by Natalie Christensen
I feel tender.
I did what any reasonable woman would do under these circumstances. I watched and re-watched the music video for a bad-ass anthem by Frazee Ford as well as a post-cesarean, unassisted, homebirth video with an incredible mama, lots of primal grunting, weeping, and a praising, joyful, tearful, husband. I should probably toss in some dog and cat videos about friendship and loyalty just to round it out.
But I don’t need outside images. Our big fat grey cat, who should have been named Whale, is snoring on the couch to my right. His vast, balled-up self, his tucked in nose and his loud high-pitched rhythmic wheezes have me stirred up as well.
The caramel colored sheets on our bed feel so rich and comforting. The yellow irises standing bold and upright in our flower beds seem so brave out there, alone in a sea of spring greens. Last night it hailed fast and furious for three minutes, leaving our yard and pets surprised and disheveled, the air cold and magical. The night before a double rainbow arced over the mountains. It’s all just so MUCH.
My sweet Henry-dog turns thirteen on Wednesday. That means he’s been in my life from age twenty-five until now, for every cry, every love affair, every hike. He’s loved me as a single lady alone in a new town, as a birthing mama delivering a human being under his watchful gaze, as my best self and my worst self. Every day he loves me. Simply.
This floors me. The idea of silently, steadily loving someone for years on end, never tiring, never asking for more.
Also, my dear friend has bone cancer. You’d never know it to look at her. She is the brightest shiniest light in the crowd. She is hugely alive and buoyant and anyone she crosses paths with is filled up, acknowledged and adored. I cry when I think about her.
It’s too much.
A few days ago I asked our daughter Echo if she would finally put away a few of the hundred million things she had out in the living room. She said No. When I asked her about it (mother blood pressure starting to tick upward) she said that she didn’t want the living room clean, I did. When I asked her if she would clean it she said, “No, so that’s the answer. No.” As you can imagine I was very irritated by this explanation. I met her with a truckload of logic about “common space” and “shared responsibilities”, I also tucked in some veiled threats that in the future fort-making might be less welcomed by the parents if this was how clean-up was going to go.
She didn’t care. She was emotionally as far away from me as she could get—a chasm between. We sat in the mudroom, on the floor, for an eternity. I wanted to hold her—get her to crack open. She wanted to be done with the discussion, hiding her pain with stoicism. I waited. And waited. And waited—my ire receding, my curiosity piquing.
Eventually she crept into my lap. She described a moment two days prior. She was riding her scooter and my partner and I were walking. At some point she dismounted to check something out, when she returned I helped her get situated on the scooter again and launched her forward with a push. She said: You and Papa were talking and when you pushed me on the scooter it just felt like you didn’t want me around, like you were just pushing me away to get me away from you guys. You didn’t want me there.
I did want her there. I always do. And after she allowed her own desperately sad feelings to come to the surface and melt off with tears I made sure she knew it. What struck me though, is not that she misinterpreted my action, but that that two-second moment and all the grief surrounding it, were buried in her little heart for two whole days, inspiring intense reactions and disconnection.
Of course she didn’t want to team up with me and clean the living room, we weren’t even on the same team.
I remembered this interaction today while feeling so tender because in my current state I am receiving each of my experiences – the snoring cat, the sheets, the irises – through a veil as well. Just like Echo, I can’t help but see my experiences tinted because my emotions form a filter, an invisible, powerful sieve.
When I realize that every single person is moving through their world in this way, with their emotional state riding shotgun, I am humbled. I feel immense compassion. If I am reading each email in my inbox, feeling fragile and braced for unkindness, how might the person I am corresponding with feel? What emotional veil is she peering through?
It isn’t possible to sit on the mudroom floor and pull each person I interact with into my lap, to peel back the layers and free them, for a moment, from their internal pain. But I want to. Maybe I’ll just gaze at them as though they were in my lap, respond with warm care and a soft hard. At the very least I can at least be oh so very kind. I know that’s what I would like.
My tenderness is not unique. I am not the only one. And though this knowledge does not exactly lift my mood, the emotion is too viscous and leaden for that, it does feather the edges, inspiring tenderness for my tenderness.
About Natalie Christensen
“PARENTING WITH EMPATHY.”
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. Join Natalie and Carrie-Anne for the September edition of MOTHER.