Category: gentle parenting

“Want to help me?” H asks his grandma.

She has just announced to the house that it’s time to get rid of the cottonwood seeds that have been drifting about on the dining room table for the past week. The white, fluffy puffs had been dancing through the sky gently, like angels, for days, dusting the lawn, catching in our sunflowers starts, stowing away beneath the thick growth of hostas and irises and cleaver.  H has clambered onto the chair at the head of the table in order to save his cottonwood seeds from certain composting.

“No,” his grandma says.

“Why not?”

“I’m busy eating.”

Her tone is fairly short, almost brusque.

“I know you’ll help later. A different time,” he says evenly, his voice filled with total and complete confidence that it will be so. I hear not even a hint of irritation, frustration, or anger. He sounds as if he were simply making a plain-as-day statement of fact.

Here he is again: My teacher. The words he’s using are mine, yes, but the spirit is all him and one I’m not sure I’ve been entirely successful at invoking every time I’ve come to those same words. So many of my invitations to help clean up, to put away, to clear the space for our next activity, to tidy up out of respect for our space and our belongings and the people living here – so many of these invitations have been declined, surely as many if not more than have been accepted. And I know, more often than I would like to admit, that the words have been buoyed up by a roiling undercurrent of frustration, one that is liable to break the surface and spill into the space between us. The words, when I attempt to use them as space holders, called forth as part of an effort not to say something damaging that I will later regret, fall short of what they could be, of what H has shown me they can be.

Here I am again: H’s student. I’m taking notes on how to pour peace, love, and trust into the words I place between us.

“I know you’ll help later. A different time.” Said without resentment, because I truly mean it, because I truly trust in him, in me, and in us. That’s the way I intend to say it next time and the time after that and until those words are no longer necessary. I’ll let them be words of peace.

We are playing with puppets, acting out shows. Characters that H has named Old Grandma, New Grandma, Mama, Jack, Gretel, and Mathilda (a cow) make up The Family. The Family is the cast of the current show.

“It’s Grandma,” H says, directing Mama to the center of the stage.

“Is she a grandma now?” I ask. The instruction I had been given earlier was that the show starts with only Mama and everyone else in Mama’s uterus, so I guess that perhaps there has been a script change or a series of unannounced births.

“No, it’s Mama. She’s a witch!”

“A WITCH!”

“A witch! She eats little people,” H tells me.

“She does!” My eyes go wide.

“Except she doesn’t eat hands. She spits them out.”

“And eats the rest,” I supply.

“Yes!”

The show goes on.

***

H is in a season of wanting to hear and act out stories that get worse and worse. Terrible tragedies befall every protagonist, and seldom is any delivered from ruin or harm. The scenes are bleak, the unfortunate events unrelenting, the universe unforgiving.

I see him exploring the dark side of human nature and all those things we relegate to our shadows: fear, anger, confusion, resentment, despair, depression. It is as if he is asking, “What happens when everyone is angry?” And “How do I understand a world where there is so much pain?” And “What if people simply do unkind things much of the time? How would that be?” And “Is it okay to give voice to these things? Will I still be loved?”

It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours that has turned away from it, where such a narrow range of expressed emotion is considered acceptable, where we repress things and then turn against each other with violent explosiveness.

He has been working on understanding it for months.

***

“You are not even— You are not— You are not even ANYWHERE!” H is furious, his small body wound tight with the indignity of the limit I had just set. He can hardly spit the words at me.

“Sweets, you sound upset.”

“You are NOT my friend. You are NOT good. You are NOT— You are NOT EVEN ALIVE.”

“You wish I were dead,” I reflect back to him. I am calm. Steady. I want him to know that he is seen and heard and that I can handle it.

“Yes! I wish you were dead and I had a stepmother!”

***

Folktales and fairy tales have been in heavy rotation during our reading time as of late. In a version of Hansel and Gretel we’ve read, the children’s mother has died, leaving them with a father so weak in spirit and character that he is unable to provide for the family and a stepmother who wants to be rid of the children because she has prioritized her need to eat over theirs. The children are repeatedly left in the forest by their father and stepmother before they find their way to a witch who imprisons them to fatten them up for later roasting and feasting. It is not a cheery story. H loves it.

