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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12 thoughts on “Unqualified

  1. Helen says:

    I have no children, so I really can’t empathize, but I can sympathize with how tough it must be sometimes, and all I can offer is the gut feeling that you’re not really screwing this up. I’ve known you for over 3 decades now, and I know that you won’t damage your children, mentally, emotionally, etc.
    So, I send you virtual hugs for doing your best–that’s all any of us can do!
    Helen recently posted..Shepherd’s PieMy Profile

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thank you, Helen. The encouragement does help… I have to remember the big picture, right? Most of us turn out okay… 🙂

  2. Mama says:

    Oh, dear daughter! I wonder why you didn’t talk to me about this on Tuesday. Maybe it didn’t look so bad by then, but then, this post was written after Tuesday.

    I’m sorry you’re going through this worry and doubt and general fear about the awesome job of raising children. If it’s any comfort, most parents do the same thing at some point – or at least most of the ones I know have done. And yet, most kids come out okay. You are better qualified than many parents: you’re intelligent, observant, analytical (so you think about your own upbringing and see what was good for you and what wasn’t), well-read, in touch with others, and task-committed. Give yourself credit.

    Everybody has some problems – it’s in the contract when you take on the state of humanity – but four-year-old or teen-aged or grown-up E’s problems will not necessarily be related to anything you did or didn’t do. And the bottom line is we just keep doing what we can the best we know how (or make up), and hope it looks better when it’s not 2 a.m. and we’re underslept. And trust God to fill in the blanks sometimes.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thanks, Mama. I felt worst about it right at the time, because everything seems worst in the middle of the night on not enough sleep. Once E was past that one non-functional day, he seemed pretty normal, so that helped a lot.

      I do think I do a decent job of parenting overall… I guess it’s just that you can’t erase any of the moments you’re not at your best, so you worry that they’ll be logged away in the matrix of the child’s brain forevermore. But you’re right – I’ll never know which aspects of my children were molded by parenting and which weren’t. And most folks turn out okay.

      Funny how giving yourself credit is so much harder than giving yourself guilt. Heh.

  3. emerge says:

    I was older than E is when I started getting “sad,” unless it happened earlier and I just have no memory of it. I don’t know whether I talked to my parents about it or not, or my sister in the bottom bunk (you’d have to ask her), but I do remember lying awake for HOURS until I found ways of distracting myself, which mostly meant reading Annie by the light from the hall. Especially the scene where she is dreaming of being surrounded by stuffed animals, with her lovely parents in the next room talking in low tones about her future. I was also sad in the evenings a lot, before bed. Sometimes i worried about real things, but I don’t think there was necessarily a connection. And I never doubted that I was loved, and pretty safe. And sometimes I would get up and go in to see my parents who were reading in bed, and they would suggest that if I couldn’t sleep, I should try thinking about Camp. I don’t know why they suggested that, maybe because they could tell I was worried or unhappy, and Camp is a happy place? But it did usually work. But even though I guess I knew what they were going to say, it was mostly just going in to see them and know that things were okay, and their light was on, and they were reading, and everything was normal… that was reassuring. I don’t know if it helped me go to sleep, but it was still good. And I don’t know if E is experiencing anything like what I was at that time, but… I think that things worked out okay for me. And I think things will work out okay for him too. And it sucks that you both lost so much sleep, that really does suck. But as for the other stuff, I think you’re on the right track. You can’t necessarily fix what’s wrong, but I don’t think you’re going to make it worse, either. And in the absence of a clinical study involving your particular children, I think you’re fairly safe just giving them a lot of it when you can and hoping for the best. xoxox

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Aw, emi. I want to cry for your younger self. I know I was often sad in the evenings too, and there was a certain indefinable non-terrifying dread when it would get dark… but I don’t remember it being very intense or long-lived, and not all the time. But I was aware of things being more difficult for you, at a certain point. And I know you had reasons.

      I remember being encouraged to think about Camp too. A couple times I’ve helped E calm down the same way, and it’s great to think that Camp can still have the same effect.

