When adult problems overwhelm you, keep your mind on the children

As I was working on this month’s column, a tornado ripped through North Minneapolis. I saw drama unfold as our community came together helping those in need. I saw children who were displaced, probably confused and frightened.
My mind immediately went to children in grandfamilies and foster homes, whose lives had already changed and changed again, and how they might be afraid of what happens to them now. Further, I wondered how — or if — through the chaos the caregivers were able to provide comfort and reassurance when they themselves were so overcome with that same fear of the unknown.
Our grownup stuff takes so much time to resolve and leaves so little time for much else. Yet, we expect our children to know we love them, even when we cannot or will not say so. We use a “dismissive smile” that says, “That’s nice, but…” The smile and too-busy attitude are painful to a child dealing with a crisis or who comes to us with a history of abuse or neglect. Our words go straight to a child’s heart; our actions influence how a child sees the world.
Nothing is more hurtful or unsettling to a child than to feel they don’t matter, they are not as important, or that their contribution has little significance. Granted, children should not be weighed down with adult problems, but they can be reassured how they are an important part of what makes their family work.
Toni Morrison asks us if our eyes light up when a child walks into the room. I had to think about that one, particularly considering the past few months. Our world may have been torn apart by man or the Creator. Unemployment is at its highest for African Americans; people are struggling to keep their homes — or to rebuild them. But we are not the lone survivors of our tragedies and what we feel comes through, regardless how well we think we disguise fear and uncertainty. The children are watching.
As we pull ourselves through to the other side of whatever has reorganized our priorities, we realize how temporary life is. Even if we have not been a part of nature’s storm, many of us are in the middle of some type of personal storm.
Having survived my own personal storms lately, I was confident in my ability to hide the truth of my fears and uncertainties, not wanting my grandson David to notice and be afraid. But he did notice. How did he find out?
What was I doing wrong? It wasn’t so much what I was doing as what I wasn’t doing. In my quiet time I crochet. It’s relaxing and therapeutic. (Almost everyone I know has an afghan or a shawl from me.) I no longer took those quiet times; I was occupying my time on the couch with ice cream, watching television, or just staring out the window.
One evening David asked why I wasn’t “knitting” anymore. I did not have that safe answer, so out came the truth: I was thinking about how to solve problems that weren’t so easily fixed. I assured him it was my job to take care of us; I had a plan. It was his job to be a child and that we would be okay.
My honesty led to his talking about a problem at school. We both now work at being more open. If I’m lucky and keep at it, such unguarded moments can set the stage for other conversations as he starts dealing with life’s broader issues: drugs, sex, peer pressure, drugs, sex. (Yes, I know I listed drugs and sex twice. Think about it.)
So, do my eyes light up when David enters the room? Yes. But there are still those days when I am so preoccupied with crises and grownup stuff I am not even aware he is in the room. That’s the time when I try to be in the moment and focus on the job of taking care of him by being the most honest me I can be. “No, David, I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. Wait just a minute so I can focus on what you’re saying. Okay?”
• To paraphrase Maya Angelou: We do what we know how to do. When we know better, we do better.
• Find your blessing in the storm, and take pride in knowing you are making life better for your grandchild.
• Set just three goals to help you feel complete, so that you can give your best to your grandchild.
• Find an objective person you trust who will listen and offer support without necessarily telling you what to do or how to do it.
• A helpful read: Starting Points for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a Resource Guide with Information and Services for Grandparent Caregivers. Illinois Department on Aging: www.state.il.us/aging.
You can do it!

Judith Hence welcomes reader responses to jhence@spokesman-recorder.com.