It was Monday night, I was sick, and my husband had been out of town for the long weekend.
He arrived home in the evening, intending to stay just long enough to print out tickets for a Warriors game (one his few indulgences, which I am happy he takes) and then go. Our 7 year-old, M, was not happy he was leaving so quickly.
When I took her upstairs for her bedtime bath, she began to cry and said she missed Daddy.
“I know M, you miss Daddy. He’s been gone for a while, it’s true.”
The crying persisted. “I want Daddy!” she cried.
“Yeah, M, I hear you. You want Daddy. But I’m here and I love you.” I attempted a hug.
Hug was rejected.
“I want Daddy. I didn’t get to see him all weekend!” Lots of crying.
“I know M. I’m sorry he’s not staying tonight. Let’s get into your nice warm tub.”
And here’s where the story could have turned sharply in the wrong direction . . . I very easily could have “flipped my lid:” now my feelings were hurt, I’d been sick all weekend without my husband, and I really just wanted to be in bed myself! How could she be so needy? I’m the one who needed Dad!
OK, honestly? All these thoughts did go through my head. But I kept my mouth shut and made a choice to get curious instead: Was she hungry? Did she get enough sleep last night? Or was she simply feeling disconnected from her Dad? I decided it was the last reason.
I helped her into the tub (she was still crying) and sat down next to her.
Dad came up to say goodnight and goodbye. “Daddy, I want you to stay,” she said.
On a different day, Dad’s guilt could have made him skip the game. But we had faith in our daughter to work through her feelings and recover.
Dad masterfully “built a bridge” (a term from Gordon Neufeld) with her: “M, I love you so much and I miss you, too. When I get back from the game, I will come in and cuddle with you for a minute, OK? And in the morning, we can play a game together because I’m taking you to school.” She can now see a bridge to the other side of her sadness.
He left. (She was still crying.)
We got out of the tub, dried off, and brushed teeth, through tears all the while.
Here again, on a different day, I might have been pushed to my limit: “M, that’s enough now. There’s nothing we can do about it, so just move on! Stop crying!”
This day, somehow, I took it in stride, knowing that feelings are always OK, and that M had some big ones right then. Trying to squelch her feelings would only exacerbate the situation.
So I stayed calm and moved on. I asked her what book she was reading and began to read to her. The story distracted her and she calmed down. My cough kept interrupting the story, but I did my best. M noticed.
“Mom, I think you need some rest.”
“I do, M. I’m ready for bed, too,” I replied.
“Let’s just cuddle instead of reading,” said M.
“Excellent idea, M.”
After some moments of cuddling together, all was better. We were connected. She felt better, and I did too.
“Thanks for helping me today, M. I really needed that cuddle,” I said.
“Me too, Mommy. I love you. Get well soon!” And that’s how the story ends.
It could have ended very differently.
This story exemplifies one of the greatest parenting epiphanies I ever got: I don’t like crying. It makes me uncomfortable. I want it to stop. But if I can just “be” with it — allow the feelings to be there — and tolerate the discomfort I feel, the feelings pass. They always do.
(Read more about the skill of tolerating discomfort in parenting here.)
In the process, my daughter is also learning: that her feelings are real and OK to have, that she can recover, and that her parents love her even when they don’t give her everything she wants, right when she wants it.
What helps you stay cool, calm, and curious in the face of really irritating behavior? Please share your thoughts below! And if you’d like some help, join me for a 6-week parenting workshop focused on parenting preschoolers. Starts March 4 in San Francisco. More info at www.WorkingParenting.com/peaceful-preschoolers
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