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Your Child's Feelings Are Not Your Own

Photograph by Getty Images

Hours after the two-day ordeal to birth my son, my beleaguered body cramped in the awkward hospital bed, a tiny noise pierced my sleep. I, who slept through trains and fire alarms, came straight to alertness with a pounding heart. The sound of my son's first cry for my attention, his first plea that I put aside my own needs and tend to him, cut straight through sleep. I pulled him into bed with me and slept fitfully on and off, his tiny head cradled awkwardly between boob and armpit.

I felt every hiccup and tiny shudder of his limbs, every deep exhale of his as though it were my own. It was a preview of the years to come, being a mother who would struggle to separate her child's feelings from her own.

As a sensitive person whose empathy meter tends to shoot off toward codependency, motherhood is a visceral and emotional gauntlet. When my son was 2 and 1/2, my husband and I went to a party of friends who have four children. We reluctantly let our son run off with the rabble of the kid crowd, and found ourselves constantly craning our necks toward every small cry. Our friend's husband eventually laughed. "You can tell which of us parents are new to this."

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I laughed, but internally I shrank with annoyance. It wasn't just my first-time parenting that had me on alert, but my sensitivity, my difficulty separating my own feelings from my child's, which persist to this day, now that my son is 7.

In their first two years, psychologists compare children to Neanderthals … and they aren't being funny. There's a lot of chest-pounding "me, mine, now" and eruptions of such passion and power that a 20-pound person can send a grown-up into sheer terror or rage. My 2-year-old's tantrums sent me back to therapy because they inspired a rage in me I didn't know existed—a mirroring of what he was going through; only I'm the adult, and I have to act like one.

And frankly, even at his reasonable age, my son's feelings are events. Though a mostly rational being, we can still lose an entire hour from start to finish when his expectations are dashed, when he's confused or hurt: First comes the explosion, then the consequence or aftermath, then we process the feeling in conversation. Feelings pass through my son like bombs, powerful, massive, body-rocking events. And while he's long past the age of kicking and screaming, hurt, anger or embarrassment still have meteoric impacts.

When I can't differentiate between our feelings ... I become part of the problem, reacting rather than interacting.

Unfortunately for me, a first-time mom forever, and a person with a highly sensitive nervous system, these stages are not just challenging but also physiologically painful. The sound of my child's voice—particularly when venting or whining—reaches my ears with an overwhelming pitch much like those mysterious dog whistles said to drive canines crazy. Others may hear your child's squeals or demands, but they don't feel them. It's like someone grinding metal gears together in your visceral organs or pounding a thousand tiny hammers upon your neurons.

I was unprepared for this emotional walkie-talkie between my child and me. Though I'm a fairly stern disciplinarian, my son has a particular look he can give me, a pout that would make Oliver Twist proud and chisels straight to the bone of me. In these moments, my own angry demon awakes, and I often, as I tell my mom friends "lose my shit."

When I can't differentiate between our feelings, his outrage filling my chest cavity with electricity, rage boiling hot at the base of my neck, indignation steeping my ears, I become part of the problem, reacting rather than interacting.

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My culture tells me I am supposed to know how to mother intuitively, from the moment of conception. But it wasn't until recently, him 7, me nearly 41, that I had an overdue epiphany on vacation, watching sand swirl wildly and then settle in an ocean eddy. My son's emotions are big and intense, but they're over almost as quickly as they arrive … if I just remember to allow him to have them without intervening or believing they are mine. Like a jar full of water and sand, when shaken, he becomes clouded and dark. But give him a minute to settle down, and equanimity is restored.

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