Loving but unqualified
Loving but unqualified

Lovely Di-hards, I know you know that feeling of being in over your head. I’ve had it many times over the years, lots of “what have I gotten myself into” moments. Teaching has provided more than a few. So has cooking at Camp.

Of course, the biggest moment like that, for many of us, is when you gaze at your newborn child and think, “They’re just gonna let me HAVE this? What makes them think I’m qualified?” (I don’t know who “they” are – that’s part of the problem.) And that feeling never completely dissipates. Especially when my kids are sick or won’t sleep or behave badly, I feel qualms about my ability to do a good job at this most important vocation.

On Sunday night, I had an experience that took my qualms to a whole new level.

E woke up shortly before midnight, crying. (This is not the norm, but it’s not rare either.) As is often the case, he wasn’t quite sure what the trouble was. Usually, he is not fully awake, and drifts back to sleep after a few minutes, having been reassured by his parent’s voice.

This time, he was awake. It wasn’t his blankets needing to be re-tucked (that one’s a classic). We determined that he wasn’t in physical pain, that (as far as he could remember) he hadn’t had a bad dream, he wasn’t thirsty, and he wasn’t sad or scared or frustrated. I got him up to pee, just in case, but it didn’t help. The biggest source of upset seemed to be that he didn’t know why he was upset.

I recalled a conversation we had recently with some dear friends of ours with kids similar ages to ours – and very familiar issues when it comes to meltdowns and obstinacy, etc. They have experienced success based on the advice of a system called “hand-in-hand parenting”. They told us one of the theories: that when kids flip out about seemingly unimportant things, it’s usually because there’s something else bothering them – possibly something they’re only partially aware of themselves. They sometimes, like adults, just need a good cry, and we as parents can take those flipping out opportunities to encourage them to get things off their chests. You just let them bang their heads against the (non-physical) boundaries you set up, holding/supporting them while they do, so that they can work through it themselves. Sometimes, big underlying things come to light and relieve the child of some burden.

We’ve been through lots and lots and lots of crying with this little guy in recent times, and I know for sure that many times I’ve ended up invalidating his concerns because I just CAN’T LISTEN TO ANY MORE CRYING. I take him to his room or try to shut him down, tell him that THAT IS ENOUGH. But what if it’s not enough, for him, because he never gets to the bottom of it?

So I thought I’d try this new idea. I gave him a big long hug. I said, “Sweetie, you don’t have to explain why you’re upset. Sometimes we just are. There are lots of things that can make us upset in life, and sometimes we just need to let them out.” I likened the situation to the enormous snowdrifts outside our house – they got so big not all at once, but through many many snowfalls and shovelling sessions. I mentioned some things that are hard about life – like at recess when kids sometimes aren’t nice, and at home when his sister bugs him or when his parents raise their voices at him. He agreed that those things are upsetting.

I was tempted to bring up Sebastian at this point. I know this year E is understanding more and more about the baby brother he lost, and I want to validate his grief too… but I knew I was in no shape to deal with either of our reactions to that one.

By this time, he was back in his bunk, and I thought maybe we were making some progress. The crying seemed to be abating – he’d shifted into tearless moaning (or I might just call it “fake crying”). I was really hoping for the big sigh and the calming moment, where I’d know he had let some stuff go… but it didn’t come.

Then he asked to come and sleep in the bottom bunk with me. Looking back, I probably should have said yes, even though I wouldn’t have slept much. Instead, I explained that we both needed to get good sleep and it was very very late (close to 1 a.m.). I offered to come up to his bunk and lie down with him for a little bit. That calmed him temporarily, but when I went back to the bottom bunk, he got upset again.

The next hour is fuzzier in my head, because I was getting very tired and my patience was ebbing. I offered to tell him a “magic dream”*, and I think I did a pretty good job considering how tired I was. (This one was about his Christmas fairies and how we met them on a walk in the woods. Yep, a little bit of product placement on behalf of Mrs. Claus.)

But he was only momentarily distracted. When the dream ended, we discovered that he was still upset. By this time, he had identified that he was “sad”. (It’s possible that when I was trying to identify reasons before, I was just upsetting him more.) There were now many small problems accompanying that, like he didn’t know how he could close his eyes when he was this sad, and he didn’t know where to put his arm so it would be comfortable, and his foot was out of the blankets and getting cold, and I was starting to feel like I’d somehow accomplished the opposite of what I’d hoped.

And I needed to work the next day, and I needed to not be a basket case.

So in the end, I ended up doing what I didn’t mean to do: asking him to shut it down. (Whatever it was.) Gently, but still.  I hoped that I’d validated some feelings or other… I tried to remain sympathetic the whole time… but MAN. He just kept talking about how sad he was.

That’s when my Major Qualms reared their heads. Suddenly my mind was filled with fears about depression, anxiety, anger issues, suicidal tendencies – things I am not at all trained to deal with in my son (or anyone else). I realized, more clearly than ever before, that this kid is infinitely complex and unpredictable – as are all humans – and what in God’s name qualifies me to bring one – or TWO – of those home and try to RAISE them???

It’s like getting your first vehicle and realizing that not only is it stick shift, but it’s also actually a hybrid double-decker bus with a chopper attachment. (They have those, right?) NO IDEA what to do with it if something goes wrong.

Shouldn’t I know what to do if something goes wrong?

In my mind, the bottom line is I’m his mom. I signed up to be the one who knows what to do. At the very least, I’m supposed to know the best way to show love.

I think that’s it, right there. Showing love should be a no-brainer, and yet it isn’t – not always. As I process all this, more and more questions (re-)surface:

When is tough love appropriate, if ever?

Is love a reward? Should it be?

Can you spoil a child with love?

Which things show love, and which just show capitulation (or other things I do when I’m too tired to be disciplined)?

I know I’ve justified losing my parental temper in the past with the idea that I’m human, and my children need to know I have limits. I do think this is true; I still remember key moments with my own parents when I came to understand that they were people with feelings. It’s important.

But that excuse is way too flexible. One could easily harm a child under the auspices of “being human.”

The things that loom large in the dark at 2 a.m. when your child is crying. For both of our sakes, I probably should have turned on the light.

The upshot of all this is that he eventually petered out just after 2 a.m. with me coaching him on eye-closing and remembering to be still and breathing. AND, he had lost more than two hours of sleep. Which means the next day he was unable to cope with anything and honestly looked and acted like he’d been drugged. (We did not send him to school.)

So lessons. Lessons… ummm… Read all the literature before taking action, perhaps. Don’t try the boundary-head-banging thing for the first time ever at midnight on a Sunday. Turn on the light. Do the cuddles, for real.

I’ll keep you posted the next time we try head-banging. During daylight hours.


*Magic dream = unfinished impromptu story in which the protagonist is the listener. My dad used to give us magic dreams when we were kids; they were fantastical and yet soporific. The idea was to listen, and then go to sleep and dream the rest of the story. Auntie Em introduced E to the concept and he LOVES them. Emi and I both do them in our father’s style, but Sean’s tend to be epic tales of heroism featuring Roy the Super Chicken – not sleep-inducing but much beloved.



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