THE BLOG
11/20/2013 09:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Grace in a Goldfish Bowl

There's an old saying that a mother is only as happy as her most unhappy child. Different people have different feelings about this quote, and that's ok. Everyone is unique and so is each parenting experience. But for me personally, that sentiment was never more true than it was this morning and over of all things, a goldfish.

My mother-in-law raised four children and always jokes about which of them is currently at the top of her worry list. Someone is always there, claiming their mother's concerns, but the child occupying the space varies. For some time the slot is claimed by one, until things settle for him or her and then someone else fills it.

Really, that's life. It's hard to feel tremendous delight for yourself or another, when you know someone else is having a hard time. One friend may be rejoicing, while another unrelated friend is suffering. Compassion and empathy are always there on one side of the emotional tug-o-war while celebration and joy yank the other way. Yet the rope in this game of life is always interwoven with threads of happiness and gratitude making it possible for us to acknowledge and feel both deeply and simultaneously.

In my own family's emotional tug-o-war, over the last few weeks we've celebrated baptisms and birthdays, and entered into this festive time of the year with a cheerful bang of decorations and parties. Yet I feel a slight tug in the other direction because my son has been hanging out at the top of my worry list. It's nothing major right now but enough to be holding a decent portion of this mother's mind share.

Do we push him or give him space?

He just finished his first trimester of 4th grade and things are starting to get a bit more real on all fronts: academics, social dynamics, athletics and other extra-curricular activities. This is the first year that his grade card will have letter grades and teams are starting to have try-outs and cuts. He's still in pursuit of his passion and my husband and I have been having many late night conversations about it all.

Do we enroll him in the activities he has fun doing because they come easier to him or challenge him and go for the ones that will sharpen the skills that need it?

We decided to start pushing a bit more and make changes in activities that were getting too comfortable. We changed up his piano teacher and he was terribly upset. But even as I explained to him the rationale behind our decision, I wasn't sure I believed it.

Will he respond better to good cop or bad cop...threaten and punish, or reward and encourage?

In general my son is pretty tender-hearted and sweet. I believe he is kind to others and really feels compassion for friends, animals and even our planet. He's curious and inquisitive and interested in geography, history and science.

But while he has favorite college and local Chicago sports teams, he's not going to track statistics or rankings. He prefers individual sports like swimming and golf more so than team sports such as baseball or soccer. Yet his real strong suit is his imagination and creativity. He loves to draw, sculpt and take improv classes.

At recess he's a master of the rainbow loom, not the soccer field, or even the four square court. Recently he and his friends have created a game that involves mining and storing ice-crystals in an invented fort on the playground. This seems like a wonderfully innovative and non-violent game. Which is good, I think.

Is it even possible to turn a lover into a fighter?

While I believe that his good nature will serve him well as he gets older, I worry that the world will eat him alive! So I'm desperately trying to foster and encourage his natural traits, while sharpening the characteristics that don't come as easily to him. I am really very proud of his kindness and curiosity, but still feel myself wanting to instill into him more competitiveness and drive.

Even though I know every expert would advise that this is wrong, I can't help myself and I cringe as I ask him who is in what math level at school. He smiles and answers, "I only pay attention to myself, not others."

Why would I try to turn a lover into a fighter?

So with all of these issues swirling around he's claiming space at the top of my worry list and lately my husband and I have been trying different tactics to light a bit of a fire under his behind. We'll look at each other and agree that we only want to push him into trying his hardest, doing his best and nothing else.

But then in the middle of homework he'll do something frustrating and maddening and the conversation starts spinning, and spinning... and before we know it we're saying things that we shouldn't and hating ourselves for doing so.

We had one of those conversations the other night and it was so, so miserable and so, so ugly. It went places that even I was surprised it went with me referencing our son's surgery when he was just three days old and how he can't ever give up on himself because (my God!), he is supposed to be here so he better make this life count! And then there was my husband talking about getting into good colleges and the world passing him by! And finally Jack pulling the pillow over his head and saying he just wished he didn't exist. Which given the medical history I've just described, pushes every last emotional button I have.

And boom! With that there was a huge, screeching halt. Brakes applied, the conversation redirected and thanks to the grace that fell all around us in that sacred moment, we found the right parenting words, or at least the better parenting words and talked and hugged and cried and reassured.

Eventually our conversation moved onto pride and how good pride feels. We asked Jack to think hard about what he was most proud about from that day. He thought and thought and thought. We offered examples from our own days like serving others, making someone smile, challenging ourselves. He thought and thought some more until the answer struck him, "I'm most proud of how long my goldfish has lived."

Now, we were going for something related to school, sports or being kind to others. While it's not the answer we were looking for, it's true. He is so proud about the longevity of his pet's life.

He was thrilled last year when he learned that all 3rd graders receive a goldfish as part of a science study. We counted down the months until that unit. During the study the fish stayed in the classroom and Jack analyzed what he believed were the personalities of each. He would come home with reports like, "Today my fish was playing with Sam's fish, but then Ava's fish tried to attack them." And I rolled my eyes to myself on the inside, but smiled on the outside at their innocent excitement. And finally last winter, the day arrived and he came out of school beaming with his new fish!

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There was a lot of fanfare as our kids welcomed the fish to its new home. They decorated the tank with colorings and crafts. And something truly interesting happened! Jack's fish had a hole in the dorsal fin, yet after a few weeks at our house, the hole repaired itself. Jack assumed this was because he was taking such good care of the fish and his teacher agreed. By the end of the school year Jack's fish was still alive, while others were not. So again, this was remarkable and fun.

