My daughter Wren stomps to the car, angry tears falling from her cheeks. Her 9-year-old rage is barely contained, and I offer her the passenger's seat as her siblings file into their car seats and boosters.
What follows as we sit in the parking lot of the pediatrician's office is a near physical assault on the dashboard, guttural cries escaping her lips every few seconds.
"It's not fair!" she wails, finally letting the grief wipe away some of the fury.
"Nope, it's really not," I answer, having already decided that I won't brightside us through this process.
Though a gluten-free diet offers remission from most of the symptoms of the Celiac disease she's dealt with for seven years, her body is still offering side effects and problems seemingly just for sport. We now began an uncomfortable process to sort through them.
"I follow the rules. I don't eat what other kids do. I take all the vitamins," she whimpers, her face in her hands and her siblings watching silently.
She inherited her belief that good behavior should produce discernable results from me, though it's a pattern most of us fall into regularly. Follow the rules, collect the prize. Avoid the threat, experience no harm. It feels like common sense, the expectation of a linear process that can be charted, a line drawn on a graph pointing up.
When Wren landed in the ER two years ago for the same issues, there were procedures, observation, outlines, recommendations, and (what I thought was) a clear path moving forward. We emerged victorious on the other side. I did an internal fist pump and marked this problem solved.
That's why when I see Wren ready to explode from the injustice, I get it. Only, I'm just now learning that we spend life in what looks more like a roundabout than on a straight road moving us to our desired destinations.
Recent conversations with my friends included the following pronouncements:
"I was off sugar until I was on it again."
"My kid was potty trained and now pees wherever he stands like it never happened."
"I was really doing okay two weeks ago, but something invisible happened and now I'm not."
I felt this when, after six months of relatively stable mental health, I fell into bed fully dressed one night and wept for hours before falling into a near catatonic sleep. The sun coming through the windows the next morning did nothing to alleviate my mood, a mood darkened by the question, Why is this happening again? I thought I was past this.
I wonder if we are ever truly past anything or if we're simply making slow progress that sometimes looks like circling back around to chronic issues for occasional visits.
These visits are never welcome, and they are what make regression in any childhood behavior near unbearable. We covered this ground, you mastered this skill, onward!
In adult lives, it's the same feeling we develop when dealing with career setbacks, flashbacks of trauma, or any sort of loss of endurance or dulling of a skill. Going backward in any way feels like defeat, and it doesn't mesh with the narrative we're sold that says real progress is steady and sure.
Practicing mindfulness helps me respond better to the now, whatever it is, but it also makes me aware of how often I spend life expecting to fully defeat or overcome every vice or obstacle in my path. All evidence points to my life working more like a never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole. Problem solved? Nope. Problem reemerging.
I'm not sure linear exists, and I know I'm not alone. A recent text from a friend put into words what I have been struggling to accept for the last couple of years.
"…the older I get the more I learn that nothing is really linear for me. Grief, growth, spirituality…I just keep hoping it all sort of assimilates toward an upward trajectory…"
This seems to align with the idea that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had about the very long arc of the universe bending towards justice, but it's not hard to see how that trajectory is not a straight, upward moving line. Neither is parenting.
We hope at the end that we have healthy, well-adjusted kids who are secure and ready to lend their gifts to the world, but this beautiful journey is full of setbacks, regressions, and frustrating stalls along the way.
My friend added that it's scary to live through the dips, the low points, and that's true in the bigger story of our world and within the personal stories of our lives. What happens when we don't see that progress, that permanent, positive change?
Wren improved steadily over a matter of two weeks, but by week three, things took a turn. Her digestive issues returned, not full-force but in a way that changed the direction we were going from forward to somewhere between stalled and backward.
"But it was getting better," she said, shock written across her face.
"And it will again," I told her because I truly believe that statement. I gently added that it will also sometimes get worse, and explained that life is a seesaw. There are days when we're on top, and days when we're way down at the bottom—with most of our earthly existence found somewhere in the unsteady balance of the middle.
We can still live, taking in the now and hope that it adds up to progress and growth in the future. The setbacks certainly don't steal the beauty. They just force us to search harder to find it.