, particularly when we are young is that we are alone with this feeling. We don’t realize that everyone feels a little like that. We are, as Jay wrote, standing to the side of ourselves, judging ourselves–judging that we are behind, apart, different, not good enough.
As parents, we have to remember this feeling. We have to remember how scary and overwhelming it was. We can’t wait until we’re dying to let our kids in on the secret that everyone feels that way. We can’t wait until it’s too late. We have to connect with them now, let them know these feelings–as strange and painful as they can be–are not new. They are common. They are not anybody’s fault. And with time, they will dissipate. We can’t wait for our last moments with our kids to help them understand this…or understand it ourselves.