We were several readings into Hansel and Gretel before he asked me to define stepmother. I explained in general terms, not calling on the specifics of our current family structure to help illustrate the concept, although that was fore in my mind as I carefully chose the words I used to describe the relationship between child and stepparent. He asked if he might someday have a stepmother. I said it was possible and left it at that.

***

Now he is angry.

It is not the first time that he has called me not good, disowned me, or wished me dead. These are age-appropriate expressions of real, deeply felt emotions that I do not take personally. I am not usually triggered by them, but this time I felt a pang of sadness, not for the expression of his anger and frustration, but for how close he came to my tender, wounded spots. How will I feel if one day H does have a stepmother? Will I be able to wish her well? Will I be able to embrace, truly and fully, her relationship with my son? What old feelings related to the dissolution of my marriage will be dredged up? Will I catch myself in moments overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, shame, regret? Will I be able to embrace my shadow?

Whatever may come with regard to my co-parent’s marital status, what comes up for me will be my own personal work. H’s work now is to have all of his feelings, every single one, including those some would have him push into the shadows. His expression of those feelings is not about me. My work now, as his parent, is to make space for them all, to breathe into them, and to accept him just as he is. My work is to embrace his shadow so that he can embrace it, too.

It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours. I have been working on it for years, and here is another opportunity to practice.

He is angry, and I do not turn him away. I do not shame him. I do not shut him down. I sit with him.

We sit in the shadow together and breathe until we are embraced by light.

“H, you are a really, really wonderful person,” I told him.

I make it a point to say things like this, apropos of nothing, at least once a day, usually as we are lying in bed together at night. “You are important to me.” Or, “I am really glad I get to be your mama.” Or, “I am so glad to know you.” Or, “I enjoyed spending time with you today.” Things like that.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “And I matter.”

He’s been listening.

Whether to give birth. Where to give birth. How to give birth. When to cut the umbilical cord. When to bathe. Whether to adopt. Whether to surrogate. How to feed. Where to feed. What, if anything, to use to catch their poop and pee. How to treat teething pain. When to seek medical advice. What kind of medical advice to seek. Where to sleep. How to carry. When to start school. Whether to ever start school. The importance to place on family togetherness at dinnertime. How much media exposure. At what age. When to talk about sex. How to talk about sex. What to feed. Where to feed. When to start extracurriculars. What extracurriculars. To allow quitting or not. How to handle language. Whether to give an allowance. How much. What is required in return for an allowance. Whether to offer wine at dinner. At what age. How to talk about legal drug use. How to talk about illegal drug use. Early or late or no curfew. How much to track internet use. When to give a cell phone. And on and on ad infinitum. There are so many decisions involved in parenting, some of which we have the honor and privilege of making, some of which are made for us through circumstances beyond our control. By the end of a childhood, each family will have made a kaleidoscope of decisions, and no two will make the same pattern or design. Focusing exclusively on those kaleidoscopes though, as beautiful as they each may be, could lead us to miss the forest for the trees. The beautiful kaleidoscopes are not the bigger picture.

“Does he have milk?” H asks from the backseat.

We are parked in front of a friend’s house, and I have just taken the key out of the ignition. H is in his car seat, swinging his legs and looking thoughtfully out the window.

“What kind of milk are you thinking about?” I ask.

“Mama milk.”

“Well, he used to, when he was little little, but not any more.”

“Why?”

“Well, sometimes some mamas can’t make as much milk as their babies need. They work really hard at it, but it doesn’t end up working out. I think that’s what happened with our friend.”

We sit in silence for a moment.

“I’m glad it worked out for us,” I tell him.

“Why?”

“Well, I like giving you milk. And I think you like having milk.”

“Yeah,” he nods.

“It’s nice to have it be part of our relationship.”

“Yeah,” he says, still swinging his legs, still contemplative. I wonder what he is watching so intently out the window. Maybe gazing off into the distance is a way of gazing inward.

I get out of the car and walk around to get him out. We go inside to meet our friends.

