Last night, at about 4:45 am, I woke to the sound of a child crying and calling out.
It took a minute to realize it wasn’t one of my children, who slept in a tangled pile of sheets and limbs.
‘Haak? do you hear that child crying?” I asked and we both got up to stare blearily out of the open window.
A family with two young boys recently moved in across the street. The kids are about five and six years old, and the older one is in Atticus’ class.
It was one of those boys crying for his mom in the very early morning, and there was clearly nothing we could do to help.
As I settled back to sleep I had a strange thought about parenting, and kid’s emotions:
It’s gonna get ya in the end.
It sounds ominous, but I don’t feel ominous about it, really.
It is a truth that is still sinking in for me, though: that on some level, we, as parents, will be exposed to our kid’s emotional lives for the rest of their lives in a way we’re not with anyone else.
If our kids feel safe with us, they will show us how they feel. And when they are little, it’s very much a show.
It’s a powerful kick, a high pitched scream, a frantic fit.
Both of my kids, when they are really upset, often yell at the top of their lungs “you’re hurting me! Oweeeee! get off! I hate you!.
We can put a lot of energy into stopping their feelings – we can, if necessary, put a sucker [lollipop] or pacifier, or breast, into their tiny screaming mouths.
We can coax, cajole, bribe or beg our kids to please stop, not now, not here.
We can make it so our feelings are bigger than their’s, and our anger quietens them.
There are times I’ve done everything I possibly can to stop my kids having strong emotional expression – at the dentist, or during the vows of a wedding, and sometimes, a fact I’m not proud of, because I just couldn’t listen.
I think it’s fine to let our kids know, especially as they get older, that sometimes they have to hold it in.
But giving up the fight is sweet relief. I try to find a comfortable place to sit with them, take their boots off [weapons!] and surrender to minutes, even hours, of being there.
All we have to do is nothing.
When I hold my three year old daughter while she screams it feels like forever. Sometimes it’s 45 minutes, but mostly it’s seven, or three.
When I hold my six year old son, he is pure muscle. It takes more engagement to be with him as he gets older, and it happens less and less. Sometimes he flips me. Sometimes he comes in and out of fury and a little smile creeps across his face and we laugh and then he lashes out again, not wanting to indicate it’s over before it really is.
Lately, an image of a card some friends have always had on their fridge pops into my mind while the kids are screaming. It is a small white, business style card that has written on it, in red typewriter print: LOVE IS ALWAYS THE APPROPRIATE REACTION.
So I try to meet fury with love, and hard, fighting little bodies with softness. But I do not let them hurt me.
Here is Callie, really, really really wanting to wear a different dress, and carry the bag, and not wear a hat right before we left the house this morning.
I did not give in to her demands. But I did let her cry.
When it is over, it’s as clear as the sun coming out from behind storm clouds.
My daughter, red and sweaty from fighting so hard, will snuggle in, her wet face on my chest.
And then, as if nothing had happened, she will say “can my baby come to the post office?” and we get on with the day.
Sometimes it takes me awhile to get to that sunny place. I’m irritated that the need to cry interrupted my plans and I feel drained.
Ideally, I would be able to do what they do so well, but in the absence, I try to be gentle with myself for the rest of that day.
If you put off listening to your kids, they will fight for the right to be heard. When they are young, if there is no time in the day, they will, like our neighbor’s child, cry through the night.
The repercussions in adult relationships can be much more devastating, and long lasting – I saw an acquaintance’s mom in the parking lot across the street, who said she had not heard from her daughter for three months and has no idea why. Her daughter has a family.
If we cannot hear the ways we are doing our children wrong if we cannot tolerate their deepest feelings when the feelings are about not getting to take a toy on a bike ride, how will we hear their adult concerns? how can we remain impartial while they fuck up?
A woman with two daughters’s in their 50’s, who has good relationships with them both, was telling me a story and ended with “I’d prefer if they didn’t feel that way [her daughter’s] but, you know, as parents, we just have to cop it sometimes, don’t we? we just have to say nothing.”
As I watch my adult friend’s struggle with parental relationships, I’m ever grateful for the times I’ve watched my parents close their mouths, a conscious physical act to protect our relationship.
I hope like heck that as my children grow, and ‘do nothing’ turns into ‘say nothing’, that I have the power to follow through and be a good listener when the words may be more cutting than a generic and humorous “I hate you!”
Many of my thoughts expressed in this post spring from the theory of Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling