My daughter went on a sleepover last night.
She’s eight, but it’s still a big deal. She has only experienced a handful, and once she even bailed out in the middle of the night and walked the two dark, frozen blocks home by herself. The transition from awake to asleep is a big one for her, so no one is nonchalant about sleepovers around here. She packs special stuffed animal friends, her water bottle, a shirt that smells like me – all the sacred voodoo objects necessary to get her through. On our end we check the clock, we check the phone, not relaxing until late into the night when, if we haven’t heard, we can assume she made it over that threshold into sleep.
But my ringer was turned off.
At eleven I noticed two missed calls and an hour-old text on my phone: This is echo. I love you and miss you. Will you call me.
My stomach dropped to my toes. Adrenalin jacked through my body.
I called my mom, Echo’s sleepover date, and discovered that Echo had fallen asleep, cell phone in hand, waiting for my call. I wanted to die. I know I am a good mother, but I didn’t feel like one. In order to dodge my plummeting state of emotion I rationalized: She was just calling for comfort, not for me to come pick her up, so that’s good. She probably fell asleep right after the call and didn’t even notice my lack of response. But how often does rationalization help with feelings? Never.
I was consumed with Guilt and cried. Next came Fear and I cried. Next came Sadness and I cried over that too. As I got into bed I felt Mad, as well, hotly declaring NO MORE SLEEPOVERS!
I had arrived at The Fix.
The Fix – the relentless eddy that parents find themselves in again and again. Faced with emotions that are uncomfortable – hello guilt, fear, and sadness you terrible trio! – we look to control circumstances instead. We do this for ourselves and we do it, rampantly, for our children. I don’t want my daughter to suffer, and my psyche, battling the dreaded trio of shitty emotions clutches at the idea of simply outlawing any scenario in which she might struggle. In this case, I was willing to utterly ban sleepovers in order to find relief.
But here’s the thing: suffering is inevitable.
Many of us are actually killing ourselves in order to pad our children’s existence, spare them tears and discomfort, and of course spare ourselves the tears and discomfort we feel at their discomfort. We don’t want them to want for anything, so we overspend and overwork in order to buy the accoutrements of contemporary childhood. We don’t want them to fall behind so we overschedule - adding tutors, activities, and sports to an already dense schedule. We don’t want them to be lonely so we work part-time as playdate planners, running the race of social politics in order to secure friends for our children.
And when they still cry? We are resentful. We feel like failures. And we cast about for something in the moment – a distraction, a punishment, or a new plan, in order to make the suffering stop.
But it doesn’t work. No matter how hard you try, you can’t design, bribe, or control your way out of your feelings, and you can’t pad the existence of your child in order to prevent them from having a rough time. The full spectrum of emotion is always at hand.
Just the other day I realized with a sickening dread that it is very likely that I will lose my beloved old canine companion Henry and both of my grandmothers within the same year. I am going to watch as both of my parents lose their mothers. I am on the brink of deep sorrow.
Yesterday, at my daughter’s Girl Scout meeting I scanned the room and noticed that at least half of the girls are just months away from drastic change. I can see the signs of puberty emerging. Soon they will notice their bodies and form opinions, soon they will be ravaged by hormones. I already saw a couple scowls. They are on the brink of intense emotions, about to be swept away into a world far less simple and welcoming.
We can’t do anything about this. Grandmas die, dogs die, bodies change, hearts break, nights are scary and long. And in between those big things are all of life’s little unpleasantries – popped balloons, dropped ice creams, lost blankies, perceived slights, stolen bikes, and skinned knees. We cannot spare anyone emotional discomfort, or guarantee physical safety and happiness. We can’t make our kids happy, we can’t even make them not unhappy. The only thing that we can do is secure their emotional safety.
It’s all we’ve got.
We can teach them how to be upset. We can help them to stop thrashing in their discomfort, looking for others to blame, looking for The Fix. We can be a big soft safety net for their emotions, holding them, making space for all the ugly to pour out. Via our connection we can communicate safe space for full expression, and only then, by the magic of empathy, will the dark feelings lessen their grip and better feelings take their place.
The Fix last night would have been a late-night drive where I barged into my mom’s quiet house and scooped my girl into my arms and ended the sleepover. It would also include more rules, like NO SLEEPOVERS, or earlier sleepover bedtimes, or no sugar at sleepovers, anything I could come up with to narrow the opportunity for upset.
The Emotional Fix is far easier and much more effective at actually alleviating suffering. It would simply have been a sweet call and a chance to offer empathy: You’re having a hard time? Darn. That’s rough huh? You really want to be asleep already… You really want the sleepover to work out, but just can’t seem to get your eyes to close huh? Shoot. That’s not how you wanted this to go…
Unfortunately, this is the opportunity I missed last night when my stupid ringer was turned off. Fortunately, due to the years and years we diligently knitted that giant emotional safety net, my daughter’s brain is actually equipped with thousands of healthy neural pathways that now aide her in her own emotional processing. At 6am I got a return text to the one I had sent even though she was asleep, the one assuring her of my love and explaining why I hadn’t heard her call:
It is ok. I know you love me. I fell asleep!
She made it across the threshold, both emotionally and physically. Her circumstances weren’t ideal but she moved through her emotions and came out, bright and shining on the other side.
Every time I fix the situation for her she is denied the chance to move through her feelings in a healthy, helpful way - the manner that will reinforce those neural pathways that serve her when I’m not there, when she faces all of those challenges of the human existence on her own. And every time I try The Fix in order to help me feel better, not only do I have to put out great effort with little to no effect, I also deny myself the health and wellness that comes from actively processing my feelings instead.
I would have preferred to be at the other end of the telephone line that night, because, although she did emerge victorious, that is my most crucial job, to be the cushy emotional safety net, a place for her to lay down her feelings and find non-judgment and love. I can’t fix the world for her, but I can catch her when she stumbles. I can help her find her feet again.
My phone’s ringer will remain on for the rest of my life, I swear.
WRITER & PARENTING MENTOR
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.
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