As we are playing, I notice how my friend and her child interact with each other. There is no shortage of love between them. They are playful, they are kind to each other, they are connected. They negotiate boundaries and other relational things. The child pushes, the mother gives some and pulls some. Some things about their journey have been different from mine and H’s, like the amount of time they breastfed, but other things have been similar, like the priority we each place on being outdoors. In the end though, it’s not even the similarities in some of our choices that so powerfully connects us as parents. It’s the unconditional love we both have for our children, love from which springs a deep commitment to parenting respectfully and honoring that our children are whole, complete people and have been since birth. We’ve each made different choices, some consciously and some narrowed down through circumstance, but they all spring from this place of unconditional love. That’s the bigger picture behind the beautiful kaleidoscopes we each have a hand in making with our children. Unconditional love. It is so deeply connecting. Me to him, me to her through her unconditional love for her son, me to you and you and you through the unconditional love you each have for those in your lives. That’s the forest, and it’s beautiful, too.

“H, do you think you’ll be nursing when you go to college?” My tone is playful and light.

The college thing gets thrown around in jest in some of my parenting support groups sometimes. To allay fears that early bed sharing will become a forever sleeping arrangement: “Oh, don’t worry, he won’t be driving home every night to sleep in your bed after he’s gone off to college.” In riposte to judgment-tinged questions about just how long a mother is planning on breastfeeding her baby: “Oh, probably until she goes to college.” Or in self-mocking half jest about how long one plans to keep a child rear facing in a car seat: “AT LEAST until he goes to college!” And so on.

H unlatches to ask, “Where is college?”

This is a direction I hadn’t envisioned the conversation taking, but of course it’s going there. College is a concept that he’s not yet encountered at age 3.5.

“It’s a place you can go to learn things if you want to.”

He considers this for a moment.

“I want to go there sometime with you,” he says, then re-latches without ceremony.

“Okay. We can do that,” I say. “I would love to do that sometime with you.”

And so my question remains unanswered, at least by him, but it’s not a question that I needed him to answer anyway. I am not certain about how long he will continue to breastfeed, but I am certain that he will be done long before he goes to college. If you ask me though and I sense an agenda, I just might suggest it. I will say it playfully, as a way of keeping things light. I will smile, you might smile, and H will go on to breastfeed for as long as it works for both of us. And someday long after that, he might go away to college.

“Nothing is wrong – whatever is happening is just “real life.”
—Tara Brach from Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

***

“Want to run away from papi,” H tells me. He is in my arms, his legs kicking against my thighs like he’s gunning to win the Preakness.

“Papi, we’re running away from you!” I call as we swing a large arc past H’s father. This is a game we sometimes play during the transition from me to him. I keep my tone playful and light.

“No, no, no,” H protests, his whole body shaking in the negative and stiffening with tension, his distress growing with each no. “Run all the way to the gate!”

I freeze, uncertain about the turn I can feel the game taking. H continues to express his displeasure, now at our lack of motion.

“Love, you sound unhappy,” I say.

“Yeah,” he tells me.

“Would you like to talk about it?” I ask him, but it is too soon for conversation. The feelings need to bounce around his body and settle before we can find words to put to them. I stay still, waiting.

“We talked before about how I didn’t want to see papi,” H finally says, thrusting his body toward his father, who stands motionless some distance from us, watching silently. My heart hurts for how I imagine this might feel for him.

“Yes, we talked earlier about how you didn’t want to see papi,” I confirm.

“Why?” H asks.

“We talked about the fact that you didn’t want to see papi, but I’m not sure we uncovered the reasons,” I tell him.

H’s distress continues to escalate. I pull his small body into mine and ground myself by breathing deeply.

“Is it because it’s hard to be separated from mama?” I ask.

“Yeah, it’s hard to be separated.”

I can feel some of the tension release from his body.

“Yes, I feel that way, too. I don’t like to be separated from you either, my sweet. I know that papi loves you and enjoys spending time with you. I’m glad you get to spend this time with papi, and I don’t like to be separated from you. I am glad, and it’s hard.”

H has quieted. He is focused on me.

“You will be in my thoughts. And in my heart,” I tell him.

“Why?”

“Why? Because you are part of my heart,” I say.

“Is papi part of my heart?” H asks.

“Yes, he is,” I say.

H considers this for a moment. “Mama put me in the car,” he says.

