Alicia Assad, MAPP '08, Health Counselor is a writer and mother of four. Having survived postpartum anxiety, multiple pregnancy losses, and her son's burn injury, she contemplates ways that concepts such as optimism and gratitude can lead to growth in the aftermath of adversity. She is a former Miss New Jersey and Radio City Rockette. Follow her writing on Facebook, @AliciaAssadWrites, and visit her website, Alicia Assad: Recovering Perfectionist. MOM. Happiness Aficianado. Storyteller. Alicia's articles for Positive Psychology News are here.
The end of 2016 inspires reflection, and I find myself scrolling back through the photos in my phone to peer at the memories my family has made.
With just a flick of my thumb, the photos pass in a blur. Each time I pause to savor, I notice my children revert to a slightly more plump, perhaps more precious version of themselves.
I am always amazed by how I change too. Naturally, I am drawn to notice the physical signs of aging that accelerate annually. But last year, my resolution was to work hard at being kinder to myself. So I embrace the new wrinkles and sunspots I have gained. Now I celebrate the impact of self-compassion.Looking for a Gentler Resolution
I made a more gentle resolution for 2016, because I am a parent in a world where “mom guilt” is the trend. I want to do the best I can for the kids I love, but sometimes more is unproductive and better is unrealistic. By pairing my natural urges to be perfect with the remorse I carried following my son’s burn injury, I was on a one-way trip to martyrdom.
Memories of the experience intensify if I dare to scroll back a few years to find the photo of a little boy posing for me after his haircut in the spring of 2013. Sporting a red and black vest, shy smile and lollipop in hand, my W. was then two-years-old. His four-year-old sister was in school, and I was 36 weeks pregnant with his brother. We were out grocery shopping and running errands. W.’s haircut was the last item on my to-do list, so I felt prepared. My unborn baby had a birth defect requiring surgery, and there was talk of an induction the following morning.
I never made that appointment, because I found myself in an Emergency Room with W. after a pot of boiling water came crashing down on him. There isn’t a photo that captures the scene of me with W. on my lap surrounded by a team of doctors who warned me the burn was so severe, he might not survive. But as a mother who has stood at the precipice of unfathomable loss, this haunting memory serves as a reminder to cherish the moments I am blessed to have with my children.There are photos my husband took during our experience in the ICU Burn Unit that chronicle a time of wounds, surgeries, and tears. One captures W., clad in the silver bandages that once reminded me of chain mail armor, and the thought of my boy as a little knight with a spirit strong enough to survive the battle gave me hope and kept me calm.
In another, my daughter joined me in the hospital bed with W. to tell me about her delight about a new Easter dress and basket full of eggs. This hospital-celebrated holiday was our attempt to assuage the loss she felt in my absence from home. In a moment like this, I learned there is joy, even in our hardest experiences.
Positive emotions like gratitude and joy kept the baby snug in my womb for the month I saw W. through two surgeries. At birth, H. didn’t need immediate surgery and when I finally made it home to my daughter with both of her brothers, I was overwhelmed by gratitude. In the photo of our reunion, I was one lucky mother who had three children to hold.Reversing the Theme of Guilt
Still, my year’s end theme in 2013 and again in 2014 was guilt. While that pot of water was not in my hands when it burned W., I take full responsibility for the chain of events leading up to the accident, because I am his mother. At the very least, it is my job to ensure his safety.
In 2015, the scars I realized my boy will forever carry could become my roadmap of pain and sadness permanently etched on his body. But there was a poignant moment, which shifted my perspective, and I remember it as vividly as our night in the ER.
One afternoon, W. asked me to make his scars go away, and to those pleading brown eyes filled with pain that is both emotional and physical, I couldn’t lie. Though every bone in my body ached to right this wrong, I was helpless except to assure W. he is the bravest boy I have ever known. He once wore silver bandages like the chain mail of a knight, and in battle, he was shining.
This is when self-compassion came into play because if my boy is to believe his scars are symbolic of his strength, I must think the same of my own emotional wounds. Children need parents to model what we expect of them, and when I realized my pain and grief could further harm my boy, I shed it off like a dirty set of clothes. I made the choice to move on.
For this reason, 2016 was the year of self-compassion. I looked for my strengths regardless of my failures. My year-end reflection reveals a happier, more resilient version of myself so I think this resolution is one I will keep.
Looking Forward to 2017
For different reasons, I am certain 2016 has changed us all, and perhaps my words will inspire your own reflection. Should you take a scroll through your timeline and revisit the moments that have defined your year, I urge you to look carefully. What are you drawn to notice? Natural is the tendency to focus on the negative, but ruminating over failure won’t fix what is broken, and guilt has the power to suffocate joy.
For this reason, I move forward into 2017 with the lessons I have learned about finding gratitude and hope in adversity. I will continue on with self-compassion, trusting that at the very least, I can learn from my mistakes.
Now that I am in a place where I experience more joy than guilt, I aim to be more mindful in the year to come. My new resolution is to savor the ordinary moments I am yet to experience as a mother of young children who are constantly changing, and rapidly making their way into the timeline of my past.
Assad, A. (2015). Compassion as a coping mechanism. Positive Psychology News.
Assad, A. (2015). Growing through adversity. Positive Psychology News.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.
Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Sounds True.