She came home from school in a mood the other day. She cried a little too easily, got a little too irritated with things, her feelings all on the outside. This is the flip side of that shiny coin of intensity that makes her so bright, so funny, so cheerful and magnanimous. These are the darker sides of those very same traits.
"What's wrong, baby? Why are you so sad? Did something happen at school today?"
"No. I'm fine." A stomp, and a swirl of skirts. Clearly she's fine.
"OK. Let me know if you want to talk about it." She doesn't want to talk about it. She's fine. I don't want to push it, I'm vigilant.
Another outburst. Screaming, sobbing over Legos. "Honey, take a deep breath. This seems a little extreme."
Deep breath in, and on the exhale it all comes tumbling out: "Mama! Abby had such a rough day at school today and I felt so bad for her and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt bad. It made me grumpy and Hannah didn't care. I wanted Hannah to feel bad too, so I snapped at her. I know I shouldn't have done that and now I feel awful. I feel like she shouldn't even want to be my friend." This is between sobs and wails and deep breaths and nose blows. I hand her a tissue and wonder where to begin.
"Tell me about Abby's bad day." A tale of second grade woe: forgotten homework, a good student finding herself in a "bad" position, embarrassed. My jBird feels her pain keenly. These things are important. She knows how she would feel in the same spot and it bothers her.
"Is Abby OK now?" Abby got over it. She is, after all, seven. There are faeries to imagine, math problems to do, butterflies to chase. I choose my words carefully for once. It's a balancing act I do.
"One of the things I love best about you is your great big heart. You care about people. You understand that people are hurting and that bothers you. That's called empathy and it's a good thing to have." This prompts more wails from her.
We both take deep breaths and carry on. "Do you think Abby is still crying over her forgotten homework? But you are still crying for her. What do you think about that?" This is where it gets treacherous for me. One toe out of place, one false start... the balancing act I do.
"I think it's kind of silly." She heaves.
"Well, I don't know if I'd call it silly. It's not silly to care about people. That's important. It's also important to care about yourself, though."
"I do care about myself!" She does, too.
"I know you do, sweetie. But part of how we learn to care about ourselves is to not give too much of our hearts away." I can speak with authority on this subject. "It's nice that it touches you, but does it need to touch you that deeply for the rest of the day? Some things are worth all of this emotional energy, some things are not. For the things that are not, you need to take care of yourself by learning to guard your heart a little bit. You have to choose what will be a big deal, what will be sad, but not that big a deal." It is not my place to tell her what is a big deal and what isn't. The big deals of seven-year-olds frequently go unnoticed by adults. I remember this right now. There are many days that I don't remember this and dismiss her and tell her to stop yelling at her brother. This is the balancing act I do.
"How do I do it, Mom? How do I guard my heart? I can't help what I feel." Ahh. Busted. Therein lies the rub, doesn't it? How, indeed? I am still learning this. I fail at this miserably. But now I must explain what I know, but not what I always do. This is the balancing act I do.
"Well, your feelings come. They are automatic. They are essentially chemical reactions in your brain to a situation." I can talk like this to her. She's used to it. "We can't help those, they just happen. What we can help is what we do with them. It's up to you what labels you give them: anger, fear, sadness, love. Does that make sense?" It does. We've talked about this before.
"Oh! It's like the train coming into the station, right? I don't have to get on?" Yes, it's exactly like that. "But sometimes I forget and I'm on the train before I realize it." She loves a metaphor as much as her Mama does.
"Yes, that happens. We all do that. But you can choose to get off, apologize if you need to. Forgive yourself and move on." These are words that I say to her. I think she knows I don't fully understand them. I wait. She blows her nose.
"Sometimes I can't forgive myself." Her voice is small and tired and I blow my nose, because I know. This strange heredity that keeps me up at night. Did she just come that way? Something in my DNA that passed on to her like alcoholism or depression? Or have I taught her this through my actions? Both are terrifying and I find them unforgivable. You see why this is tricky for me. This is the balancing act I do.
She crawls on my lap, all long legs and angles where baby pudge used to be. She buries her head in my chest like she's done since her first hour on earth. We quietly sit and cry together over the things we can't forgive. I don't have practical answers for her. I have only my fear and my forgiveness and my love for her.
"We'll work on this together, OK?"
Originally published on Periphery.
Photo Credit: spring_dew.
More from parenting