25 January 2016

The Power of Love

Thank you to Kathleen Flemming of Majestic Unicorn, for sharing her story and inspiring me to put fingers to keyboard, long overdue, to share mine.

About 2 weeks before the end of last school year, our baby boy started lashing out uncontrollably. Massive fits of anger over tiny little things, unpredictable, but nearly daily. I was the one at home after school with them, so by the time H came home, I was done. I'd try and give him time outs, but he wouldn't sit. I'd try and give him consequences (taking away toys or screen time), but there was no effect.

I couldn’t figure it out. While he could - ahem - make better choices at times, and he’s 100 percent a rough-and-tumble kid, he’d never shown what felt like violence. He is sweet to the core, loving, and affectionate. The kind of Mama’s-working-hard-behind-a-closed-door-but-I-interrupted-her-to-give-her-a-kiss-and-say-I-love-you affectionate a mama dreams of (and yet, it’s still the most lovely surprise when it happens).

Pounding fists upset wasn’t my baby.

Then one day, out of the blue, and at my wit’s end, I uncrossed my arms and lowered my voice. Instead of walking away from his outburst, I walked into it. I walked towards him, calmer than I’d been in ages. I scooped him up, plopped down on the floor right there, and, as he fought me, held him tight.

“I love you, baby. You’re safe, and I love you. I know you’re hurting, baby, and I love you.” Over and over again.

It didn’t feel like he heard me. I was glad for my healthyme journey and the residual strength I had in my arms. I had a tiger cub I was wrangling, trying to keep him safe while he fought hard against the feelings he couldn’t name.

He couldn’t name his feelings, I realized. At 5, he had no words for them. As he started to let up, I started to offer him words, “Are you angry, baby? It’s ok if you are.” He wriggled and fought. I kept it up. “I love you.”

I felt a little silly. I felt a little crunchy granola permissive parent. And I listened hard to my instinct telling me to make sure he knew how loved he is. Eventually, it subsided, and my tired, emotional boy went on with his evening and off to bed.

I was spent, nightly, but as I kept it up, the frequency abated. In the opening, I finally had the courage to mention it to his teacher. As teachers of very young children are wont to do, she reminded me that his left arm had left school early for a family trip. The person my baby loved with all his heart and soul, the person he told me repeatedly he was going to marry, and insisted regularly was family, was gone for the summer. They’d been inseparable since they met the year before in preschool.

His best friend was on vacation. His safe place, his pre-K classroom, was wrapping up for the year. We were starting to talk about The Big Move to the suburbs.

My instincts had been right. My baby was confused and angry, lost because his world as he knew it was crumbling. I kept up the hugs, and my patience grew. I understood. Things settled, we went off to his happy place Down Tha (Jersey) Shore for a week, and he healed. Some.

Then we packed up and moved to our new home. We’d talked about his new (own) room and its secret hiding place (seriously, neighborhood legend has it that a CIA operative was the original owner of our 1960-built manse). We’d gotten excited about running out the backdoor and playing soccer whenever we wanted, about watering the garden that was just ours and we didn’t share with anyone, and about catching lightning bugs without having to descend 6 floors in an elevator. We celebrated his sister’s 8th birthday with a huge party, replete with water gun battles, every meat you could imagine on the grill, and running lap after lap around Our House. We were happy.

He took his new job VERY seriously. 

Before we moved in fully, we brought over a few of their favorite things.

Relishing our newfound backyard

And then, once we’d spent about a week in our new home, it started again. The moments were long. They were brutal. He’d grown, it felt like, in those weeks since the last outburst, and was stronger. There were also stairs and a long hallway and a front door and his very own bedroom door to slam. Day after day, it repeated during the witching hour. Day after day, I tried my patience and my love. Some days it worked better than others. Some days I lost it and yelled back. One day, I let my guard down and his angry punch, which I could usually block, connected with my nose.

And then, one day, we were in a restaurant, eating peacefully, laughing about something. He turned to me, looked up, and said, “Mama, I didn’t know what moving was like.”

In that moment, I remembered that there was no way a 5 year old who’d lived in one place his whole little life, who felt things sometimes excruciatingly deeply, and had all of his connections ripped away from him, understood what “let’s pack up all of our things and move them somewhere else and stay there forever” meant. It’s absurd, really.

It took a while, but with a few extra trips to the old neighborhood, some happy camp time (art, music, “regular,” and tae kwon do, since you asked), countless nights falling asleep with his sister or us (he’d never slept alone, another thing we never realized), and a visit from a favorite 15 year old cousin willing to have epic slipper battles at the end of every day on our front walk, and he settled in. We settled in.

Almost too big for the swings he was first in as an infant

That they have these moments...

Craft cocktails two blocks away for weekend brunch? Yes, please.

Little things, like the library carpet in the new school being identical to the carpet in his pre-K classroom, are priceless. He had to sit in his spot and he told me to send this picture to his old teacher.

He still gets upset, and there’s an occasional slammed door. He sometimes tells me he misses our old house and we all need visits to our old ‘hood (it’s only 12 minutes to our favorite bakery - we clocked it), but he taught me to listen. I’m not very good at it, sometimes. Sometimes, I don’t hear what he, his sister, or even my mother-in-law or H (she’s now living with us) aren’t saying, either. Sometimes, I’m angry myself, or I just can’t hear it. But then, I remember. I remember that settling in to love and showing it unconditionally has more power than anything in the world, if we can hear it.


Alison at Wardrobe Oxygen said...

This was really beautiful, Alison, on so many levels <3

Alison Santighian said...

Thank you, my friend. xo

Deb - Real Girl Runway said...

What a wonderful post. If only all parents stopped to listen to their kids and we stopped to listen to each other and observe, I know we would all get along better in the world. It's not an easy lesson to learn.