Most of us were not raised in fairy tale households by perfect parents, and the formative messages we received as children may not have always been positive or healthy. The good news: the process of raising our own children can be profoundly restorative.
Every hour we spend with our babies and kids offers us opportunities to instill in them affirming messages, large and small. Whenever we are able to recognize and extricate ourselves from the less healthy patterns of our own childhoods and make the choice to do a bit better by our children, we take a baby step toward self-healing.
One of the most colossal challenges for parents and caregivers is accepting our children’s negative feelings, especially when these feelings are directed at us. Many of us received the message early on, perhaps even in infancy, that expressing anger or hurt towards our parents was unacceptable. And yet, the feelings were there — we didn’t conjure them up.
We also sensed (or perhaps it was quite blatant) that our parents sometimes had negative feelings about us, but for some reason these feelings weren’t allowed to run both ways. We had no choice but to bury ours.
When Mary shared this insightful story about accepting her daughter’s rejection, hurt and anger, I instantly knew I had to post it:
We had our second daughter about five months ago. To help our 2.5 year old adjust, we followed the advice we found on your blog and in Siblings without Rivalry. The transition seemed to go smoothly–there were issues with interrupted sleep, bedwetting, and tantrums–but they were pretty mild and resolved relatively quickly.
The biggest change was that M moved into a serious “papa phase”–she wanted to do everything with him. That seemed normal and, honestly, pragmatic — so we went with it. In those early days, it was very easy for me to care for the baby and for my husband to care for M. But as the months wore on and the baby was less dependent on me, M only seemed more attached to her papa and, even more than that, she seemed to not like me anymore. She often seemed very angry at me or distraught when I would care for her.
At first, I thought it was a phase. I just did a lot of empathizing and tried my best to stay unruffled. But a few weeks ago it felt like I needed to address what was going on. I was uncertain about what to do, but I remembered your advice about the importance of letting your children be mad at you. Maybe my sweet M, who had seemed to adjust to her little sister so well, was mad at me for having another baby?
So, one afternoon I said to her: “You know when you say ‘Go away, Mama!’?—I still love you… And when you cry and say ‘I don’t want you to do bedtime, I want papa!’?—I still love you. …And when you say ‘Don’t look at me!’–I still love you.”
I went on, listing all the examples of her rejecting me that I could think of, always ending with the refrain “I still love you.”
M was quiet for a moment and then said, “I’m going to spray you with water so that you don’t love me anymore.” I wasn’t quite sure what this meant (I can’t remember a time when she sprayed me with water), so I replied, “I’m going to use my magic towel to dry off…And I still love you”. And she went on, making up other ‘naughty’ things that she would do–and I kept ‘undoing’ her naughty thing and repeating that I still loved her.
That conversation was so clearly a turning point for us. Later that day she came over to me and snuggled into my lap–I could have cried from relief. And she is way less angry and more affectionate than before. She is still in a ‘papa phase’ but definitely seems to have moved out of her ‘anti-mama’ phase. Thank goodness.
I don’t think I would have ever known how to have a conversation like that if it weren’t for you and your blog. Thank you so much, Janet, for the work that you do.
For the next few days, M periodically wanted to have the conversation again. She would tell me that she was going to spray me with water, etc.–clearly looking for me to say that I would still love her. She’d do a few rounds and then wander off to some other activity–it seemed like she was processing our original conversation.
But the best part was about a week later. After having our usual exchange, she said to me, “Now you say it”. She wanted me to tell her a naughty thing that I would do–and then she would reply “it’s ok, mama–I still love you.” Not only was it super sweet, it was actually very emotional for me. While I used the same imaginary examples that she had used, I found myself thinking in my head about all the times I’ve been a less-than-perfect parent, and it just blew me away to have her telling me “it’s ok, mama–I still love you” over and over again. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
This parenting thing is an amazing, intense experience–and it’s so clear that my girls are shaping me just as much (if not more!) than I’m shaping them! Such wise, intuitive souls in those tiny little bodies, eh?
Thanks again for everything you do. I can’t get enough!
(Mary, thank you again for sharing your powerful story)
I share more about fostering our children’s emotional health in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo by Ste Elmore on Flickr)