All summer long we made sure to feed that fish the right vacation tablets when we left to go out-of-town. When we returned home each Sunday night, the first thing Jack would do is race to his bedroom and let out a sigh of relief. Even his little sister would say, "Is the fish still alive?"

When school started up in the fall Jack headed off to the 4th grade wing, but made sure to pay his 3rd grade teacher a visit and let her know that the fish was still alive. She was amazed and told Jack so, bolstering his pride even more.

And then this week... the week he's hanging out at the top of my worry list, and the week after the emotional piano teacher switch, and the week we've been riding him so hard about his homework and the week he just declared his fish's life as the achievement that he feels the most pride in... this week the fish started swimming on its side and not eating. Ba-ba-bum.

Jack saw it a few days ago and called me panicked to his room. I downplayed it and we continued on our way. But when it happened again this morning, it didn't look good and both he and I knew it. The drama was thick and would be almost funny, if it wasn't so sincere. He was knocking on the side of the bowl and saying things like "stay with me." He didn't want to eat breakfast since the fish couldn't eat. He decided to wear a shirt to school today with a graphic of a fish on it to stand in solidarity with his pet.

I explained that it was probably time for him to start saying good-bye. He asked if we could do anything and I said not really. He suggested we call a vet. Now we don't have a veterinarian, because it's a pet fish. Fish! Finally I relented and called a veterinarian practice in town. I explained our situation while the receptionist very kindly and patiently played along allowing me to say into the phone, loudly enough for my son to hear, "Ok, so you're saying there's nothing we can do. How long do fish usually live? Oh gosh, only a few weeks? Well then I guess we should really be celebrating what a long life we gave our fish! Yes, he did take good care of that fish. Thanks so much."

I knew my son needed to get to school. Admittedly, I considered for a split second if I should allow him to stay home and spend time with his beloved pet goldfish before it died. But I thought better of it, and told him he needed to spend a moment or two with the fish and then it was time to go. I offered that he could come home for lunch and suggested that he pay a visit to his 3rd grade teacher who he is so endeared to and let her know.

Between his tears, he liked this idea. So, I quickly sent a note to his current 4th grade teacher, his 3rd grade teacher and the school social worker explaining the situation of the morning. I labeled it "Goldfish Tragedy" and in a sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek tone I said that they should not baby him, but he might need an extra pat on the back or hug today. They were so kind and all wrote me back right away.

On the way to school we talked about how he needs to be brave, and I struggled with my own emotions and contradictions. I really love that he wears his heart on his sleeve, but it's so vulnerable hanging out there! I wanted to tell him to compartmentalize his feelings, and to not let others see him cry. Yet I know that's all wrong based on my own experiences with grief.

I started to explain that others are going through hard times as I thought of parents I know who are losing their own children to cancer right now, kids we know who have parents going through a divorce right now, and the thousands of people in the Philippines who we don't know personally but who are facing utter devastation right now. I wanted to slap a bit of perspective into my son and scream, "It's a goldfish!"

But I remembered when my own daughter was born still and in a conversation with my mother she good-intentionally offered stories of other seemingly "worse" tragedies. I think she was hoping I'd realize that others were suffering as well. But I was insulted and screamed back "I know there are starving children in the world and I feel terrible about that... but that doesn't make my loss suck any less right now!"

And that's when I caught myself. One of the hardest lessons I've had to accept is that things are not mutually exclusive. My world may be crashing, while someone else's is jubilant. It may not seem fair, but it's hardly unjust. It's not one or the other. It just is the way it is.

Toughen him up, or keep him soft?

When we arrived at school, Jack got out of the car and took a quick pause to look in the side view mirror. He asked me if I could tell that he'd been crying. I didn't lie and didn't tell the truth, I just said that it looked like he'd been having a bad day.

A bad day, that was it! This was my advice to give. We talked about how he was having a bad day and that everyone has bad days. And everyone has good days. And they aren't always on the same day. But the bad days help us appreciate and recognize the good days. Then I continued that even on one of the bad days, it's still a day worth having and one we need to get through.

He sighed. As I watched his slumped back bravely enter the school building in its puffy winter coat, I started to tear up a little bit myself. Because I remembered my own very bad days and how I still had to keep moving. Sometimes the movement was forward, sometimes backwards, but each and every one of those days consistently arrived. And each and every one of those days brought with it both a sunrise and a sunset.

To my child's tender heart, the loss of a pet goldfish is a big deal. And even though I'm an adult and can see this morning's tragedy as funny and ironic (Come on! I sent a note to the school and called a veterinarian for a goldfish for goodness sake!!), most powerful of all, I'm a parent. And once you've grown, sustained and nurtured your child's heart both inside and out of you, you'll always feel it as it swells with joy or breaks with grief.

Throw him a rope, or let him rescue himself?

Wish me luck! I'm off to save a goldfish now. With the help of my husband's Google search I'll be performing a trick that involves spoon-feeding a fish a frozen pea. Because a super hero never hangs up her cape, and neither does this mom.

This post originally appeared on Carissa's blog, www.carissak.com. You can see more from Carissa by following her on Tumblr, carissakwriter.tumblr.com, Facebook at www.facebook.com/carissaKwriter, Twitter @CarissaK or Instagram, www.instagram.com/carissakwriter. Thanks for reading.