I’m beginning to understand that my child doesn’t need ME and MY DEAL very much for her healthy growth. As a parent part of my role is to provide boundaries for her safety, but she is not an empty vessel that I have to fill up with my ideas, preferences and opinions.
What she needs me to provide, as the adult, is a safe space for her to emerge into… a space where there is room for her that is not taken up by me.
In honor of Father’s Day, I’ll share an experience I had with my then 14 month old daughter, Lucia, that really drove this point home for me:
I was stopping off at home after a meeting to get some things before heading to my office. Lucia must have heard my key in the lock and come running towards the door because I opened the door right into her face! There was an audible thud as the door hit her head. Hard. She fell down and started screaming. For those of you who are parents, you know that this is a special realm of hell: hearing your child’s genuine pain and fear and knowing that you were responsible for it. I felt terrible and picked her up in my arms saying, “I’m so sorry sweetie, Daddy is so sorry!” She kept sobbing, and she was having trouble catching her breath. I kept saying I was sorry, and then it dawned on me that I was talking to her about my “sorry-ness” instead of contacting her feelings. I realized how absurd and unhelpful it was to be talking to her about my feelings when she was the one in pain.
So I switched gears and said, “that was shocking huh? It really hurt, and it was scary when the door hit you. I can see that. That was really scary and upsetting.” She stopped crying almost instantly. She looked at me and nodded and said “yes” in her baby speak, probably relieved that I finally acknowledged her experience. Then she smiled and started to move on with her life. Soon we were on the floor playing. She and I made a drawing about the “hit”, and she was able to get out any remaining feelings into the paper. She was not holding on to the past at all.
What Lucia needed from me in that moment was to resonate with and contact her feelings and to hold space for her as she processed them. I’m not saying parents don’t need to apologize to their kids- my father was the first person to apologize to me, and I’ll remember it with gratitude till the day I die. But my daughter didn’t need an apology in that instance; she didn’t need to help me deal with my guilty feelings.
Owning our shadow as Fathers…
It is an effective practice to contact and acknowledge our baby’s (and children’s) feelings when they are happening. Mirroring their experience back to them communicates empathy, helps them feel connected, and helps them to recover and regulate their nervous systems after they’ve become agitated. This mirroring back becomes harder when as parents, we have our own pent up feelings that we have not recognized or owned in ourselves. Our unconscious feelings take up a lot of space and energy in relationships. In this case, my feelings of guilt and embarrassment at having hurt my child were taking up the space that my kid needed for her process.
It was particularly amazing to me that day to see how quickly my daughter was able to let go and move on when she got what she needed. Unlike most adults, she wasn’t having a whole bunch of feelings about her feelings which is what keeps us stuck in states long past original triggering events. She reminded me how flexible and resilient we are as humans, how capable we are of recovery when we actually get what we need.
It’s often challenging for Dads to feel confident in our parenting. Most of us are working with imperfect models, and our culture doesn’t offer us a lot of guidance. It’s easy for fathers to feel superfluous and difficult to find healthy authority in our role. As fathers, one of our most important offerings is our ability to hold space for our children.
For me, holding space is the ability to listen deeply, to allow others to have their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without immediately interjecting my own, and to provide safe boundaries that allow the process to spontaneously unfold. It’s our opportunity as parents to be bigger than our children ways that do not overshadow or dominate them. Our “bigness” as fathers can be a resource that children can draw on whenever their own feelings threaten to overwhelm them.
My experience with Lucia has made me think about all of the other areas in my life where, in my attempts to connect to others, I actually take up their space with my own feelings: hurt, guilt, shame, fear, good intentions etc… I see this with my clients in sessions when I try to “do” something for them out of insecurity that I’m helping enough. When I act from that place, what I offer often lands flat because I’ve been so busy thinking about my plans for them that I’ve missed where they are actually at.
It works with partners too! A few weeks ago I was sick in bed and feeling crappy. My wife came into the bedroom and said something to the effect of, “I’m so sorry you are feeling sick honey.” Her intention was to express care of course, but I noticed that I felt contracted when I heard her. I asked her if she could instead try saying, “I see that you are really feeling sick babe. That must be a bummer.” When she said it, my body relaxed immediately and took a deep breath. I felt like she was actually with me and making space for my feelings in her world. Somehow, being contacted like that, my feelings got lighter and I felt better. We’ve been trying (and often failing honestly) to offer this kind of support to each other and it is helping us to avoid escalating into arguments and get back on the same team.
Give it a try. The next time you are listening to someone and you find yourself about to say, “I’m sorry you….” PAUSE. Take a breath. Check in with how you are feeling in that moment and see if you can make space within yourself for that person and their feelings. Try to notice what it is they are experiencing and mirror it back to them. It might be as simple as, “You’re frustrated, huh?” or “Its annoying to have lost your car keys again…” It can feel a little silly and obvious at first but try it out and see how it works. Have your partner or friend try it on you and notice how it feels? It requires us to get out of the way and put our own feelings on pause for a bit which can be hard but we aren’t helping ourselves or others when we hold on to our hard feelings. I certainly wasn’t helping anyone by feeling guilty about my daughter’s bumped head, and when she felt better, I felt better too.
Thanks for reading! I’m very grateful to the people who have helped me to learn this lesson. My daughter and my family have benefited from it. All the best to you and yours.