For weeks I have been worrying about how difficult these transitions have been for H, wondering how to smooth the rough edges, wanting somehow to solve this problem for him. But in a moment of clarity I know that this is not my problem to solve, that fixing it for him – even if I could – would be a disservice. This is a rough patch we are passing through. It is not easy, and I do not like it but these are our current seas and we will be okay. We ARE okay. There is nothing wrong. This is just life, and there is nothing to do but to be present with H and whatever feelings arise in each moment. Then sit with my own broken heart.

Later, H calls me on FaceTime.

He and his papi tell me about seeing many small boats and one really big boat at the locks that morning.

“There was a speaker. And it said, ‘The locks are moving now.’” H’s voice is getting trembly. “And beep, beep, beep.” And then tears as big, deep sadness rises to the surface. It travels through the ether and hits me in the chest. I feel it, too.

I take a steadying breath to prepare myself to be fully present with him again.

“I will never leave you, love. I will never, ever leave you. I am here with you. I am here. We will get through this together. It is okay to cry,” I tell him.

We sit in silence, and after a while, I offer to read a book.

“Hippos go berserk,” I say, showing him the front cover, and then I begin to read. “One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone.”

We pass the part of the book where all the hippos must go away. “Nine hippos and a beast join eight hippos riding east, while seven hippos moving west leave six hippos quite distressed.”

By the time I get to distressed, he is crying again, tears heavy with all the pain in the world spilling down his cheeks.

“Sweets. Would you like me to read a different book instead?” I ask.

He nods through his tears, and we read a book about construction vehicles and farm equipment lifting, pushing, digging, dumping, chopping, pulling, and cutting and make a plan for him to call me again after dinner.

When he calls back, the entirety of our conversation is, “Mama, I am all done talking,” and he hangs up before I can say much at all. It is hard to know for sure whether the sadness has passed or whether he is soldiering on despite it, but he feels comfortable enough to stay with his father. I know in my heart that this is a good thing for both of them.

It’s hard not to worry when our children are in emotional distress, hard not to want to take the pain away for them. But what he needed most was my presence. He needed me to be with him, to be completely present with his feelings without attempting to cajole, talk, or distract him out of them. He needed me to bear witness to his hard time and be okay with him just as he was. Nothing was wrong, after all. It was just real life.

Still, sometimes real life breaks my heart.

Tonight H took a tea towel that was sitting next to the kitchen sink and put it under running water.

I thought about asking him not to, but I waited instead.

He gently held the white cloth under the faucet and watched it get wet.

I thought about reminding him that water stays in the sink, but I waited instead.

I walked away to take up one of his mouse paintings from the dining room table, a painting he made by dipping his hands in one color and mixing them into a puddle of another – in the style of the mice in a book we’ve been reading. When I returned to the kitchen, he said, “Mama, I washed the plate for you!”

He had, indeed, taken our dinner plate and moved it from one sink basin to the other, just as I do when I wash dishes. I picked it up, expecting it to be still covered in sticky pesto residue, but it was spotless. “Sweets, thank you so much!” I told him, both surprised and delighted.

I felt a rush of gladness then – that I had chosen to see what he would do instead of stopping him from doing it, that I had left the space open for him to explore without unnecessary admonishments, that I had chosen ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’ I felt glad that by consciously choosing to wait I had left space for peace between us to grow.

H was uncertain, so we made a plan. We would hold hands. I would keep him on my lap so that he would have the comfort of the physical connection to my body as he faced something he found scary and uncomfortable. I would be right there, I would not leave him, we would get through it together, and afterward was the promise of the playground at the park across the street.

We made a plan, and still it started badly.

“He doesn’t want to lie in the big boy chair?” she asks.

“No. We made a plan that included my lap,” I tell her.

She is not unfriendly exactly, but she isn’t warm or solicitous and I can see that she is not impressed. I sit down in a chair holding H anyway, and she sits across from us. H hooks both arms around my neck and winds his legs around my waist. I can feel the fear and anxiety in his body vibrate between us, and I remember what he had told me earlier.

“I am not going to open my mouth at the dentist,” he had said.

“Oh. Do you want the dentist to examine your lips?” I had asked him, nervous about what this proclamation forebode, hoping that playfulness would be the antidote.

“Yeah,” he had said, still serious.

And now here we are.

