Hearts Wide Open

I saw a cartoon recently depicting a mom on a street corner with a sign that said “Will Worry for Food.”

I know the feeling. I often wake up in the night in chest pounding worry for my children — worries about their hurt feelings, their disappointments and bad moods. And, of course, I worry most for their health and safety. One small worry can spark a blazing wildfire fueled by anything and everything that could possibly go wrong (a worrisome analogy, since it’s fire season and the Santa Ana winds just began to howl!)

When we become parents, we know the feeling of loving someone more than our own lives. Our unconditional love for a child renders us painfully vulnerable to the world because we have something so precious to lose. Our hearts feel dangerously open.

We are all born with hearts wide open. We’re sensitive, eager sponges ready to absorb and embrace the world. But at some point in our childhood, sometimes even in early infancy, we close off parts of our self for protection. Open-heartedness seems unsafe, so we disconnect. We build little barriers that distance us from pain, but also distance us from our true selves.

An enormous benefit of raising children through the wisdom of Magda Gerber’s “Educaring” philosophy is that it helps to preserve a child’s connection to self. This realization first came to me through a young German woman, Sieglinde (Siggy), who helped care for my toddler a couple of mornings a week. I had spoken to her excitedly and at length about infant expert Magda Gerber’s ideas when we met, and she instantly ‘got’ the concept that infants and toddlers are whole people — unique human beings ready to participate actively in life and deserving of the same respect one would give any other person.

One day Siggy and I discussed the natural spiritual connection that babies and toddlers seem to have. “Well, they’ve just come from a very spiritual place,” I conjectured. Siggy nodded and replied, “And what you are doing keeps them there a little longer.”

Embracing Magda Gerber’s theories of trust and respect for babies has made me an advocate for my children’s true selves. When they were infants and toddlers, I encouraged their intrinsic motivation by allowing them to occupy themselves in a safe area with long periods of uninterrupted, self-directed play.

Over the years I have tried to let my children’s projects (whether creative or academic) be theirs, and to remain an observer and supporter rather than a participant. And since I trust my children to know themselves better than I possibly can, I’ve always allowed them to choose how they spend their free time (within reason) and waited for them to express an interest in any extra-curricular activity before signing them up. Lately, I’ve trusted one child’s decision to drop out of an advanced science class that she could clearly handle academically, but found no joy in. I encouraged another child who has a passion for photography to continue taking her photos (see above!), no matter how many zillions of other teenage photographers she knows.

Trusting my children has never proven to be a mistake, and so far it seems to have kept them in contact with the wishes of their hearts. When a child’s ‘self’ is wholeheartedly accepted, trusted, even honored, she can cling to it with pride. I relish the occasional glimpse of my children’s true selves.

It was my son’s eighth birthday recently, and he had the precarious task of bringing three dozen cupcakes on a crowded school bus to his classroom for a celebration. His twelve-year-old sister, whom we nickname “Mommy Number Two” because of her often strict authoritarian relationship with him, was in her usual early morning mood. She adores her brother, but when it’s morning and she’s grumpy, he is the source of all evil. As they hurriedly got out of the car, my daughter, wearing her abusively heavy backpack, surprised me by picking up the two shopping bags of cupcakes. “Wait for me when you get off the bus so you can show me where your classroom is,” she ordered him. “I can help!” said my son. “I’ve got it,” she retorted gruffly, and I watched them rush off to the bus together. Driving home, I cried grateful tears.

This Thanksgiving I am bursting with gratitude for the guidance of Magda Gerber. She encouraged me to trust my children to follow their own hearts and experience the sorrow and joy of a rich, full life. She has inspired me to do the same. So, I am thankful for all my 3AM worries. I’m glad for all the pain, the frustration, the pride and exhilaration of being a mom. I am basking in gratitude for the love of my husband and children, onion pies, apple pies, my wonderful sisters, nieces and nephews, and the beautiful, tender memories of my mother’s laughter.

“Look into your heart and you’ll find that the sky is yours.” – Jason Mraz

(Photo by Frolic!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Kathleen Mazzola says:

    I am amazed at the naturalness of your writing style. It’s as if we’re sitting together talking. It’s just great!

  2. This is truly beautiful. I never knew I could love and worry as much for another human being. And then my son was born. Again, thank you Janet for introducing me to Magda Gerber, and for your non-judgemental ways. 🙂

    1. Aww, thank you, Nadia. And yes, isn’t it amazing the feelings our children bring? <3

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