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.
Dear Alicia, What guts, grit, and fortitude you have interwoven into a treasured tapestry of LOVE. While I am not one for New Year’s resolutions, I am thrilled to read your story of hope and well-being.
In 2016, you did yourself so proudly. With all your heart, you embraced and learned to love your kind, adorable, caring and courageous self. I hope and pray you continue to be the poster child for all of us who what to ramp up resilience and well-being. Three kids’ scenarios is a huge undertaking for any woman and family, let alone with your gigantic challenges. You are an inspiration. I salute your wearing your well-being on your sleeve and hope you continue to wear it like a colorful tattoo of terrific survival. I wish for you and your family continued hope and joy. Your kids are stunning and as lovely as are you! Thanks for priming me to take a look-see at my past year as well as the future. Best Possible Future Self here come today! And add positivity reminiscing 2016 to my yearly tally. Happy New Year to you, your family and to everyone fortunate to read your wonderful post.
Nicely written Alicia. More than one brave Knight in here. Wow. I hope you find great rewards on the journey ahead. Kind regards, Angus.
Alicia – Somehow I’m reminded each day that there is pain and happiness, and one helps you appreciate the other. Thanks for this perfect reminder.
Alicia, this is completely devastating and also utterly beautiful to read. Since no one is perfect, thank you for sharing your story of ongoing healing. <3
Thank you Alicia for this beautiful and poignant reminder of the power of self-compassion.
Sherri and Trisha, thank you for your kind words and reminding me that by sharing these raw and vulnerable moments, my words are appreciated.
Judy – I woke up this morning with that feeling of panic which left me ruminating, processing thoughts like, “Why do I share such vulnerable moments, does anyone really want to read about something so difficult….maybe I should just forget it all happened….or at least stop talking about it.” But I can’t erase my past. My little knight, a boy who will turn 6 on Friday has been through a lot and I hope that the perspective I fight for will somehow help him face the inevitable obstacles in his future as a child who carries scars. So thank you for your heartfelt comment- I felt your hug through cyberspace. Suddenly, by reading your words, I am much less panicked!
Agnus and Andrew–thank you for your words of encouragement and support.
And to the Positive Psychology community at large, thank you for always be kind and compassionate environment which allowed me a safe place to begin this conversation about how to heal from adversity I recall above. I found myself a student in MAPP on the pursuit of happiness initially thinking I would find it by figuring how to eradicate all negativity from my life. Clearly, life has forced a hard lesson about what happiness really is upon me, but sometimes we learn the hard way, right? At the very least, I am grateful to have an understanding about how we can thrive in the aftermath of adversity.
Which leads me to believe we can find our callings in the most unusual places….but that thought is an article for another day…..
Dear Alicia, It is your openness and vulnerability that makes your writing open up doors to people’s souls. I hope you always know that. Thanks for your kind words. Pitch panic to the curb!
Love and more hugs of support always, Judy
My brother was a toddler when he reached out and pulled a cooling pot of oil on himself. I must have been around five..as I remember watching it happen. Somehow my mom got him to the hospital where he stayed several weeks. He was scarred down his hand to his chest.
I know later in her years, my mother talking about the incident but she never talked about it unless someone mentioned it. Other than that, we continued as an rambunctious family. One not favored over the other (of course, I was the favorite).
My brother is a Cornell veterinarian surgeon. He sees his scars as battle scars and doesn’t make a big deal of it.
My hope is that you forgive yourself. When you do, so too will your son stop feeling sorry for himself. You hold the key. Unlock your prison.
When I left the Burn Unit, I had a brochure in my pocket for The Phoenix Society, which is a community of burn survivors sharing stories of hope and inspiration to those recovering from burn injury.
Hearing stories of others who went on to live full and vibrant lives after burn injury gave me so much hope. Your story about your brother is now one of them.
So thank you for sharing.
Your post made me think deeply about forgiveness. I talked about self-compassion but was forgiveness within that? I believe that it was because while I talk about what happened, I don’t feel that guilt and shame anymore.
Much of that has to do with my boy – who is strong, resilient and very much flourishing.
Today, we celebrated his 6th birthday. And while I know the journey ahead will not always be smooth, I know that he will be ok.
I am so lucky to be his mom and for every moment I am blessed to have with him.
So thank you for your thoughtful words of encouragement.
How beautiful and inspiring, just like you, Alicia. Thank you for sharing your heart and wonderful writing, dear brave friend.