I sit at the bedside of my youngest child, Penelope, and take her on a submarine ride. Her bedtime story is about a purple octopus who lives deep in the ocean and wraps itself around her submarine because it wants a hug. I am completely delighted and in my element with storytelling. Penelope is equally enthralled. I find it is easy to do what I naturally enjoy doing in the company of someone who adores and appreciates my doing it.
Storytelling and reading books to my kids are activities where I don’t have to stretch as a parent; I’m simply doing what I love best, being myself, and my children are benefitting. These moments effortlessly evoke my best self.
But there are hard ways we grow as parents. Lessons we learn by taking the long way around. Facing tears and the word “no” has been one such journey for me.
Often to grow we need to fail. We need to get it wrong so we can figure out how to get it right. Elyse’s hair has been one of those things we have failed at many times, but for which we are striving to get right. For as long as I can remember, my attempts to brush Elyse’s hair have brought on tears. And I’m not talking about a few tears. I’m talking about wailing, screaming, outrage and “no, no, no, no, NO!” Not every time, but enough there’s a sore spot. The mere mention of brushing hair brings wrath and meltdown city (as my husband and I have come to call it). We tried everything. Different combs, brushes, de-tanglers. Mom or dad brushing gently right out of the tub, or when her hair’s dry, or the next morning; Elyse brushing her own hair, keeping it long or cutting it short, brushing more frequently or less frequently, trying to build in a routine, trying to brush at her schedule and pace to varying degrees of success. We’re finally at a better place with her hair brushing – she does it mostly herself, but we still have to help her do her hair. I cannot say that this screaming and crying behaviour from Elyse evokes the best behaviour from me – of course it doesn’t! At a certain point, her tears left me feeling angry, resentful, and helpless. This has to get done! What do you want from me? I want to scream back. It’s hard to admit when you’re a mother feeling like she doesn’t know what her child wants or needs. Thank goodness for siblings and insight.
One weekend, Elyse had her dance recital. Dance and music are Elyse’s life. She lives through movement, and in moments of tension, we often find solace and common ground through music and dance. Knowing full well I would be on hair duty for the recital, I took many deep breaths in preparation for the tears that would ensue in getting her ready to perform. Even as adults, it’s hard to break a pattern of thought and to think positively about a situation that once, or many times, has caused you emotional hardship.
Elyse is a champ getting ready. She lets me brush through her incredibly long hair with a comb after her tub, after she does an initial brushing herself. She staves off the tears that eventually roll down her cheeks for as long as she can, but then they come, accompanied by short outbursts and wails as I ever gently work her hair into two buns. I feel badly for her tears. A dance recital isn’t a necessity in life, and yet I was putting her through this hair torture – for what? But to counter that thought, you can argue that nothing is necessary, and damn it, if my kids start something and reach a certain point they are going to follow through. Tears or no tears.
I remain calm and composed in my role as hairdresser, though coursing below the surface is a long-standing annoyance over the responsibility and the difficulty of doing Elyse’s hair; the lengths I go not to upset her, the inevitability of her upheaval. On top of it all, I don’t particularly enjoy doing hair.
My eldest, Ariel wants to be in the room to watch Elyse get her hair and makeup done. Had it been me in her shoes, I would have bailed when Elyse started crying, but Ariel insists on being in the tiny bathroom with us, and she is the one who comforts her sister better than I could with comments like: “Your hair is going to look so pretty, Elyse!” and “You’re watching Teen Titans! Is that your favourite show?” Standing there, hairspray can in hand, I am amazed by how much Ariel has inside of her to give. She has more of herself to give than I do, of that I feel sure, and in that same moment, I live an experience I have been writing about, but never fully understood. Through her tears, Elyse is also giving all she has to give. She is at her max and that is it, there is no more. Expressing her frustrations about getting her hair done through her tears is all she has to give. I gave all I have to give too, but I can do better. I can do better and be better by realizing that my child is doing the best she can, and that each of us only has so much to give. Myself included. I can be better by realizing that accepting the people you love for who they are, and for what they have to give, is the meaning of unconditional love.
I realized I was setting myself up to fail by expecting that Elyse should behave the way I want her to, the way society would dictate, instead of just accepting her for who she is. Nobody willingly wants to disappoint their loved ones through their behaviour. She is communicating in the only way she knows how. And with that idea came the thought and true understanding of she is doing the best she can. I focus on do it my way – the right way – as the only way, when of course that is not true. Elyse, all my children, show me regularly that there is more than one way of doing things. I would be wise to pay attention.
While Ariel pointed the way through her shining example of unconditional love, it was Elyse who forced me to come around the hard way, who reached for that most sequestered place of my heart and called it forth by saying, here, even when it’s hard, this is what it means to love me.