My girl woke up with a chip on her shoulder. Our day began with echoes of squabbling in the hallway; breakfast was punctuated by loud clanking of spoon and bowl; the milk jug slammed with vehemence on the table. Points were being made. I saw glowering eyes.
I tried showing compassion and asked her what was wrong. A pursed mouth said that was not going to work. I told her this behavior was unacceptable and advised her to change her attitude. No dice.
Sometimes we are more comfortable in our discontent than in seeking a path to healing. I know this, but that doesn’t mean I always know the best way to interrupt a destructive cycle. Here I am helping my kids get ready for school—making lunches, feeding the dog, watching the clock, ready to help with hair or homework or whatever may come—and what comes is a huge time suck.
What I wanted was for recovery to be easy, but it wasn’t. What I wanted was for my first effort at empathy and understanding to be well received, but it wasn’t. So there I was not only with a grumpy girl but all the disappointment of my own inability to come up with a quick fix. Double whammy.
I didn’t know what to do, but I thought it critical that I do something, so I took her hand, marched her to a quiet place to sit in a separate room, and told her to wait there.
Taking a minute to recover from the heat of the moment is not just for the benefit of our kids. it’s for us too. It’s so we have a chance to move past our own disappointment at powerlessness and re-engage our self-control. It helps us remember that the point is not retribution, but resolution.
I returned to her. I sat in the chair next to hers. I looked at her and I allowed myself to remember how beautiful she is, how precious is her smile, how very sad it is to feel stuck inside a bad attitude and not know how to get out of it.
“I’d like to understand why you’re so upset this morning. Did something happen?”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“OK.” I sat and thought. Where to go from here? “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. I care about what you’re feeling, but you don’t have to share. But I can’t allow you to mistreat the people in this house just because you’re feeling bad about something.”
These conversations move slowly. There are lots of pauses and words are few. There are no accusations. There is no need for defensiveness because no one is pointing fingers. I am trying to listen. Even if she is not ready to talk I listen anyway. Listening involves more than simply restraining my lips from speaking. It means actively making room for whatever words she may offer. Listening means I prepare myself to hear the intent behind the words or the intent behind the silence.
At one point she asked me if she could have a hug.
Yes, my love. Always. So she sat in my lap and I held her like the little girl she is and reminded her I talk to you like this because I care about you. I love you. You and me—we go together always.
On the way to the bus that morning she grabbed my hand and held it.“I like the way you talk to me,” she said. “It helps me feel better.”
And I think about how her feeling better, her recovery—it cost me something. It cost me time and effort. It cost me cathartic release. I didn’t get to vent, express myself, or punish. In the moment that felt hard and unsatisfying.
But the cost was nothing for what I gained. My girl recovered and trotted off to school with a smile. She held my hand and reassured me that I’m a good mom. Our relationship is stronger because one time I listened well despite the fact that it felt crummy at the time.
It was worth every bit of what I lost.
Originally published on the author’s blog