“Do you have kids?” I ask the dental hygienist, trying to find some point of connection, something to use to reassure H that she is friendly, that she is safe.

“No, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years. And before that I was a preschool teacher.” Her answer feels perfunctory. Short.

“She has lots of experience,” I tell H, but he is not reassured, and at this point, neither am I. I try to find another angle.

“How long will this take? Ten minutes? One?” I keep my tone light, but my insides feel like a slowly tightening fist. Moving the air in and out of my body becomes a conscious, effortful activity.

“Oh, only a minute. I’ll be done before your mommy can count to twenty, I bet.”

This information does not comfort H. He is not ready and neither am I, but my mind feels leaden and confused. I can’t think quickly enough to reroute us from this treacherous territory, so I do the thing I think is expected of me by the other adult in the situation. I lie H’s head on her lap, keeping his body half on mine. He immediately turns his head to the side, spilling tears across his face. It was the wrong thing to have done, I feel this even as I am doing it.

“I need you to look at me,” she tells him, placing her hands on either side of his face, moving his head by force.

“H, can you please look at the ceiling?” I ask as a corrective to her behavior, but it is too late. It doesn’t matter. We are not on the same page about how to help a scared and anxious child and are working at cross purposes now.

She pushes her finger into the side of H’s mouth to pry it open and begins to brush.

Tears are pooling in his wide-open, scared eyes.

“I think we need a moment,” I tell her. “Please stop so that we can have a moment.”

“Oh no, this will be done before you know it. It’s better to finish what we’ve started. Otherwise you have to lie him back down and that makes it harder and you know. He’s fine.”

“No. I don’t think he’s fine.”

He is still crying. He is not fine.

“Yes, he’s fine,” she tells me.

See, look, you’re doing so well,” she tells H.

She finishes with his teeth – it is a mercifully short brushing – and releases her hold on his head. He springs back into my arms now as if we were opposite ends of a magnetic pole, clings to me, and sobs.

“You did so well, no sugar bugs!”

Her cheer is jarringly discordant with with what has just happened. I wonder if she thinks that by ignoring H’s feelings she can will them into nonexistence or that by sheer force she can bend them toward happiness, the way she had earlier used her hands to force the direction of his gaze. I am angry and sad. I cannot look at her.

H and I settle on the floor so that he can play with the office’s toys while we wait for the dentist. Tears continue to stream down his face and quiet sobs shudder through his body as he picks back up with the small airport-like structure with the wind sock and satellite dish that he had been playing with before.

Finally the dentist comes, and H is none too happy to see him.

“I will sing to you, sweets,” I tell him. “I will sing Freight Train until we get to California, then we can go to Africa when the dentist is done examining your teeth.”

I close my eyes and rock while I sing softly in his ear. I stop when we reach California.

“I’m not done,” he tells me. “I’m not done being like this.”

“This is how we do things here,” the dentist tells me. “This won’t traumatize him, mom. We’re teaching him that there’s nothing wrong with having his teeth examined.”

And so H is lying down again, his head on the dentist’s lap, the rest of his body on mine. He cries through this examination, too.

When it is all over, we stop to check out, and I am told that I need to make appointments for H to be seen in three and six months.

“I wasn’t happy with what happened today,” I say with a presence of mind that is not like me in situations like this. “I need to think about whether we’ll come back or not. I’ll call you.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” the receptionist asks with compassion.

“I understand that you have certain ways of doing things, that you just want to push kids through the exams, that you think this is best, but that’s not how I parent and I felt pretty bowled over in there.” I feel calm and stillness returning to my body.

“I’m sorry you felt that way,” she says. “We do things that way based on our experience about what works best. It’s not personal.”

“I understand that, and it means that this might not be a good fit. I need some time to think about it. I will call you,” I tell her.

On our walk to the park, H and I have a most bizarre conversation.

“I’m glad we went to the dentist,” he tells me, smiling almost manically.

“Well, I didn’t have a good experience there,” I tell him.

“I did,” he insists.

I don’t know what to say, so I give a noncommittal hmm. We play on the merry-go-round, I give H really super big pushes on the swing, and I try to clear my mind of the thoughts that swirl around so that I might see more clearly what to do.

