The girls and I had plans for a lovely springtime outing today, but you know the best laid plans of munchkins and moms often go awry…or something like that. The baby woke up feeling like a preheated oven as she burrowed into me. I don’t usually take temps – I live by the mantra that what you don’t know can’t worry you – but she felt awfully warm. Turns out, she had a fairly high fever. Poor thing.
As I gently rubbed her clammy head, I turned to her big sister and relayed some disappointing news to her. Our outing might have to wait. Her sister was sick and needed extra TLC and naps at home.
Now Big Sister was sick, too – sick with disappointment.
Honestly, you would have thought I’d announced that there would be no birthdays, no surprises, no chocolate milk or ice cream, no presents from Santa Claus for the rest of her life by the way she was reduced to shaking sobs.
I watched my 3-year-old’s whole body tremble with sadness as she shouted and cried and kicked and I desperately wanted to reassure her that this was not the end of the world. We could go to the Botanical Gardens another day. But to her, in her preschool microcosm, this was an unbearable and cruel twist to her previously happy day.
I took her in one arm while the other arm held the baby. She sniffled and snuffled into my sleeve, and I was tempted, albeit briefly, to try and “fix” things, to perhaps call her Pop and see if he could watch the baby or to even go through with our original plans (which, by the way, we did end up doing later in the day, not because of Madeline’s tears – she really didn’t think we were going to go – but because Rae’s fever subsided. The fever’s back now. I probably should have been more prudent, but what’s done is done.)
Like any parent, I hate to see my children’s happiness thwarted, but I know this isn’t the first or the last time my child will be let down. Welcome to Life, Kiddo. It’s full of disappointments.
Before I became a mom, I judged doting parents, coined helicopter parents, who hovered over their kids ready to swoop in and provide aid at any sign of distress. I thought, I’ll never do that. Kids have to learn that life is full of ups and downs. I’m won’t be one to inoculate them against struggle and angst. What doesn’t kill my kids will make them stronger. Blah, blah, blah.
Then I became pregnant and even before I held my baby for the first time, I was overwhelmed with an intense desire to protect her and to keep her safe. I was on a walk one day during my first pregnancy and I tripped on an uneven part of a sidewalk. I was quite klutzy in my preggo state and completely lost my balance. I was headed belly-first for the ground, but I somehow managed to throw my body to the side and it was my hip that first made contact with the concrete. Nothing was going to hurt my baby. Nothing.
But now I see that things hurt my baby all of the time. Sometimes it’s even, gasp, me who’s doing the hurting by saying no to her pleas or by not giving her enough attention. There are rainy days when it’s supposed to be sunny so we can go to the zoo. There are dinners that aren’t followed by dessert. There are sick siblings who take up too much of Mommy’s time. One day, my kids will likely face much bigger disappointments – broken hearts, rejections from colleges and employers, backstabbing friends and missed opportunities.
Somehow I’m working on finding a middle ground between the no-pain-no-gain fascist I was in my pre-mom days and the vigilant mama bear I became during pregnancy. I know I can’t and shouldn’t shield my children from all the letdowns of life, but I can turn disappointing situations into teaching moments. I can arm my children with the tools they need to overcome defeat and sadness like tenacity, adaptability, optimism, and a faith and trust in God and his plan for them.
Likewise, I’ve learned to not be so eager to jump in and fix things. Recently when Madeline was heartbroken because she couldn’t get her sandals on by herself, I encouraged her to try again. I wanted her to solve her own problem. And she eventually did. She got those tricky sandals on the right feet and buckled up while I stood by and cheered her on and she was better for doing it. Now she regularly puts her shoes on is quite proud of her new skill.
Above all, I’ve realized that soft love, not tough love, is the best approach when my kids are feeling sad – even when their disappointment manifests itself in the form of a major meltdown. I don’t condone kicking and screaming, but I also try not to say things like, “Get a grip! You’re acting like a baby. This isn’t a big deal.” Because a 3-year-old doesn’t always know how to “get a grip” and she really is still a baby and it is a big deal to her. When I’m really about to show no mercy, I give myself a quick refresher course in empathy. How would I want someone to treat me when I’m feeling dejected or disappointed? After all, God knows, there have been many, many times when I haven’t acted much differently than a tantrum-throwing child – crying or venting or seething – in response to one of the curve balls of life.