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Feeling Conflicted: The Duality of our Emotions (Especially in Times of Crisis)

This past week our youngest child turned six years old. Ordering the paint set she asked for, wrapping it, and getting to watch her open it was magical. And yet, after the joy of watching her open all of her presents, I had to go in the bathroom, close the door, and have a cry.

Watching my youngest child grow and change during the past six years has been one of the greatest joys of my life. And one of the deepest sorrows. The act of parenting is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

And so it goes.

For the past nine weeks, my husband and I have been working from home, and our children have been with us for every single second of it. This has been the longest stretch of time the four of us have been together nonstop in our entire existence. We eat all our meals together, we work together--our kids sitting beside our laptops with their school work--and we play together. Together, together, together. If you would have told me all this round-the-clock togetherness was coming my way a few months ago, I would have packed my bags and fled. And yet, it has been the greatest experience I've ever had as a mother.

The more I have of my kids, the more I want of them. We get along better than we did when we were out and about doing our life the previous way. We are all calmer, happier, more rested, and much more easy going. And yet, there's also a dark cloud of understanding that, for us, this is an extremely privileged--and fleeting--experience.

And then comes the sadness. And fear. And anger. And the acknowledgment that this isn't good for everyone. That not everyone gets to soak up their family while working safely from home. Not every child is with parents who are less stressed. Not every couple is embracing all this togetherness. And that even our own job and health security are resting on quicksand.

And so it goes.

Yet one more instance of a situation that surfaces not only several emotions, but seemingly conflicting ones. How can I be this happy and this full of dread at the same time? How can I feel both grateful and guilty? How can I long for the world to go back to normal, and yet fight with the idea of ever going back to normal? How can I be scared and also feel safe? How can I be so excited and also so tired? Dammit, feelings, pick a side!

So why do we feel so many conflicting feelings? And what do we do with them?

Short answers: Because we are human; and might I suggest Ben and Jerry's.

Long answers: We feel so many conflicting feelings when a situation touches multiple aspects of our knowing. If you feel several feelings, you are recognizing multiple parts of yourself. Any time an excellent meal meets a discerning palate, all kinds of flavors will become apparent.

Now, what do we do with the conflicting feelings? My good friend David once told me: "Never strike while the iron is hot." To strike when the iron is hot would have meant that on my youngest's birthday I would have just held her and ugly-cried while also cackle-laughing, but that wouldn't have been much fun for her. To strike while the iron is hot during quarantine for me would be to declare I was forever homeschooling my children, quitting my job, and spending the entire time locked in our basement surrounded by canned goods.

Actually, I might call that "Plan B."

However, instead of steering into my appreciation of, and panic for, our current situation (or willing my youngest daughter to stop growing), I just need to sit with those feelings and get curious about them. What are they telling me?

They are telling me a few things:

1) The situation is complicated, so my emotions will be, too.

2) There is simultaneously something being gained and something being lost.

3) The mixture of feelings is showing me all facets of this circumstance.

4) I seem to always be fighting off one of those emotions in favor of another.

5) The unsettled feeling might actually be helpful. It seems to keep me actively engaged with the emotions and the event.

Knowing that you can and should hold room for multiple feelings is key. For so long, I worked to neatly categorize my feelings into some beautifully pristine mental filing cabinet. That was a happy moment! This is a sad moment. But what became problematic about the filing cabinet was I would have to refile moments I'd already filed after some time had passed. How eager was I to grow up when I was a child? How much do I long for my childhood as an adult? How mad was I at my friend that one day at school I was in tears by the locker? Why can I not recall why I was so mad now? How I felt about Joe Exotic while watching the documentary isn't quite how I feel about him now. So instead of a filing cabinet, I've realized it's actually one of those cylindrical chambers on game shows where a contestant stands while money whirls around them at violent speeds. The sole purpose is to grab on to something, anything you can catch, while it all whips around you in chaotic swirls. The harder I grab, the more it all seems to elude me.

And so it goes.

What's become obvious to me is I've spent as much energy and thought devoted to keeping something exactly as it is as I have hoping it will forever change. I want the world to return to what I remember while also hoping it stays exactly how it is now. I want to watch my daughter grow and become the person she's meant to be while also staying exactly the same size and forever in my lap. Neither what we want or what we fear are sustainable.

Maybe that's my clue. That if we think in such primary thoughts, we remove any chance for nuance. For another option besides either and or.

Since my daughter's birthday, she has enjoyed painting on every scrap of paper she can find. And I've never seen her opt for just one color. She picks two or three, sometimes more, and boldly swirls them all around until she's happy with the hues that emerge. Because even at her young age, she can tell her shades of yellow are made even brighter when contrasted with her blues.


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