The Hard Work of Being a Butterfly

It’s excrutiating to witness the pain of someone you love.  Whether that pain is physical, emotional or spiritual, it is almost overwhelming to witness knowing there is little you can do to really alleviate the pain. 

Sure, with physical pain you might be able to make the other person more comfortable.  You could give them pain meds if they have been prescribed.  You can adjust the environment as best you can – turn down the lights, quiet noises, maybe turn up some white noise, set the temperature to an ideal level, add scents or eliminate scents.  Whatever they need.

But with internal, emotional pain or spiritual pain there is little you can do but offer empathy, and sometimes empathy is just holding a hand and not saying anything.

Sometimes the best you can do is to not say or do anything. 

But inside, you hurt.  And this type of hurt is almost harder to bear.  You want to take it away.  You want to say just the right thing to give comfort.  You might even be ready to face their foes and drive them away.  In your body, you can feel your own ability to take on the pain!  “I’m strong enough!”  “I’ve been through this.”  “I can do this for you.”

But you can’t.

And even if you could fight their foes, should you? 

Every parent has dwelt in this sort of pain at one time or another.  It seems different at various stages.  When my kids were little, time passed quickly, and the internal foes were smaller, more manageable.  I am blessed that my children did not face the enormous traumas others have faced.  So I’m not speaking to abuse, neglect, loss and grief of significant proportions.  I’m talking about those little growing pains.

But even witnessing your child’s friend group and social milieu problems – lunchtime seating, recess play groups, birthday parties, theater or performance activities – every child faces little and big hurts here and there.  Rejection.  The yo-yo’s of  “In group – Out group” dynamics.

How much do you intervene?

We hear a lot about helicopter parenting these days.  It is a real issue.  I’ve seen it as a parent and as a school psychologist.  Doing too much for your kids can harm them.  You can’t fully learn how to find your voice if someone else is always speaking for you.

I’ve often shared the worm to chrysalis to butterfly analogy with other parents.  You watch a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis and then watch it struggle to break out of the shell.  If you interrupt or try to “help”, you actually harm the soon to be butterfly.  The process of breaking free is essential to the evolution of the butterfly.  They need that hard work to fly. So even though you just want to edge it out a bit, fold back one little, thin, wispy part…you can kill the butterfly, or at least impair its ability to ever fly.  And what is a butterfly that can’t fly?

But holding back is hard.

It continues to be difficult even when your children are grown and moving into adulthood.

In some ways it seems even harder because the there might actually be some traumas at this point, or at least the dramas seem quite a bit more intense, more significant.

Maybe because we are adults, too, these young adult growing pains feel more intense for us to witness.  Time seems to go a bit slower when witnessing your child heal from a broken heart.  Maybe that’s fresh for us, too, a bit too close to our own path through a broken heart from the past, maybe one that never fully healed.

I often encourage parents of Kindergartners to let their children carry their own backpacks.  If the backpack is too heavy, check to see what’s weighing it down.  Is everything in there necessary?  I can’t tell you how many parents have had to remove a favorite rock, large book from home, heavy toy or pair of favorite dress up shoes from a backpack.  “How did that get in there?” I often hear.

Clean out the backpack every evening and take a peek in the morning on the way out of the home.  You never know.  But allow a child to carry their own backpack.  This is one of the first steps in growing up.  It’s a strengthening step.  Building muscles for life.  “I can handle my stuff.”  It’s part of the chrysalis phase.

By the time each of our kids were about 4 and 6, when we took trips or went out and about, my husband and I would tell them they had to be responsible for what they brought along.  We weren’t going back for lost things.

But like all kids, mine were smart enough to know I carried a purse or small backpack.  Somewhere along the way I would get the question – “Can you put this in your purse?”

At some point I told them both I was not their Sherpa!

“What’s a Sherpa?”

“We’ll Google it when we get home so you can see, but it’s important that you carry your own stuff.”

But now that they are young adults I sometimes fantasize about being their emotional Sherpa.  I want to carry the pain.  I want to fight their foes. I know the right moves, the correct steps, the best lines, the secret path.

I want to open up that delicate chrysalis and peek inside to tell them it will all be okay.  They will only be stronger and they will be beautiful butterflies.  

But I can’t.

So I focus on taking care of me.  Because that I can do.  I can take care of me so that I am too busy to open the chrysalis.  I can take care of me so that I don’t become the Sherpa.  I focus on me so I can take the rocks out of my own backpack.  Out of my own purse.

And I try to fall back on listening.  Holding a hand.  Adjusting the emotional temperature as best I can.