Little Princess sinks deeper into her chair. Her face distorts in frustration, her legs kicking angrily beneath her. Her mouth is still silent, but I know soon the diner will reverberate with her screams.
The seven-year-old is overwhelmed by hunger and people. We spent the last day with Kate’s huge family, and she was inundated with thirty of some of her closest relatives. The wedding was loud and filled with people eager to meet their newest family member. By the end, she whispered to me, “I’m scared because there’s so many people.” I told her, “Well, that’s something mommies can fix. Let’s go!” We flew out of the party, running down the stairs and away from the noise, laughing all the while.
The brunch gathering is “small” by the family’s standards. There are only eleven people there – more people than in my entire, small family. After five years with my in-laws, I still feel like an outsider looking in. The family is grand, loving, and beautiful - filled with commanding, opinionated women - and while I easily fit among them, they have known each other for most of their lives. I am still new. It wasn’t until this recent visit that I felt like I final belonged. Children do that for family dynamics, I guess.
As the family chatted animatedly with each other, Little Princess sank lower in her seat. I have been working on building up compassion and love, and so I got up from my seat and went to her. I picked up her angry body and put it against mine. “Do you want to come outside with us?” I asked the Dreamer, who enthusiastically accepted.
Outside, Little Princess clung to my body as we walked among the California wildflowers growing in an empty lot nearby. As we slowly strolled, Little Princess’ body began to relax into mine, and soon she was smiling as the Dreamer pointed out the flowers that decorate the castle in her imagination.
Taking my child from a crowded restaurant, where I want to have conversations with family, is not in my nature. Compassion is hard for me. I was raised to value self-sufficiency and intended to teach this skill to my children, just as I had been taught. My childhood had stiff words and blunt reminders. As a parent, I found myself talking very sternly to my children when a gentle reminder was sufficient, or threatening a consequence when laughter could have broken the tension.
Not only was my parenting not working, I found myself angry at their ineptitude, yelling, and freak outs whenever they failed to do what they should do. Finally – after hours of screaming, crying, and hiding under beds – I realized that my children couldn’t learn to depend on themselves until they got the love they needed. After four months, I finally learned an essential concept: every time they asked for help, they were asking for love. Every time I said no, I told them I didn’t love them in that way. Once I understood that Maslovian need, I had to figure out how to say “Yes!” when all I wanted to do was to say “You can do this!!! Why are you asking me?!”
First, I needed to tell myself that it wasn’t forever. Their need for this type of parental intervention would end once their need was filled, likely in a year … or three. Their need for love would be eternal, of course, but soon they could learn to intersperse that need with confidence in their own abilities.
Second, I had to learn to say yes.
I started small. Every time either of the girls asked for pick up hugs, I would say yes. I would not necessarily say yes immediately – sometimes I say yes, but I am in the middle of this right now, I’ll come to find you when I’m done – but they would get their hug. I was going to be good on my word, and if they asked, they would get what they asked for. After a few weeks of saying yes to pick up hugs, I started to cherish their bodies against mine. I inhaled the scent of their hair, I felt the softness of their skin, and treasured their desire for love. Suddenly, I found myself thinking of a future without pick up hugs, and I became sad. The hugs were healing for all of us, it seemed.
I have started expanding the “Yes!” This is helped by the fact that I am a big kid at heart, and just want to play. The girls and I explore as Kate shops. We go bike riding, for walks, on hikes, and on adventures whenever possible – even if it’s just for ten minutes at a time.
And it’s working! A month ago, Little Princess would have slid under the table, screaming and crying as she protected herself from the overwhelming stimuli. By the time I picked her up, she would have been inconsolable, and I would have become frustrated that the family conversation was stalled. But this weekend, while there were tears, there were no meltdowns. She cried into our shoulders, snuggled against our bodies, and told us how her heart is hurting because there are so many people. There was no screaming, just love.
It’s not foolproof. The car ride back home was hard and there was a straight 25 minutes of crying, but after the tears were gone, Little Princess regained her joy. By the end of the ride, we again were enjoying each other’s company as the girls colored beautiful things in the back seat.
When we got home, I gave each girl a pick up hug before bed. After the children were tucked in, and they grabbed my hands as I left the room to leave. “Don’t go, Mommy,” Little Princess said. “I love you.”
Parenting is an exhausting journey, but I am so grateful for all of it. “Don’t worry, honey, I’m just outside your door. I’m here if you need me. I love you.” Little Princess let go of my hand. “I love you too,” she said, as I closed their bedroom door.
“Those kids, man,” I told Kate.
Kate gave me a look and smiled. “I know. They’re amazing.”