This week my daughter has found it difficult going to school. Squabbles with her friends, which adults see as petty but mean the world to her, have reduced her to tummy aches and tears every day. My experience tells me that these problems will pass; but she doesn’t know this. Her pain is real and as I watch her suffer I suffer too.
Watching our children suffer is one of the great trials of motherhood. A child’s pain, whether it be arguments with friends, scraped knees, or a more serious illness, can be excruciating to witness, particularly when we are helpless to resolve their problems. My child feels helpless, looks to me for a resolution to her problem, and when I can’t do it I feel incompetent and angry with myself. After all, my role as my child’s protector and advocate is one that I take seriously– it isn’t a learned behaviour either: it’s mandated by nature to ensure our species survives.
When my child is suffering I carry her pain with me. Like Hester Prynne, that pain is branded over my heart, a scarlet letter M (Mother) that I conceal and carry with me throughout the day. Its pain is at times acute, though sometimes it wanes enough to the point that I can forget about it. But it comes searingly back when I recall my child’s unhappiness and my inability to solve her problem. It is a weeping sore that sits near my heart and overshadows my day.
Carrying this pain around is not without its effects. Worry and anxiety become my partners. My mind takes me back to the wound and I scratch at it, favouring it, nursing it while I turn over the different scenarios and possibilities. The what-ifs become louder, drowning out the what-is. I am transported from this day and this moment to another time, past or future, as I contemplate my child’s pain.
Patanjali’s fifth and final klesa or obstacle to a quiet mind is Abhinivesa or fear of death / clinging to life. What I want to discuss here is not the fear of death, but in the context of parenting the fear of failure or suffering: it is this fear that is the principle cause of parenting worry.
I have previously written in this blog about the effects of fear on our parenting decisions. Today I consider the effect of fear on how I respond to my child’s suffering. We all want a happy ending, and we fear the possibility of tragedy. Most of us whose children aren’t facing a life-threatening illness don’t think about death: we think about our child’s unhappiness and we suffer with them. And we fear that we won’t be able to make it all better for them. As babies we could scoop them up, feed or rock them, and our presence would be the salve they needed. As they grow this seems insufficient and our children begin to face problems that lack a simple straightforward solution. Suddenly we are no longer knights in shining armour, superheroes coming to our child’s rescue. Suddenly, what we can give isn’t enough. This is incredibly frightening.
And not only is it scary, it is debilitating. After my child goes to bed I sit and wonder what I can do to help her. Reassurance seems to go nowhere. Practical ideas only go so far. No matter what the problem is, the underlying feelings are helplessness and fear.
In reflecting on this, I spent some time considering what I need when I am unhappy. I like space to work things through on my own; I like the company of other positive people who will help direct me toward cheerful thoughts; I like it when people are concerned but not suffocating, present but not worrying. When others worry about me or try to solve my problem I start to feel responsible for them. I begin to pretend that I’m ok so that they won’t worry too much. I keep my feelings to myself because talking about the problem ad nauseum is tiring, only compounds my anxieties and usually ends in platitudes. In short, when I am unhappy, just be with me– give me space if I need it, or spend time with me and let me talk about it if I choose to.
Is this what my child wants? Is it possible that my daughter simply wants my understanding, rather than a solution? And bingo: I realise that this is what I have been providing all along. When I scooped up my baby when she cried I didn’t solve her problem– most of the time I didn’t even know what it was. What she wanted most was my presence, and when I gave her that it calmed her. I poured onto her the balm of my loving presence and it soothed her. Looking back and seeing myself as a saviour to my child is fooling myself: ok, when she was hungry I fed her, and when she’s hungry now I can feed her. But when the problem is more complex, sometimes the ‘only’ thing I can give is the only thing that is needed. Being there for my child is the most important thing she wants, deep down. She knows that life isn’t so simple and that I am not a superhero. She knows that I am human.
From my loving presence with my child, whatever her age, can spring ideas for solutions, though sometimes there is no solution. But focussing on the solution can become a hindrance to true presence. Solutions take us into the future, when the real pain is in the now. Until I pull myself away from the worry and anxiety that cloud my mind it is impossible to be completely present for my child. For me, it helps to look into her eyes, touch her arm or hand (if she’ll let me), and listen quietly. Compassionate listening, gentle touch and above all acceptance are the solutions of the now. Through these I am released from the pressure of being the saviour: all that I need be is a mother. And finally through self-compassion I can begin to heal that painful wound that I carry on my chest and allow myself and my child to be truly free.
Photocredit: D. Sharon Pruitt; Wikimedia Commons.