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."
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.
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.
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.