Jessica Claire Haney: Words to Live By

by Kate on May 12, 2017

We are so incredibly proud of this year’s show! And we’d love to share it with everyone who couldn’t be there with us. We’ll be sharing the pieces that were read here (in show order) – which is about as close as we could get!  Our eleventh reader was Jessica Claire Haney…

Words to Live By

I’ve decided that all mothers have some phrase, some collection of words, some precept that guides our parenting. Yours might be something common in your community, shared by others. Or it might be unique to you, still jagged around the edges. Maybe yours is so clear – even cute – that you’ve put it in a frame or on a vision board. Maybe it’s something you heard from your grandmother or you read in a book of poems in college. Maybe it’s something you’ve shared widely, garnering laughs or emojis on social media, or maybe it’s something so private, you wouldn’t even whisper it.

Maybe this sounds peculiar, and you’re thinking, I don’t have a phrase. I don’t do mantras. There’s nothing that can sum up or speak to the entire complexity that is my life.

I know. I didn’t realize it myself. Not really. It wasn’t until last fall when my 10-year-old son went through a particularly rough time that the words rose up to the surface like a bloated fish you want to look away from but can’t. It occurred to me that, whether I liked it or not, these words lay beneath everything I did – everything I do – as a parent.

It was something my mother said, maybe only twice, possibly only once. But it seemed like more. Her offering echoed through the decades, bouncing around in my head like a refrain. The further it got from the original, which was probably spoken 30 years ago when I was 14, the more eerie it sounded. I’ve been rewinding a tape in my head to the spot where my mom first said:

“I hope you never lose a child to suicide.”

She didn’t mean to be hurtful. What she wanted was the opposite of hurt. But her words took on the flavor of a warning, like tea that has a bitterness that seems subtle until you try to cut it with sugar and find that you can’t.

When you’re 14, you’re not thinking about your future angst as a parent. You’re thinking about the angst that is your everyday existence. This is true of most of us at some level, if even your brother hadn’t just killed himself a week before your birthday.

It’s natural for 14-year-old girls to think a lot about themselves. And to think their mom is embarrassing or some kind of mess.  I was no different. Things were just made more messy by the fact that I had seen my mom and dad and my other three siblings grapple with the grief of losing their son and brother, who was 23 when he chose to end his life for reasons we’ll never know.

Before I became a parent, I made a conscious decision to try to heal some of my hurts and to break unhealthy family patterns. Well, it wasn’t totally my idea; my body had a health crisis that triggered me to dig in and do some work. And I did, but now that my children are getting older, it’s clear there is more work to be done.

I’m one of those parents that other people probably think meddles too much. I try to be hands-off on some things that seem more optional. For example, if you see children sporting stylish clothes, matching socks, or even combed hair, they are not mine. But I’m pretty hard-core when it comes to things that have been big for me – like nutrition and anything affecting health or emotional well-being. When other people say things like, “Kids are so resilient!” or “Oh, he’ll be fine,” I don’t nod. I have evidence to the contrary.

Lots of folks I know try to put perspective on our overly concerned culture, noting all the unhealthy things they did as a kid, followed by “… and I turned out okay!” That just doesn’t resonate with me. Mine are not people who just “get over it.”

I don’t know what made my brother end his life, but I always understood what it was to feel painfully bad. When there’s a family history of depression and chronic illness, shrugging doesn’t cut it. I’ve worked a lot to get over things but am realizing, as my children pass through ages I remember with increasing detail, I still have a lot of work to do.

Before I became a parent, I set the intention to value my children’s health and happiness above all else. This seemed hopeful back then, but it wasn’t until my son showed up as a troubled tween that I realized my parenting was underpinned more by fear than by possibility.

“I hope you never lose a child to suicide.”

It’s a cautionary tale, a threat about what might be lurking around any corner. There’s no way for any parent to know which alleys are dangerous and which are just shortcuts.

We tell ourselves there are hurdles we get past. Into the second trimester; made it to 36 weeks; mom and baby are doing fine. But that’s just the beginning. There’s never really any time in parenting to sigh and say, “Okay, now I’m done.” Not for anyone, not as long as we live.

Sometimes moms who are in the thick of it, especially with young ones underfoot joke, “Today, I kept everyone alive!” I know. I’ve said it, too. But really, I hit the end of each day and am more relieved that my children decided to make it through. It’s like wrapping a gift in doubt.

The phrase that’s been guiding me is not one I chose. It was handed to me by a person in pain, and even if it was said out of a kind of love, it’s got tentacles around my heart, and it’s time to pour salt on them or do whatever will make them wither and let go.

My past will always be my past and maybe it will always have some sway over my future, but it doesn’t have to define my future and my children’s future.

I owe it to my children to find another guiding principle, something that is true but not limiting. Something that will help them – and me – grow without fear. Something that helps me share with them not what I hope they will escape but what I hope they will embrace.

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