On a recent trip to the magical, chaotic concrete jungle of New York City, Joy and I had the privilege of taking in two Broadway shows.
First, and the reason we were there, was to see “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning story that was turned into a play by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin.
Second was the total surprise that we kind of happened upon, “Dear Evan Hansen,” a musical about, well, just about everything having to do with life: growing up, adolescence, friendship, parenting, anxiety, depression, suicide, class issues, the Internet, abandonment, reconciliation, loss and love.
As we course our way through the wild and unruly maze of parenting together, as we revel and wrestle with the ever-changing landscape of our children’s minds and moods, Joy and I encountered this story at the perfect time.
“Dear Evan Hansen” tells the story of a high school senior with severe social anxiety and experiences of having been bullied who, through an innocent misunderstanding and a subsequent lie told to give the illusion of belonging, becomes entangled in the tragic aftermath of a complicated classmate’s suicide. Although the plot centers around Hansen, his uncertain high school world, and his desperate desire to be understood, the theme of parenthood is also a central focus of the show.
It begins like this:
“Does anybody have a map? Anybody maybe happen to know how to do this? I don’t know if you can tell. But this is me just pretending to know. I need a clue. ‘Cause the scary truth is I’m flying blind. And I’m making this up as I go.”
These are some of the crushingly accurate descriptions of the mystery of parenting as illustrated in the opening song. It is sung by two mothers in two very different circumstances who are trying to connect with their teenage sons.
It has been said that this opening number functions as a kind of “parenting anthem,” which is why it is still ringing in my ears as I myself work with my wife every day to connect with our girls, each of them facing struggles and trying to brave their way through their particular age and circumstance.
Some days, like your own, are better than others. Needless to say, I cried my way through the whole show.
Why was it so moving to me?
Because, in part, like the parents depicted, I, too, must often admit that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have read the books, had the conversations, sought the wisdom of others, and I still find myself struggling daily with knowing how sometimes to connect, to attend to, and to love well enough these incredible girls of ours.
The obvious but slithery truth is, when babies become children, and children become teenagers, they change, and those changes outpace our ability to adjust, accommodate, and accept them.
Their desires, their communication patterns, their willingness to listen and to share all wax and wane with such varying degrees of “normalcy” that it can leave our heads spinning, wondering how in the world this happened so fast, and what do we do now?
We can read and learn about our children’s predictable milestones, feeding issues, sleeping problems and other things average children will suffer through. But that only goes so far.
Because there is no such thing as “the average child.”
Every child, like every adult, family and life, is made up of differences in personality, background, family system, and challenges.
There is no way to expect everything that a child’s life will throw at you. And those unexpected things are what force us to stumble and fall sometimes.
Our job as parents is to keep getting up. To keep reaching out. To never stop trying to connect. To never stop trying to communicate.
The door will be (or has already been) shut in your face a time or two (or 200); breathe, say a prayer or send up a wish, be the less anxious person in the situation, and do what you can to encourage that door to become open again.
At the end of the first act, as an unlikely speech goes viral online, Evan Hansen sings an emotionally-stirring and melodically-stunning song that speaks to parents and teenagers alike with a reminder that while both often feel like it, neither is ever really alone.
“Even when the dark comes crashing through; when you need a friend to carry you; when you’re broken on the ground, you will be found. So let the sun come streaming in ‘cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again. If you only look around. You will be found. You are not alone.”
It, too, is a powerful anthem for those who have ever felt abandoned, misunderstood, inadequate and isolated, which is some of us all of the time, and all of us some of the time.
Meaning you. Meaning me. Meaning our children, who seem all grown up, so beautiful and strong and big, but who are still wide-eyed, awkward, sometimes-scared little kids who feel all alone in a world that is huge and fast and spinning out of control, as if indifferent to their fear and hope and worries.
And then comes the internet, social media, and the frenzied belief that they have to keep up at an unsustainable pace in order to be accepted as normal, in order to avoid standing out and being made fun of.
Whatever fears or concerns our children carry, social media magnifies them. It connects and disconnects; it helps them to feel like they belong while reminding them that they really may not. It is full of one-upping, of meaningless posts, pictures and snaps. It is evidence of a longing for lasting friendships and being liked for who they are, with constant reminders that they have to continue to perform on the stage of the opinion of their peers in order to be noticed, in order to not disappear.
These issues have always existed for teenagers, but now they are faster, ever-present, forceful and fierce.
It is seemingly impossible.
And all our kids want to do is to be older, independent, on their own, free to make their own choices and decisions.
But they can’t. They are just children still.
And despite it all and regardless of what they say, our children need us.
They need to be known, heard, understood, respected and connected with us.
And if teenagers are just children in bigger bodies, adults are just teenagers with bills to pay and responsibilities.
We have needs, too. The need to be known by our children. The need to be heard, understood, respected and connected with our children.
The need to be forgiven our flaws.
Perhaps that is at the heart of it: forgiveness. Letting go. Emptying in order to be filled.
My friends, you are known, heard, understood and respected as you are. And in these few column inches, you are connected with me, and I with you.
This is my way of reaching out. You have your ways, too.
Just know that you are not forgotten. You have not disappeared. And if you feel your heart is broken and on the ground, someone will come running, and you will be found.
Go connect with your children. Get lost with them. And be found by one another. Remind them that they are not alone. And believe it. It’s true. Neither are you.
Dr. Jonathan Eric Carroll, KLPC, NCPC, NCCE, Fellow (AAPC), is the husband of Joy who makes him feel found. He is a state-licensed mental health professional, the Founder of The Clinic @ The Montgomery in downtown Owensboro. Visit www.themontgomeryclinic.com, and is the co-creator and co-host of “You’ll Die Trying,” a podcast available everywhere.