When I was younger, I loved the first day of school. I loved picking out school supplies; choosing the perfect first day of school outfit at the mall; and the smell of new backpacks and those highlighter markers that smell like blueberries. I couldn’t wait to see my friends after a long summer (even the ones that I saw every day), could barely sleep for the excitement.
As an adult, back to school means something a little different. The lazy pace of summer gives way to dragging resisting tweens out of bed before the sun comes up and the rush of homework and activities after school and before bed at a reasonable time.
As a therapist, back to school means clients filled anxiety and stress. Parents start thinking about private school and college applications. Magnet school lotteries and tours gear up and the dance of competing with other parents without appearing to compete begins. Those old family feelings of not good enough and shame peak out from the back row of third period algebra and parents start to lose perspective on what it actually means to get into a selective middle or high school or even college.
The local private schools all inform applicants on the same day in the spring as to their admission status. The Friday before spring break at 4PM the emails go out. I imagine the admissions officers gathering their things and turning off all of the lights, before the last one out hits send and dashes frantically for the door. The thought of what awaits on their answering machine after the week makes my hands tingle and my chest feel tight.
I was thinking about that moment where you find out that your kid wasn’t accepted at some school. In so many ways it’s harder to accept than when you weren’t accepted at some school. It’s the perfect moment for radical acceptance. And the perfect illustration of what radical acceptance really means.
To be clear, radical acceptance does not mean approval. Radical acceptance means accepting what is with clear eyes and a willingness to handle what comes. It’s an offshoot of reality acceptance. Fundamentally, it’s the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,Reinhold Niebuhr
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Radical acceptance does not mean that we don’t change things, but it means that we accept that things may not be what we want. With the school acceptance/rejection example, it’s accepting that your child was not accepted and that it was for some reason (maybe not a good one or one you agree with, but there was probably a reason). That reason might be something you can correct next year or not. But the thing to be accepted is that they are likely not going to that school you had your heart set on if they weren’t accepted.
With radical acceptance can come peace. With radical acceptance can also come grief that willful rejection of reality will often obscure and suppress. Radical acceptance allows us to move into effective coping. When we’re avoiding reality we can feel like we’re going from one crisis to the next because we are – each time the grief and sadness rear up they need to be avoided because to experience them is to accept what’s happening and people avoiding reality are DEEP in the weeds of rejection of that reality.
We’ve all been there, hiding from reality grasping desperately at any chance that what we imagined would happen or could happen can still happen. All evidence to the contrary.
So the parents call and cajole, or call and beg, or call and yell, or call and cry. The common denominator is that they DO call. I’ve been there, that feeling is horrible. The sinking hollow feeling in the stomach, the sweaty reading and re-reading hoping you just read it wrong or that they’re talking about a different child. Certainly not your baby! What will happen to them? Where will your baby go if not to this ONE perfect school?
And yet. And yet. Most of them, by the end of August (just four months later) have children attending some school and happily settling into new classes.
Parenting these days feels like a series of life or death decisions, starting from pre-school and continuing through which soccer club should my child (number 71, weee) play for, even though it’s not likely that she’s actually going to play college soccer; to whether it’s ok to let the dancer quit piano when she’s just so talented and wants a career in theater. It feels like any wrong decision could be the straw that breaks the camels back and leads them to a life of dissatisfaction and poverty.
No wonder parents are stressed and unhappy.
We’re so responsible for ensuring our children’s eventual happiness that we forget our own and also forget the other mantra that therapists repeat to every one of their clients we can’t MAKE someone feel any way. That’s not how emotions work. The only person whose happiness is fully within our power is ourself.
So we have to get comfortable with the reality that they’re walking away from us every day from the moment they learn how to walk. They’re walking out of our control and protection and into the world. We can help guide them and give them direction, but they have to choose to go that way and then do the work to get there. And we have to accept that their version of there might not look like ours or their hopes.
I think about when my kids were little and riding in a stroller at Disney World. Those were the days, I got to pick where went and what rides we did. We could start with Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh and meander back to the Haunted Mansion, avoiding the crowds and the stress around Space Mountain and definitely NEVER going near the Speedway and its nostril-burning aroma! Alas, they can walk now and much as I try to convince them to go to the left and behind the castle, they’re fully committed to the Tomorrowland of it all. It may not be my first choice, but they consent to ride the TTA with me and I’ve discovered that when they get to lead the way they have more fun and I can sit back and relax on the trip.
At least they still let me pick the restaurants.
I have to remind myself that my kids will eventually get where they’re going. That they will be alright. And the TTA is pretty great in the morning breeze.