You know that gut feeling you have as a parent? The one that tells you exactly what’s happening with your child before your child can even express it? Well, I had that feeling, and I knew what it meant before Elena could even scream her first scream: it meant Ear Infection.
She had been fussy for a couple days and at first I chalked it up to teething. But then her demeanor began to change, and she began to be slightly more clingy, and I just knew she had an ear infection. Her first one, poor thing, and boy was it a doozy.
I spent the next four days singing, rocking, bouncing, and swaying my baby, who screamed like she was dying the whole time. And after doing everything I could possibly do to comfort her and make things easier for her, I was finally left with nothing else I could do. I had come to the end of my ability to help her, and still she screamed.
I had a lot of time to think during those four days. Think about my role as a parent to my kids, and how it’s my job to help them navigate the waters of growing up, dealing with sickness and emotions, and learning relational skills. Often I have a goal in mind of where I want to take them in a given situation – move from sickness to health, bring a sibling argument to peaceful play again, go from disobedience to obedience, transition from feeling disappointment to being ok through it. My process is linear – obviously care, rest, and medicine with sickness. And with emotional and relational issues, we have a starting place and we talk and talk and talk and talk (and sometimes have a consequence) until we get to the end where they have hopefully learned how to come through it.
But when I sat there with Elena, at the end of myself for things to do, I realized sometimes the most important thing I can do for my kids is to simply be with them in the middle of their pain. In sickness, yes. But also in emotional struggles.
Why do I so often feel the need to move them from A to B to C? Why do I feel like I personally need the closure of quickly walking them to the finality of their current issue and then be able to move on? Sometimes, at least with my kids, I have to stop in my tracks, walk backward a few steps, and make camp where they’re experiencing pain. When I can meet them there, show them that they are not alone in their pain, and simply be until they are ready to move forward, I find that we grow together and the working-through process is more meaningful.
One of my sweet kids is extremely sensitive, especially when it comes to relationships. I often function as a “container” for these intense emotions, coming alongside and allowing all the pain of the situation to overflow, catching and wiping tears, gathering all the words, and holding the dam together for as long as it takes until the pain subsides. And only then do we begin the process of putting everything back together. Acting like a container means patience to hear every word, patience to hold my own words back, and patience to wait until the flow stops. But it also means creating an atmosphere of vulnerability and open communication, safety, and love.
Of course we never stay in this place. Being present in my kids’ pain doesn’t mean we wallow in it. But it does mean that we take the needed to time to understand it and experience it as part of the process of growing and learning. I always think back to something my sister said when she was taking child development classes: never minimize the pain a child is going through because it could very well be the worst pain they have ever experienced. I felt this so intensely with Elena and her ear infection. Knowing this was the worst pain she’d ever experienced, even though I had personally experienced much worse pain, motivated my heart to keep rocking, singing, and being with her until it subsided. Just because my child is feeling pain over something that I have personally dealt with a thousand times doesn’t mean I should gloss over it like it’s nothing. Because to this child, it may be the worst pain she has ever experienced.
My (other) sister works with girls who have been rescued from human trafficking, and the other day I asked how she thinks of things to talk about with them. She responded that often she doesn’t. Often she sits with them, just being with them, until they are ready to talk. In the middle of their pain, sometimes they simply need someone to just be. Isn’t that what we want, as human beings? For someone to come alongside us in our pain, without judgment or comparison to their own hurts and how they’ve overcome them, and simply be? Not wallow, not push, not rehash. But to be support in the middle of a very crucial step in moving forward – the feeling of our pain.
I fail in this more than I like to admit, often minimizing the things my kids are crying over because I have personally experienced so much worse than, say, big kids telling me they don’t want to play with me or a baby sister eating the first red tomato off my tomato plant. And while it is also my job to help prepare them for the world (and no, there probably will be no “containers” for them in adulthood), allowing them to have an opportunity to express their pain, knowing that they are not alone in it, builds in them the security that they can feel pain, that they can express pain without negative consequences, and that they can walk through pain and come out of it whole on the other side. This foundation is so important to me as a parent, that they understand what it feels like to go down into the deep and still be able to come back up intact.
And as I finish up here, I can’t help but tie it to Jesus. I strive to imitate Christ to my kids so that they understand His love for them in a tangible way. Being present in my kids’ pain makes it easy to relate to them the presence of God in their pain too. He will never leave us, no matter how dark our lives get or how deep down we go. And for them to understand that not only will He be present, but that He can walk them through their pain, gives them the ability to eventually move forward from needing me to be their “container” to being able to rely on a good God who they know loves them unconditionally. If I do anything as a parent, it is my hope that they come away from my home knowing God and relying on Him to carry them through.