(“Maternity” (1935) by José de Almada Negreiros via P. Ribeiro Simões, Flickr CC)
“You name our suffering, and that makes us want to come close to You.”
(Rev. Glenn Hoburg, Grace Presbyterian Church)
The second I heard those words, I put down my pen and slammed my journal shut.
Did I hear that right? I thought. How did he know? How was it possible that those words, preached in a church about the New Testament book of Romans, could have anything to do with my parenting a three-year old and a 10-month old baby?
Although uttered in the form of a prayer, referring to God’s relationship with His children, that sentence immediately reminded me of my three-year old daughter, E., life with a new baby (yes, still, 10 months later), and my ability to accept – and confront – all of E.’s feelings.
Let me explain.
Prior to baby J.’s arrival last June, I assumed that “transition to life with a new baby” would take, more or less, three months (i.e., the newborn phase). If I can just make it to September, I would wish in my sleep-deprived state.
By then, we should have a smooth, predictable routine going, I predicted, and all feelings of jealousy, anger, and let’s through in some sadness, too, will have dissipated.
My strategy for dealing with any display of “big emotions” on E.’s part would be to directly and immediately meet them with empathy, of course, but always – and not at the expense of – our well-oiled daily routine of “time together, time apart.” Yes, yes, that’s the correct RIE formula, I assured myself: empathy for feelings that arise, while also maintaining healthy boundaries.
Well, 10 months postpartum, and I realized my strategy wasn’t working.
I continued to feel disconnected from E., a bit out of sync in our relationship. Distant. This, despite spending hours one-on-one with her each day.
(Photo via Hans van den Berg, Flickr Creative Commons)
And, my empathizing during tantrums and zealous adherence to our daily schedule seemed to almost escalate E.’s anger. Pages ripped from her books. Toys hurled to the floor. Banging on the walls, mostly during times I was caring for J.
Then, at the advice of a very wise and trusted woman, I decided to change my approach.
And, so, feeling a bit awkward, a bit nervous, I decided to confront each of E.’s struggles. Bringing them out into the open. Naming each one.
About a month ago, I started asking E. as I tucked her into bed, ¿Te puedo dar un abrazo? (“Can I give you a hug?”)
At first my request was met with silence and a stiff body.
As I wrapped my arms around E.’s small body that first night, I whispered in her ear, “Sometimes it’s really hard to be a big sister, isn’t?”
This is never going to work, I thought. I’m just feeding her ideas and feelings that aren’t even hers.
“Sometimes you feel angry at me and want to throw toys at me, right?”
Then, a few nights later, at bedtime:
¿Te puedo dar un abrazo?
“Sometimes you have to wait a lot, don’t you? Wait for me to finish nursing baby J. Wait for me while I bathe him. That can be hard, right?”
And, this time, Sí, mamá, E. whispered back to me.
And, so for the next week, I kept at it.
¿Te puedo dar un abrazo?
“Sometimes big sisters feel angry and want to throw things or hit their siblings. You know what? I’m also the eldest sibling, and I know how you feel: when my sisters were born, I felt angry and jealous. I wanted to hit them. I’m here for you. I will help you when things get tough.”
Over the course of a week, E.’s response went from silence to wide-eyed surprise (“Can my mother really be saying this out loud?!”) to sighs of relief to ¡Sí, mami, sí! She no longer lay stiff listening to me, but would eventually cut me off by drawing me close, arms locked around my neck, hands caressing my hair.
And, you know what? The destructive behavior, the protest play? Less frequent. Less intense. Gone completely? No. But, then again, my goal as her mom isn’t “How can I get her to stop doing X?”
Rather, the questions I have begun to ask myself are, “What is E. telling me?” and “What are the feelings driving her behavior?”
Instead of frustration and judgment and anger on my part, my response to torn books or smashed toys has morphed into openness, curiosity, an offer to help.
And, a naming of her struggles.
Each and every struggle.
Name it. Face it. See it. Hold it. Feel it. Allow it. Accept it.
This in the end has drawn us so much closer together.
How have you made the transition life with a new baby? I’d love to hear from you!