It’s winter vacation week and my family is off on a trip. Sometimes, our travel goes smoothly; everyone is happy and smiling from the moment we leave the house until the suitcases are rolled back in the door. But some voyages are filled with challenges — cancelled flights, missed connections, hotel snafus — and this has been one of those, with high points routinely punctuated by moments of tension. I’ve observed that my clan manages its anxieties by depositing them with me.
Other families, too, seem to have a designated receiver of stress. It may be necessary but is a bittersweet job at best.
This isn’t about comforting my kids when something goes wrong. I keep my suitcase stocked with bandaids, ointments and medicine for the unexpected illness or injury, and I’ll willingly give up a day of sightseeing to give everyone a needed rest. More, when the train we need to be on is at 9 am and they complain that it’s too early, or don’t pack the night before, miss breakfast to cram their clothes into bags, then moan about being hungry, somehow making it my problem to find them immediate sustenance, I get frustrated. They’re teenagers, shouldn’t they be able to manage their emotions without delivering the overflow to me? As a parent, am I always going to be the safe place for them to vent excess emotion?
When they were toddlers, the parenting books warned that my kids might be great at school but have tantrums at home, managing to hold it together in one setting and falling apart in the other, where they felt safe. I could grasp this idea, and braced myself for difficult afternoons. Sometimes I wondered who’s quiet and gentle child a teacher was talking about because she certainly wasn’t one of the girls living under my roof.
Now much older, my daughters still do the same thing, handing over their excess emotional baggage for me to carry when they’re tired, hungry, or worn out. They nearly made us miss a train through a lack of motion in the morning. One nearly melted down over lack of tissues for her runny nose. I’ve seen other adolescents do the same thing, one boy calling his dad psychotic and another telling his mother, in no uncertain terms, that he could not possibly be up for breakfast at 9 am — two days in a row.
In fairness, there were moments my girls rose to the demands of a situation — no complaints, no whining. One had a bad blister but kept up with everyone all day. The other had ill-fitting gloves and cold feet but didn’t slow the group down.
And I suppose there is part of me that is glad I’m still a safe, emotional refuge for my kids; perhaps not happy but willing to gather the pieces when their mood splinters under the strain of circumstances and their stress spills all over the floor. If I can do this in the service of a family trip, of moving us on to the next high point, all the better. I just may need to schedule a little vacation for myself. Something quiet, peaceful and stress free.