I came home from work the other day in a terrible mood. One of those that start off light blue and then spiral downwards into tarry blackness. With heavy heart and thudding head I plod through supper and evening chores on autopilot.
Eventually my daughter comes to sit by me on our ‘talking chairs’ in the kitchen. Mommy sticks on the bright brittle brave face. That’s what we do, us moms. We Do Not Burden Our Children With Adult Problems. It’s like, Rule 3, or something. Right up there with immunisation and adequate green veg.
But she’s too good for me. With emotional radar that would put Oprah to shame, she manages to articulate her own and other people’s feelings in a way that sometimes makes my jaw drop. She’s been blessed (cursed?) with an Empathy Gland the size of Canada; I’ve always known it. I’ve just never had it pointed so directly at me before.
‘What’s wrong, Mommy? I can see something is making you sad.’ The stillness and focus in her little voice is astonishing. Steady, not thrown off-balance by mom’s emotions, the way children often are.
‘Ah, nothing sweetpea. Just work stuff, I guess.’ Flash that thumbs-up smile; hope to get away with it.
‘But when you have a problem, you should talk about it Mommy. It will help. You always tell us that.’
Dagnabbit. Foiled by my own advice. Honesty now seems the best policy, don’t you hate that?
‘No, never mind. It’s boring and silly. I know how to fix the problem anyway. And also because it’s wrong of me to make you worry about grown up stuff – you’re only 7.’
She considers this. With a small one-shouldered shrug she says, ‘Nah, that’s okay. You can tell me.’ May the gods of correct parenting strike me down where I stand, but I spill my guts. In a general, not-too-detailed way.
She doesn’t talk, or demand an action replay of events. She doesn’t get angry on my behalf. She doesn’t offer advice. She listens.
Quietly, in a soothing tone that psychologists take years to perfect (and patients pay shedloads of money to hear), she says: ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling sad, mommy. I understand.’
Little arms hug me tight and she pats my hair. And then I’m lighter – smiling through the sudden tears all the way back to normal.
She managed to do for me what nobody ever has before. She didn’t try to fix me – she knew I’d fix myself. All she did was allow me to feel what I felt and be there with me while I felt it. And isn’t that actually all we want when we’re feeling down?
Faced with an unhappy child, I always try to make it better. Like Bob the Builder, I try to Fix It even when I can’t. Because fixing makes me feel un-useless; and needed. Because to allow something to go unfixed is too scary. Even when perhaps all they want is for someone to pat their hair while they cry a little. It was a vital lesson in parenting bravely, one I desperately needed. My little girl, my teacher.
Do you share your troubles with your children?
Read more by Tracy Engelbrecht