  4. Auntie CL says:

    i just now read this almost a week after you wrote it, so you are probably on to other problems by now, but this did touch me in several ways. Like Em and E, i had inexplicable sad times as a child myself, and didn’t know what to do with them, given that i was safe and loved etc. And I also was advised to think about something that made me happy (in my case, my grandparents’ farm – equivalent to Camp). I am not sure what helped, but eventually i outgrew it. I am sure that it wasn’t my parents fault.
    Then there was the thing about being a real parent myself, with the same qualifications you have (which are —– having been a child?). I wasn’t sure about how to deal with baffling things, either, and tried not to invalidate my children’s feelings — or commit suicide through sleep deprivation. I’ve no idea whether I got it right, but my kids seem to be pretty functional as grownups. You’ve got the same basic qualifications as anyone else who takes on parenting, but a few extras, like being a healthy balanced person yourself and having had a healthy childhood and good parents. Somehow the whole thing does keep going on, generation after generation; not that the world is full of so much better people each generation, so it’s good that some parents, at least, care about doing a good job of it.
    Showing your love: you do. you can’t help it. you do not have to figure out how to, and trying to analyze it is rather contrary to its nature. Love is not a reward or a compensation or anything useful like a tool, it just is, and fortunately your kids get lots and lots freely from both parents and lots of others. It is one (only one) of the things they need most. Don’t worry about how to do it. Just carry on.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Auntie, I know I had sad times too as a kid, and although I’ve had them as an adult, I think they’re a lot more nebulous – and therefore inexplicable – when you’re young. As a child, you know there are a lot of big problems in the world, but you don’t even know how to start thinking about them. We gradually just develop coping mechanisms, I think – ways to consider problems, and sometimes, ways to NOT consider them, along with the realization that we can’t fix everything… and aren’t meant to.

      I guess one of the tricky things about parenting is that you want to be able to fix everything – for your children, at least – and even that is nowhere near possible.

      But yes, I do feel very fortunate to be able to create a family in an environment of stability and love that my kids don’t have to wonder about. You’re right. I’ll just carry on. xoxo

  5. Rachel says:

    My dear Di, please accept my apologies for not responding to this post sooner considering that we are the ones who were recommending this new approach.
    I fear when I read this on Thursday night my heart ached as I have felt so much of this uncertainty as well. But alas my head was not clear enough to write and then the weekend and stomach bugs happened…but here I am finally…
    First off I am so sorry that your first foray into ‘head-banging’ felt so inconclusive and consequently unsuccessful as I think your description of what you did sounds amazing! (So right on with the ‘it’s ok to not know why you’re upset and to feel what you feel and let it out’!) It is too bad that it was so late at night and as such completely EXHAUSTING to spend the time that is sometimes required for them to do that. (I’ve definitely been there and the frustrating thing is you never really know when you open this up whether it is going to be a long session or a short session!)
    But one of the things that I find so heartening about this approach is that it does in fact approach parents as humans and not super-beings and so acknowledges that you will not always be in a time or place to even start much less be able to always fully delve into things. And so it is OK to say things like “you’ve expressed a lot of sadness and I want you to know it’s ok to be sad but right now we both really need to get back to sleep so I’m going to help you work on that right now. We can can do more work on letting out your sadness when are both better rested.” or something like that…to acknowledge what they’re feeling but also the limitations of the situation and/or of your state to be present to the work they’re doing.
    I think the only thing I would caution against in what you’ve presented based on what I’ve managed to read is the offering up thoughts on what might be causing their feelings as it seems to be so hard to know…something may have triggered a deep memory (not necessarily conscious) of some other experience and/or feeling and it’s very hard for them to grasp any of what’s going on other than that they’re upset for some reason and they need our love and support as they work through it. So trying to keep your input to making supportive sounds and comments like “this is hard”, “I’m going to stay with you while you work through this”, and to keeping them on track by continuing to present whatever boundary brought up the emotions in the first place, such as “I know you don’t want to but it’s time to brush teeth now.” until either you’re done and need to ‘shut it down’ as above, or they’ve worked through things enough to cooperate with the boundary that was set, i.e. brush their teeth. (as we’ve mentioned it’s easier to not get ‘into it’ with our 1.5 year old than with our 3.5 year old as he presents his ideas so much more clearly even when upset and so it’s easy to get ‘distracted’ and try to ‘fix’ things)
    Unfortunately our experience has been, as the materials indicate, starting to open this door leads you into a lot of emotional unloading as you might say the ‘flood gates open’ once your kids know you’re really going to be there to listen and support them. And so it may well be that it works better to wait for a time when you can make sure that you’ll be well rested and have lots of support as it’s incredibly draining to do the work of supporting your child(ren) through their emotional turmoil. So maybe March break if you can keep your schedule pretty clear and enlist family and or friends to help out (we found that to really be able to do this effectively you needed to be able to focus one-on-one with the child and that’s often hard when there’s one parent at home with 2 kids!). You’ll like want help not only with childcare so you can have naps and things (and your child(ren) may need more naps too!), but also for you to be able to share emotions and worries that come up for you through this process so that you’re not getting emotionally overwhelmed either! 🙂
    And it’s hard to know whether a week will be enough but it would be a big start. It certainly made a huge difference for us, our little guy was so much more himself after a week of really delving into this and it’s pretty clear to us now when things have built up and he’s needing to let it go again (since he quite literally starts poking us with a swat at someone here, a push there, a meltdown over a silly thing there, etc.) and once he gets the chance to unload he’s back to his delightful and cooperative again.
    So while I can’t make any promises since there are apparently times where it has taken kids quite a bit longer to process things (although these mostly seem to be to do with real trouble with sleep) I think you’d have a pretty good sense after a week of whether this approach is at all useful for your family and I truly hope you’d see an amazing light appearing at the end of what can feel like a rather dark tunnel some days.
    The last thing I want to say (since really, most of what I’ve said here I think you’ve already got the gist of and the details you’ll find in their materials) is that somehow one of the first articles Robin found talked about the roughhousing before bed(or what we’ve now started calling ‘active play’ since the key is more that it be physical, get the kids laughing without any tickling and be as kid directed as possible- i.e they chose. Your kid might like roughhousing but they might not, you have to find what works for you – jumping, chase, pillow fights etc). So that’s actually where we first started and it was what started giving us a sense of some light which led us to delve in further. It’s the act of laughing that they claim allows kids to release much of the tension that builds up over a day from all the tiny frustrations of ‘be quiet, don’t hit your sister, you need to do this now, etc.’
    It’s interesting now as I get more familiar with their materials that this isn’t actually part of their ‘tools’ at least not in their basic pamphlet set. It’s a bit different from the ‘play-listening’, which doesn’t necessarily involve the physically active piece. (‘play listening’ is more about a real role reversal to alleviate the tension of the power dynamic like my experience of our big E using the time out timer on me and my playing all “NOOoooo, I don’t want a time out, I want to play, etc. etc. and him laughing his head off as he gave me time outs as suddenly he was in charge. And then after 10 minutes he was done.)
    Alright, I’d better leave it there as I’ve written a novel when they’ve already got lots of material for you to read. And really all I wanted to say is that I think you’ve understood the essence of it and now it’s just finding a time when you can commit some time and physical and emotional energy to really trying it. oh, and that perhaps starting the active play piece now might help prep things if you do want to do more of the ‘stay listening’ over march break.
    big hug and lots of love and never hesitate to call to talk!!

