Monday, October 30, 2006

The "What If's"

All of us – parents or non-parents – suffer in varying degrees from the “What Ifs:” What If my plane crashes? What If I don’t get that job? What If I never get married? What If there’s no butter at the store?

But once you become a parent, actually before you even eyeball the apple of your eye, the “What Ifs” intensify. It all begins with the sobering thought, “What If I’m not ready to be a parent?”

Who is ever totally ready, really? For the responsibility, the sleep deprivation, the aggravation, the love that swells to bursting and the worrying. Those nagging, insane, trivial and terrifying “What If’s?” But ready-or-not, the child comes along with everything listed above and it is up to us parents, new and not-so-much, to determine which “What Ifs” are worth losing some hair over and which are quite simply beyond our control and not worth another sleepless night.

I have suffered, chin-upped and chocolate-powered my way through some pretty legitimate What Ifs, but at the same time I gave the What Ifs more power than they deserved. The most obvious of these was “What If Blake gets wounded or killed in Iraq?” I would watch and hear the reports of casualties or bloody confrontations and my imagination went whirling into overdrive. It’s happened twice and is scheduled to happen again in the fall. “What If I can’t do it a third time?” I ask myself. “What If it’s worse?” And yet, with each of his deployments, I realize that dwelling on the things I cannot change is futile. I am still playing the tapes, even now, and wondering if I will be able to fully concentrate on my position in the PTC; my responsibilities for an autumn disease fund-raiser; writing this column; Janet and Jack and Jon.

My second oldest son, Kenny, lives in Queens and works in Manhattan. We usually speak on the phone two or three times a week. Last week, I hadn’t heard from him and kept getting his voicemail. I heard on the radio that there were subway stabbings on the line that he uses to get to and from the city, so I went straight to “He’s in some hospital unconscious or worse and since his last name is different from mine nobody knows to contact me!” I left more frantic voicemails. He called me the next morning.

“Jeez, Mom! Every crime that is committed in New York City does not involve me as the victim, just as every Marine killed in Iraq is not Blake!” I laughed at his observation while at the same time remarking, “But you’re not a mom!”
Some of the What Ifs of being a mom or dad are just not reality-based nor should they even merit the strength of their contemplation. These from my own family include, “What If Jack doesn’t win the baseball championship?;” “What If Janet(age 13) doesn’t want to go to college?;” “What If Janet loses her cell phone?;” “What If Jack conks his head on the side of the swimming pool?;” “What If Kenny’s web business doesn’t take off?;” “What If Blake can’t get his truck fixed?”

There is a prayer said in certain circles that never fails to ground me when these wild feelings threaten to consume an otherwise sensible mind. It is called the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a great assemblage of words to remember and repeat whether you are a recovering whatever or not. Anyone can and frankly, should, use it when times get tough and perplexing parental thoughts run amuck.

I cannot change our government’s policies nor should I challenge Blake’s choice of career. I cannot, could not, change the fact that Jack’s baseball team didn’t make enough hits to win. I cannot change the stone landscape of our pool, instead I have to trust that the kids won’t be too foolish, and if they are, well, Norwalk Hospital isn’t too far away. I cannot change the fact that the grocery store may be out of butter, but I can adjust and make another choice.

Parents can choose to be paranoid or they can change the level of their anxiety accordingly. We love our children fiercely, desiring passionately to shelter them from storm or pain or humiliation or confusion. But there is always courage and wisdom in changing the “What If (negative thought)” to “What If (positive thought).”

What If you tried that today?

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