The other day, my daughter, who recently gave birth to her first child, was lamenting the isolation stay-at-home moms encounter. I agree with her that it is an unnatural state of affairs for mother-baby pairs not to be surrounded by family, neighbors and friends in the easy way mothers and babies were for most of human history.
But as a mom, my first and automatic instinct is to soothe. To kiss the boo boo. To make the pain go away. I immediately began to suggest ways she could connect with other moms of newborns. But I hadn’t gotten my first sentence out, when she said,
“Mom, don’t jump to fix it. First just be with me in this feeling.”
Not the first time I heard those wise words from my wise child.
When she was 15 and telling me about something that caused her pain and I jumped to making suggestions, she said,
“I don’t need you to fix it, Mom. I just need you to listen.”
I know this.
But as with every other automatic, habitual, emotionally-driven response, it is damned hard — especially for us impulsive types — to hold back, to think before we talk. To simply do something else.
The Greek stoic philosopher, Epictetus, knew this 2,000 years ago. He wrote:
“Don’t be swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me test you.’”
More recently, Victor Frankl wrote:
“Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The problem is that that space is miniscule. How do we even notice it? I haven’t yet figure out how to marshal my wits against the automatic, emotional, habitual response – to find that space — but I’m sure there is a way and I’m sure that if I try hard enough, I’ll find it.
I know that what my daughter wants from me is what I want when I’m having a difficult feeling.
The other day, I was acutely feeling the desire for more time on the planet. I’ll be 70 on my next birthday and I’ve just had my first grandchild. It’s a girl and I’m already having fantasies about what great friends we’re going to be. I dream about introducing her to the miracle of lemons growing on trees, almond blossoms that turn into nuts, green shoots that poke out of the ground and turn into lettuce. I picture singing my favorite songs with her, teaching her how to folk dance, splashing together in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Barely a month old, she already reacts to my face and voice. We already feel close and I imagine that closeness will grow. But at some point, most likely still in her childhood, she will have to part with me for good…
I shared this feeling with my 26-year-old son and while he is much more aware than I was at his age, he immediately did what I do: he tried to make me feel better, to convince me not to feel what I felt.
But what I wanted was for him to hear me, to understand my feeling, to say, Yeah, I get it. The same thing my daughter wants.
As popular researcher Brené Brown writes, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
What we want in moments of vulnerability — and lots of time in between — is connection. The old fashioned face-to-face, soul-to-soul kind that you can’t get on Messenger.
The challenge is to give to my loved ones what I want for myself.