  6. Rachel says:

    Just realized now that March Break is next week, so not a lot of lead time for getting going on active play…but even a couple nights would likely be good, and then of course continuing it with everything else.

    And I also wanted to mention that the being able to focus one-on-one doesn’t mean that you need to go off to work on things, you can work through them wherever they come up and with others around if your child opens up in those situations. It’s just we found that if I was trying to support one child working through something while on my own the other one would start to get anxious/need my attention which would make it more challenging to actually provide the support needed by the initial child for the process. But when a second adult is there to provide reassurance saying something like”your brother/sister is upset right now and it’s ok, mama/dada is there for them, they just need some time to work through their big feelings/emotions” the second child was remarkably comfortable being around while the other was upset. (Even sitting close by and trying to be comforting – although you do have to be careful as sometimes the emotional processing involves needing to physically process as well by pushing or trying to hit/kick etc, so in those cases the second adult helps the second child stay far enough away to not complicate the work of keeping everyone safe.)

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Rachel, thank you so much for writing all this – it’s like having my own coach! (Even though you’ve only recently started on this, you’re infinitely more experienced than I am.) No apologies necessary – especially since now I’ve taken forever to process and respond as well.

      It’s good to hear I was on the right track even if the timing was not great… and even better to hear that I’m not a monster for then having to shut it down. 🙂

      I was torn about suggesting reasons for why he might be upset, because it seemed sort of dangerous to me, like opening unlabeled cans of who-knows-what… but he seemed so anxious that he couldn’t pinpoint the reason he was crying, it seemed important to offer something.

      It really does sound amazing to be able to work through things for a while and see the difference in your child, to be able to sense when he’s built up tension and everything. I have definitely noticed already that E is very ready to laugh at silly things sometimes – that if we stumble upon something that triggers the giggles, I barely have to nudge him to keep him going. It does seem like a release, for sure. Sean frequently roughhouses with him (more his style).

      Sometimes it breaks my heart to think of all the things that contribute to the tension for not just my child, but so many children. Even though I firmly believe in the benefits of boundaries, it must be hard to be shushed and put off and generally quelled so often, by parents but also all kinds of other people. I feel bad about all the times that I still get angry at E… but even little changes in the way I do things seem to shift the balance. For example, when he’s upset with me, I can pre-empt the poking/hitting by offering my lap – he’ll always take it even if he’s mad.

      It makes me think that AB is actually going to be better off, because right now she seems to work off tension like a pro. If she’s frustrated, she takes her freak-out time and does it thoroughly. She’s been like that since birth. (Literally – the first thing she did upon being born was scream off quite a bit of tension. 😉 )

      We did not get to the delving over March break – Sean was working both Saturdays and there was not a lot of backup around. Also, I’d like to get the materials and have a sense of how the different strands interweave before jumping in with both feet. But it’s been nice to be able to keep in mind some of the things we talked about. Even just knowing that some of the tantrum-ish behaviour is actually good on some level, when it’s in a safe place and received with love… it’s a relief.

      Thank you, again, for your compassion and your insights. I look forward to more discussions! xoxo

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