Peaks and Valleys of Full Attention-Giving

Dec 06, 2012

This past week, I’ve been amazed at how difficult it’s been to live up to my personal pledge to give my partner and children full attention via silent empathy. It didn’t seem such an enormous challenge, but it has been. Finding the undivided time is the killer for me. Do I need to break my other pledge to be more spontaneous and PLAN for it? In the meantime, I’ll go easy on myself and see where things go. Fortunately, I do have something to celebrate. . .

This “Sinterklaas season”, as I refer to it, has been hard on my poor six-year old. There’s only so much a kid can handle – on top of all of the fun and excitement, concentrating all day (for the first time), learning to read and write, while having a hard time falling asleep (not normal for her) out of fear for her bad dreams. A recipe for disaster. And on my good days, I keep this context in mind as I deal with the daily melt-downs, anger, slamming doors, and “I hate you” outbursts. At times, it’s all I can do to keep it together myself when this is going on.

A few evenings ago, when I was holding down the fort on my own, I insisted on both kids walking the dog with me. It was dark, cold, and damp, and none of us was looking forward to it. My daughter had a complete fit over it. Once we finally got out the door, I found myself summoning up all of the tricks I could think of to stay calm and steady. I quickly ran out and resorted to silence . . . mostly out of utter frustration, and pretending I was somewhere else on the planet. And yet, I was reminded of the power of silent empathy.

At some point, she began to talk instead of yell out her many woes. There were many tears, and I had to ask her a few times to repeat what she was saying – I suppose that way, she knew I was with her. She went from one horrible-thing-about-my-life after another, eventually leaving out the blame (which was making it so hard for me to hear her before), and landed firmly on how hard school was for her now. I realized I was hearing new things, particularly how hard it is for her to have the daily impression that  she can’t please her strict teacher. Wow, did I ever soften up in a hurry! Was this the heart of it all? My poor little girl needed some guidance – that it’s not her job to always please the teacher, that her daily warnings were just that and not a sign of her being a poor student or “bad girl”, that doing her best was good enough.

But she knew what she really needed most – at some point, she stopped and looked me square in the eyes with her teary ones, and asked point-blank, “Can I stay home from school sometime this week?” My automatic-pilot self would have resorted to the law about kids having to attend school in Holland along with, “It will be o.k. sweetie, you just need some more sleep.” Or any other number of strategy-responses to basically sweep it under the rug.

But I was in full-attention mode! She was every bit that vulnerable human being who was requesting what she truly wanted to get some grounding and sense of peace around all the turmoil in her head. I gave her a resounding “YES!” The relieved look she gave me in response was absolutely priceless.

Today, we had a date, just the two of us. It wasn’t anything spectacular – I offered to go to the movies and number of other fun ideas. But she just wanted to stay home with me. So we did, and I followed her lead all day. It all fell apart when her older brother came home from school –  her old fits of anger bubbled right up to the surface. Only when I was getting her to bed, was she able to tell me that she didn’t feel like sharing me with him. (Again, my own frustration melted into understanding and love for that sweet little girl.)

Well, at least we had our day. We may have to do it again sometime in the near future. My biggest hope is that she’ll get the urge to talk about “the stuff under the surface” sooner, rather than going through so much frustration without feeling safe enough to share it. That is my greatest wish for my existence as a mother. . . to provide that safe space of pure love and acceptance where my children feel they can say and express anything . . . and be heard.

Cara Crisler
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