It was a great day. We celebrated my older daughter’s sixth birthday with a party in the park. We had cupcakes and coffee (always coffee), the kids played nicely together, the rain that had been threatening never materialized, and nobody peed their pants. Like I said, a great day.
Not long after we got home, the birthday girl was complaining that her ear hurt. A few hours and two doses of pain meds later she was still crying in pain. We didn’t sleep at all that night, and I was exhausted and overwhelmed by the time the sun came up and we finally made it to the doctor’s office. I felt frustrated and helpless in the face of my daughter’s recurrent ear infections, worried about what it might mean for her future health, and anxious about all the work I wouldn’t be getting done that day. Needless to say, I wasn’t in a very good headspace, and the day was rough, to say the least.
Now that I’ve got a little sleep and a lot of coffee under my belt, I’ve been able to get some perspective on what happened. I see now what I was missing; one thing that would have helped me get through this experience with a lot less stress and a little more grace: gratitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I was feeling plenty thankful before the ear infection. It’s easy to appreciate the gifts of life when your children are running through the park like little cherubs on a sugar high and the sun is setting behind the golden leaves of fall. It’s a lot harder when it’s 2 a.m. and your kid is writhing in your bed and your head is pounding and all you want to do is sleep. Which is precisely when we need to remember how lucky we are.
The truth is, I had much to be grateful for even after my daughter got sick: I have a flexible work schedule so I can take time off when I need to. We have health insurance and access to high-quality health care. Yes, my daughter was in pain, but at the end of the day, it’s just an ear infection. When I consider the global picture, I feel so lucky that we have stable housing and enough food to eat, not to mention a safe community in which to live.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this so beautifully when he talks about the value of the non-toothache. We rarely notice what a gift it is to not have a toothache until our teeth (or, in my case, my daughter’s ears) feel like they’re on fire. The thing about parenting is that it’s so easy to spend our days running from fire to fire and waiting for the next fire to ignite that we quickly forget to appreciate everything that’s going well in our lives, even if it’s something as seemingly minor as noticing that our kids aren’t sick. (Which doesn’t seem minor at all once it actually happens.)
And so as we head into Thanksgiving, my goal is to spend a little more time noticing the non-toothaches in my life and my family. This is a subtle but important shift in my approach to gratitude—it’s not just about taking the time to appreciate the good stuff; it’s about finding something to be grateful for even in the most challenging parenting situations. It’s about remembering the literal definition of the Hebrew word for gratitude (hakarat ha’tov): recognizing the good. As long as we are still alive, we have a lot of good to recognize.
Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is a clinical social worker and writer. Her first book, “Parenting in the Present Moment,” was recently published by Parallax Press. She is a contributing editor for Kveller.com, and her writing has been published in a number of online websites and magazines. She lives in Newton with her husband and two young daughters.