When a pregnant someone indulges in an extra helping of mashed potatoes, afternoon pumpkin pie, or the whole rather than half sandwich, she stereotypically offers the rationalization,”I’m eating for two!” While the need for rationalization has its roots in dysfunction, being co-joined, connected, physically tied to a growing human, caring for that human in utero is natural and necessary. What surprised me as mother, was that long after the window for lilting “I’m eating for two” had passed, something far more altering would take its place.
Along my path of parenting, I have sprained ankles in unseen potholes, tripped over protruding roots, been scratched by thorns, stung by nettles, all from my own slow progress at letting go of control, letting go of an always tidy house, a just-the-way-I-like backyard, of getting to manage my time, of having any “my time”. The pain and joy felt has been from my failure and, thankfully, my own subsequent realization, forgiveness, and move for change. Those near me, not unscathed, whipped by a flinging tree branch as I walked ahead, listened to me curse as I once again stubbed my toe, doubled back when I took a wrong turn, each time accepting my apology, offering forgiveness and continued love. This, my own personal growth as a human who parents.
When young, the path of a child has joy, fear, pain when experiencing the physical world for the first time. An attentive caregiver holds the child, laughs with the child, names things for the child, provides band aids, smiles, hugs and kisses, safety and freedom for the child. Fears validated but the phenomena still explained; anger, sadness, tears welcomed amidst a hug, caregiver quiet until words wanted, the child reacting to darkness, that dog, weather systems, a lost toy, skinned knee, or his own wrest for control. Concrete. Explainable. Understandable.
My son has always been empathetic and compassionate. This was sweet when as a toddler he wanted to comfort someone’s injury or nurse an under-the-weather daddy back to health. He has always “worn his feelings on his sleeve”, allowing us to see how he felt about almost anything. Unlike my growing up, I wanted him, and still want him, to have space, freedom, to express his emotions, to vent his anger, to cry the tears, to laugh hard, to be seen, heard, and accepted.
As my child has continued on the path of Growing Developing Human, the joys, fears, and pain grow and develop along with him. As he moves from less concrete to the abstract that will be the rest of his life, our feelings, reactions, and experiences are becoming more the same. This realization, coupled with my dearth of early life emotional validation, makes the potholes I encountered with nap time or nutrition nothing compared to those I navigate now. If I am to make room for my child to develop emotionally as well as physically, I must learn how to give space for my own feelings, how to vent appropriately, when and where and to whom. I have to model this new-to-him world of swirling emotions, relationship highs and lows, both of us working toward his emancipation into adulthood.
My parents were and are Fix It people. While of course you have feelings, it was more important to do. Get on with the business at hand. Get praying for the sick. Get making food for the funeral. Get phoning to let the family into the news. If the feelings of sadness or anger proved overwhelming, my takeaway was that the individual wasn’t allowing God to help him/her enough. I’m not saying that is what my parents believed, but it is what I gathered from the life conducted around me. As my child experiences the peer-to-peer problems and frustrations that come with growing and developing, as he shares his feelings of pain, frustration, or anger, I feel my inadequacy. I experience my frustration, anger, at not being able to fix or solve or explain. His pain is more like mine now. Pain I don’t give much time to. More than during his toddlerhood, I need to practice my parenting mantras: “step back, breathe deep”, “meet him where he’s at”, or “let go”, before succumbing to my own marred emotions, reacting to unhappiness as a fury rather than welcoming his feelings to a refuge. I do not want to drag him into my lack, compounding what he has to work through. I sometimes forget that this now larger human still needs the same safe space to vent, to have his pain validated, maybe being hugged, maybe just sat next to, to be heard. When I do remember to sit with him, quiet while he shares, gentle when I offer assistance when he’s ready, he becomes soothed, sometimes ready for a chat, sometimes ready to go outside for what I fear will be more of the same. Gah. It’s hard.
I am becoming a master at apology. Most days my son hears, “I’m so sorry-that’s not the kind of mommy I want to be.” I tell him that I’m not very good with my feelings, but I’m working to be better. We have many chats, working through different interpersonal scenarios involving friends or relatives, coaches or teachers. We talk about boundaries, how to determine friendship, when it’s necessary to wordlessly walk away from a situation. We talk about what it looks like when we give others (abusive) power over ourselves, about not letting their dysfunction control us. We discuss compassion and empathy, but in light of boundaries, again.
These discussions have helped me with my own social scenarios, with my boundary setting. My son has his own boundaries to establish, Spouse and I are here to help him do that. In turn, we have boundaries that we set on his behalf, that he doesn’t always know about. These boundaries usually involve keeping him away from people who harm. As we’ve watched people interact with him in consistently unhealthy ways, why would we choose to continue to have him in those situations? To return home from an event only to spend the next several hours helping him process the interactions, not to mention the even longer time for me to process my hurt, anger, indignation at what my child experienced. Isn’t that someone’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results each time? We have plenty of good relationships where in my son can continue to safely learn the life skills of sharing, problem solving, of navigating personality traits, differences, likes or dislikes. He will have a lifetime to potentially deal with those who ignore or disdain or ridicule or worse. As parents, this one is our call.
Little did I know, when contemplating parenting, when hearing someone blame an unborn child for their own overeating, of the effect and extent of the emotional part of this task. I don’t think anyone has said, at least not glibly, or even in public, “Oh me? I’m feeling for two.”