Nothing takes up space in a parent’s head (or heart) quite like a kid who is struggling. “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child,” the expression goes, and it’s true. If one of your kids is struggling–with reading, with adjusting to a new school or city, with becoming a teenager, with the divorce, with some health issue–it’s hard to focus or think about anything else. Even if you’re crushing it at work, even if one of your other kids just made honor roll or the varsity team.
It’s understandable…but it’s also not acceptable. Mary Laura Philpott spoke about this in her beautiful book Bomb Shelter (which we have written about before). One night, her son had an epileptic seizure, which shocked and overwhelmed their family. Only after the fear and emergency of the moment had slightly worn off did it occur to her that she had forgotten about her daughter as all this was happening. “There’s an almost inevitable failure built into caring for two people during a moment when one is in crisis and one is not,” she writes. “Because while you may love those people equally, with a fierceness unique to each, you must throw your arms out to catch the one who is failing, and that means you’re not there to catch the other, should they fall too.”
Obviously when one of your children is having a seizure, that demands your full attention–at least until medical treatment arrives. But what about when one of your children is depressed or has attention issues or is wrestling with their sexuality? Or going through a divorce or cancer treatment or playing in the Super Bowl? The fact that your other children are having an easier time, that things are not as dramatic with them at this moment, does not mean they need less from you. It doesn’t mean you can assume they’re ok, that you can leave them to their own devices. This is how jealousies and rivalries and resentments arise. What about me? Where were you when I was just sitting in my room bored? I had needs too!
One of the interesting things about the story of the Prodigal Son is that we don’t think much about the son who did not leave, who did not need to be forgiven or welcomed back home. He too deserved unconditional love and appreciation and recognition. There was less crisis, less drama sure, but he was a son too. Was the father there for him in an equally supportive and attentive way? One hopes so!
We must figure out, as the kids say, how to be the kind of parent who can do both. To be there in crisis when our kids need us–to catch our kids when they fall–but also be there for our kids when they are not falling, when nothing is wrong. We can’t be running from crisis to crisis, fire to fire, ignoring what is not on fire.