The next day H and I sit at the edge of the bed to talk. I tell him that we won’t be going back to that dentist again. “You were scared and upset and mama asked the dental hygienist to stop, and she did not, even though she had lost consent,” I told him. “That was not respectful. When you tell someone to stop touching your body, they need to stop. I’m so sorry that happened. We will find a different dentist who will listen to and respect you.”

Listening. Respect. Consent. Boundaries. What mixed signals our culture sends our children about these things. Conventional thinking would have children listen without question and comply immediately with our commands. Conventional thinking would label children disrespectful if they were anything less than obedient and would have adults feel justified in viewing them as such. After all, as conventional thinking goes, we adults wield authority over children simply by virtue of our age, size, and supposed wisdom. We rush through diaper changes as we rush through life, distracted and wanting to be somewhere else. We cajole and coerce children into giving hugs when they don’t want to, into sitting on stranger’s laps despite protests in the spirit of holiday joy. We say things like listening, respect, consent, and boundaries matter, but we treat our children as if they don’t. How are they to learn that these things truly matter when conventional thinking would have us be such poor models? How can we expect them to respect us when we disrespect them?

H may be small, but he is still a human being, deserving of respect for the human dignity with which he was born. He deserves to be listened to. His consent when it comes to his body, mind, and spirit matters. He has boundaries that should not be violated.

So no, I won’t be calling to make more appointments. We will go somewhere else.

I want to hold up to the light words and actions of mine that don’t sit right in my gut, the ones that leave me feeling heavy and sad.

I want to face those words and actions and sort through them with an explorer’s curiosity about what I might find. What do they signal? What was the external landscape like? What were my emotional reserves at the time? What changes can I make to help bring my speech and behavior in line with my core values next time?

I want to do this with gentleness and respect toward myself, with a healthy sense of boundaries.

I want to acknowledge and take responsibility for those words and actions with the people who find themselves on the receiving end. I do not want to hide from the discomfort of the feelings and pretend that nothing has happened between us.

I want to do this with gentleness and respect toward others, with a healthy sense of boundaries.

So tomorrow I will say to H, “H sweetest, I have something to tell you.”

“I love you,” he might tell me, because he has taken up ‘I have something to tell you’ from me as an invitation to play at figuring out the vastness of my love for him.

“Yes, sweets, I love you. And there’s something else. I was frustrated last night. I was not patient, and I did not use words in the gentle, respectful way I want to. I did not like my tone. I used force when I need not have. I am sorry, sweets. Mama will do it differently next time. And I love you.”

“Mama don’t love H,” he might say, because this is part of our play.

“Yes! I love you! I can’t deny it! We don’t have to talk about it right now, but I can’t deny it!” I will say in an exaggerated, playful voice, doing my part to uphold the game.

He might laugh, as he usually does, and we might go round like this for a while.

Or he might want to talk about what happened at bedtime, how H wanted to walk and mama picked him up. About how H didn’t want to brush teeth and mama got frustrated. About how he pushed the brush repeatedly from his mouth to tell me things in his sweet, sweet voice and how mama said no no no with a stern voice. About how mama tried for the briefest moment before she thought better of it to wrestle H into stillness. About how mama held firm on one book even though H kept asking for two. If he wants to talk about it, I will tell him about a part he might not remember, how sleep came fast, one of his small legs thrown over my thigh, one tiny hand, palm face up, nestled next to his head. I will tell him about something he couldn’t know unless he heard it from me, about how I see all the ages he has been when I watch him sleep, how he is at once little little and in the NICU, a newborn at home, an older infant, a toddler. About how I try to imagine him in the future, at four, seven, sixteen, twenty-two, twenty-nine, thirty-four, forty. About how I can feel our whole lives spiraling out from where we are, making larger and larger circles until it contains everything that is and ever will be.

If he does want to talk about it, we will likely talk about it countless times, wearing smooth the rough edges of what happened with our acknowledgment that it did and the comfort of knowing that we love each other still, that neither of us has left the other, that we remain steadfastly in it together, each witness to the other’s growing.

This is what I want. I do not always live this process, and it is often not completely comfortable when I do. So I take deep breaths, and I work on cozying up to the discomfort for my own sake and for H’s, so that it becomes easier and easier to live in integrity and to pass that skill along to H, too.