I was the last of four kids, with two working parents and I think that it was often assumed that someone was at home with me when, in fact, I was often left alone—perhaps before I was ready. But it was the 70s and parenting styles were quite a bit different than they are now. Perhaps as a result of this early independence, I learned to deal with my pain alone. I don’t believe I ever even cried in front of my parents. I did try to cry in front of my Siamese cat, Catboy, but he’d usually exit the room and find a bed to hide under until my tears subsided. I also somehow learned to resort to food to provide comfort or to stop my pain. When you binge, you definitely stop feeling your feelings.
I cut my parenting teeth on my first-born and only daughter, born when I was just twenty-two years old. When she’d cry as a newborn, I would feel a sense of panic rise up inside me. I already felt responsible for solving all of her problems; and I wasn’t always confidant in my ability to do so. I also had never had the witnessing of wounds modeled to me. When my daughter was older, I’d often react in anger when she’d hurt herself. Instead of focusing on her pain, I’d get all wrapped up in lecturing her about how she shouldn’t have been doing whatever she had been doing that produced the pain. “You shouldn’t have been walking on that high wall in the first place!” I couldn’t just stand by and send love to her wounds. I couldn’t do so because I couldn’t do that for my own self. (A prime example of how we all might do this is when we, upon stubbing a toe, mutter angry expletives instead of just allowing ourselves to really feel the pain; in this way, we lean away from the experience of suffering instead of leaning into it. By leaning in, we enable the growth that suffering can bring).
It was my training as a yoga teacher that finally caused me to learn to stop to witness my own hurt feelings and my own wounds, along with that of my children. Yoga teachers love to say, “to heal you must feel.” In the last year or so, I’ve read much about how healing tears and crying are to kids. In fact, tears are one way our body detoxifies all of us. So why are we so quick to try to stop our children’s tears? We are often far too ready to hand over an iPad, or a sugary treat to our children to get the tears to stop. A nurse even tried to hand J. a sucker after he had a bad blood draw this past spring. Don’t get me wrong; I used to do this too. But I am starting to think that one of our primary roles as a parent is to simply witness our children’s wounds. To witness and allow is enough. I am also teaching my youngest child, a four year old, to send love to his “ouches.” Stubbed toes provide a fantastic opportunity to practice.
This past week, I had the opportunity to witness both my oldest and youngest child’s wounds. On Sunday night, my daughter, who is almost the age I was one when I had her, phoned home from college in tears. I just listened to her cry for about five minutes before I could even understand her enough to know why she was crying. Her long-term boyfriend had just broken her heart, just a month before they graduated. Once I knew what had happened, I also knew that she needed those tears to get through to the other side of the pain and begin to heal. As much as I wanted to stop her pain, I knew that the best thing I could do was to listen patiently and tell her that it wouldn’t always feel this bad. By serving as her witness, she knew I was there for her and that I loved her.
Today, my youngest son exploded into tears when I picked him up from preschool. Before driving home, I assessed the situation the best I could and learned that his tears were not from a physical pain but an emotional hurt. I knew the tears would not be ending anytime soon and so I calmly strapped him into his car seat and drove home. He cried (and by cried, I mean, all out wailed) the entire fifteen-minute drive home. In the past, this would have really stressed me out. I might have even pulled the car over and insisted, “we’re not driving any further until you stop crying.” Instead, however, I just kept telling myself, “all you need to do is bear witness to his wounds–you don’t need to anesthetize his pain.”
When we got home, I was able to hold J. close in the rocking chair and tell him how much I loved him. I also told him I’d always love him and be there for him, no matter what happened. He eventually calmed down enough to tell me about how two other boys trapped him in a hula-hoop and wouldn’t let him out. One of the boys used to identify as my son’s best friend but has now switched his allegiance to the other boy involved. I was not sure whether my son was more hurt by the stress of losing his “best” friend or from a fear of being trapped. Either way, all I could do was love him and know that feeling our pain is the only way to get through it. Pain is a part of the human experience and the best thing I can do for my children is to allow them their pain and validate it, as I quietly bear witness to their sufferings.