My 5-year-old daughter whimpers in the darkness.

“I am putting the baby down,” I whisper, the rocking chair creaking. “You need to go with Dad.”

Even in the dark, I can make out the stubborn, I’m-not-going-anywhere look. Call it defiance. Call it deep attachment to me. All I know is that to be so openly disobeyed makes me run a gauntlet of emotions. First, I feel irked that she’ll wake up the baby, but that’s the surface-level stuff. What really gets to me is the fear—am I doing a bad job because my kid won’t readily “obey”? Have I failed her?

Her whimper grows. I panic. If she wakes up this baby . . . my mind scrounges for consequences. If you don’t go with Dad now, I won’t read bedtime stories. But I want to. I will not tuck you in. That’ll end in upheaval.

So, what do I do? I pause. She leans into my lap. The rocking chair protests. Internally, I feel like that rocking chair. Pushed to my max.

“Go, now, VV,” I say, “you’re too loud.”

“I’ll be quiet,” she promises.

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What do I gain if I make a ruckus right now and force her out? Do I teach her consistency by holding firm to my words? The part of me that listened to everyone else for the past 11 years of parenting would say yes. Stick to your word. Never budge.

Then a small word that has made volumes inside my heart the last several years comes to me: connect. It doesn’t sound as commandeering as consistency or consequences, but it reaches into me and pulls out something transcendental.

I ask myself, “Is her presence a problem?” Not if she’s quiet.

“Okay,” I whisper, “if you are quiet, you may stay. Otherwise, I’m going to have Dad take you.” She nods.

I sing to the baby. She moves toward my bed. Pulls the crumpled comforter over and smooths it out. I sing on. She straightens all the pillows. I stroke the baby’s face. She spreads the throw over the comforter.

In the dark, two hours before I’ll go to sleep, she’s made my bed. A show of gratitude for letting her stay in the room. My heart swells at the sweetness of her action. I cringe to think how I would’ve handled this before, marching her out to make sure I was “laying down the law” to the tune of the no-nonsense parent. I said no once. And I meant it.

For too long, all of the disciplinary voices inside my head belonged to others. I have spent the last three years trying to retrain my brain not to fear disobedience—to see it as a child’s need for closeness, a feeling of dysregulation. What can I do to help them when they are having a hard time? How can I remain calm to model it for them?

I read somewhere that we act as our children’s nervous system when they are young. So, when the baby is in his bassinet, I follow the 5-year-old to her room and curl my body around hers, imagining that I am physically sharing my system with her. This exercise overwhelms me with motherly intuition.

I am so far from perfect. Connection parenting is exhausting and complex. To dig deeper than surface-level behavior—it’s revolutionary and counterintuitive to my immediate knee-jerk reactions: commands, time outs, yelling.

Gentler parenting rarely ends with my kid making the bed though. In fact, it often requires a dose of patience that I do not naturally come by. It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say some days that one of my children will need to work through a hundred emotions. Or, that my children seem to tag team their meltdowns. I feel like a tug-o’-war rope pulled in too many directions. The wondering internally . . . Am I doing this right? What the heck is triggering my children to act like this?  

In this modern-day, fast-paced life, I often feel pressed for the time and patience it takes to hold space for my children’s emotional needs. Not to mention the humility. Obedience is appealing. Big feelings are not.

Day by day, I am trying to make space for them. To learn that connection is the driving force that will create the healthiest relationships. I want that for my children but also for myself.

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That’s what gentle parenting is about—self-reflection. Holding that mirror to my heart and asking, why does that trigger me? Why am I demanding respect when I might not be handing it out? How do I model regulation?

They are the kind of questions that keep me up at night. I want to do better. I don’t want to have to apologize for cracking, but I also know that it’s inevitable that I will sometimes.

What I’m doing is kintsugi parenting. Kintsugi, centuries old, is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery by filling the cracks with a mixture of tree sap and powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The result is pottery with a story—veins of gold running through the repaired parts to make something unique and heirloom-worthy.

My eldest can be explosive. The kind who yells and slams the door. He’s also the first to apologize when he’s calmed down. To restore relationship. Why? I think it’s what I’ve modeled most. Yeah, I lost my cool, but I’m sorry for it.

Kintsugi parenting. Because I really want to get this right, even if I’m broken and messy in the process. I am tired of walking in shame and self-doubt as a parent. I am ready to take my broken pieces and turn them into a story. This story: I am doing my best to connect with my children, and I won’t stop trying even if I don’t always get it right.

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Kris Ann Valdez 

Kris Ann Valdez has had personal essays included in Motherly, Motherwell, Her View from Home, The Kindred Voice, Motherhood Mag, and elsewhere. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and three children.

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