The Little Things You Have To Do (That They Won’t Even Notice)

We do all sorts of things for our kids. We make grand gestures and do small favors. We clothe them and make sure their favorite pants are clean for Spirit Day. We feed them and make sure their favorite snack is in their lunch box. We get up in the middle of the night to go pick them up if they call, and we stay up into the night when they don’t. We’d sell our kidney if they needed it, and we’ll mortgage our house for their college tuition.

Some of these gestures–these statements of our love–are big and noticeable and unmistakable. They are dramatic in their urgency and presentation. But most aren’t. Many happen silently in the background. Some we wouldn’t even want credit for if someone offered.

There is a brilliant and touching example of this in Meg Mason’s beautiful book Sorrow and Bliss (which you can pick up at the Painted Porch Bookshop!). Martha Friel struggled with crippling depression as a child. Her parents weren’t perfect…they seemed to barely notice how hard a time she was having. Did they know she was suicidal? Her dad was kind of a failed writer, but seemed to always be hanging around. “He had been leaving the house so rarely it was strange to see him making any kind of preparation to go out,” Mason writes. “Even when my mother told him to, or Ingrid begged him to drive her somewhere, he wouldn’t. His reasons for refusing–that he was expecting a call from an editor, that he’d forgotten where he’d put his license–my mother found so suspicious, it was obvious he was trying to get out of helping her with us.”

And then just as the character finished her criticism of her father, it hit her. “I wondered how it hadn’t occurred to me until just then that since the night on the balcony, he had been making sure I was never, ever alone.”

These quiet little sacrificial gestures of love are the dark matter in the universe of parenting. Our kids see and remember the gestures that shine big and bright–the car, the Spring Break trip, the presents, the clothes–but it’s the multitude of these smaller invisible gestures that hold everything together. Which is why it is so essential that we never fall short there.

Martha Friel’s father fell short in many ways…but not when it really counted. Her mother was overbearing, but her father understood that he just needed to be there. That he had to keep an eye on her, and he was willing to give up a lot, to be criticized a lot, as long as he could make sure she was never in a position again to harm herself. Would it have been better if he just talked to her? Of course. But his heart was in the right place, and most importantly, he put his body in the right place.

We have to wait up. We have to remember the snacks. We have to hold the space. We have to keep our eyes open. We have to listen. We have to put our bodies between them and the balcony. Because it is those small, invisible gestures that have the biggest effect.

If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis and you live in the United States, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. For resources outside the United States please click here.

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