Fat tears rolled off my daughter's eyes and her chest heaved with sobs. I lay next to her on her bed and brushed her hair off her forehead. She was crying so hard and sweating up a storm it was like cardio exercise. She was really effing upset.
In fact, I had never seen her this steeped in genuine hurt in all the six years of her life. If this was a prelude to her adolescent heartbreaks, I was going to need some very strong medication.
Like any mother watching her child's heart break, I wanted to make it stop. But I couldn't. Or rather, I could, but not without breaking a promise to my son.
My daughter was upset because her little brother no longer wanted to share a room with her. My husband and I had been telling the kids for months that as soon as one of them was ready for some space, they would each get their own room. All along we assumed that my daughter, the older of the two, would assert herself first. But in a dramatic late-spring move, my son beat her to it.
How could doing the right thing result in so much drama and grief?
"I want to sleep alone, Mommy," he'd said. Plain and simple. He was ready, and he deserved support for his growing need for autonomy.
Now, however, I was caught between supporting his need for space and her competing need for closeness, comfort and company.
My daughter was taking the whole thing personally. "He's mean! He's doing this to hurt me."
I tried to explain how people can love you and also need space. I reminded her that sometimes she asks me to give her alone time, but that doesn't mean she doesn't love me. She shook her head. It's different. He's her buddy, and now he's betrayed her with MY support.
"I'm never playing with him again."
I seized the teachable moment, and we talked about how retaliating against someone you love is not a good strategy for healthy relationships.
I told my daughter that having close relationships means that when people change, sometimes it hurts. Honestly, I felt like bawling, too. I was sad she was hurting; I was sad my baby boy was growing up; I was sad that I felt so inept in this process.
When my daughter caught her breath, I went to check on my son. He was staring at the ceiling, eyes wide with concern.
"I want to make my sister happy, but I also want to sleep alone."
I patted his leg and assured him that it's not his job to make his sister happy.
"It's OK to ask for what you need." I stopped short of telling him that I haven't had years of therapy to raise codependent children who think they are responsible for other people's moods.
He was not quite convinced, but eventually drifted to sleep, all alone—my big boy who was busting out of his too-small Spider-Man pajamas.
I eventually made it to my own bed, where I collapsed in an exhausted heap of parenting conflict. I was mostly sure I did the right thing, but my daughter's anguish left a dark stain on the evening. How could doing the right thing result in so much drama and grief? If I did the right thing, then how come I feel so lousy? And when, oh when, is parenting going to get easier?