Years ago, before I ever had kids, I was at the park with my sister-in-law, watching her three-year-old run from swing to slide to tunnel to rocking-bouncy-bobble-head-like-animals-that-don’t-actually-do-anything-but-disappoint. I remember how chill Rebekah was as my niece moved from one thing to the next—sometimes conquering a feat I found incredibly above her pay grade, other times stumbling over flat surfaces. At one point, my niece completely wiped out and ended up splayed all over that mean, playground floor. Rebekah didn’t flinch. She calmly walked over, picked her daughter up, gave hugs and kisses, and gently asked if the fall was possibly “surprising” or “embarrassing.” My niece rebounded in less than a minute, and was back at play with no reservations.
That incident is still with me. Watching how cool and collected Rebekah was. How slow to insist, “It’s okay!” And how quick to offer her daughter possible choices of why the fall was bothersome or hurtful. My niece didn’t feel rushed or devalued—she wasn’t told she was “okay” and to move on with life. She was allowed to feel whatever her heart was feeling at the moment, and encouraged to give it a name. “Surprise.” “Embarrassment.” “Pain.” Watching this scene play out dramatically changed the way I approach emotion. Especially emotion coming from other people. Up until that day, I approached feelings and failures and falls with the traditional, “It’s okay! You’re okay! Good to go! Try again!” And not just with chubby toddlers. It’s how I, unintentionally, handled adult relationships, too.
It’s all gonna work out.
Tomorrow is a new day.
It’s going to be okay.
At least this or that…
You are stronger than this.
The days pass faster than you realize.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s a season.
Just try to enjoy the ride.
Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.
And sometimes, those statements are right. In fact, they are usually “right.” But they aren’t always timely. Or helpful. In fact, they are often an attempt to bear-hug the erupting emotion into a controlled and understood form—something with which the receiver or witness feels comfortable. It’s an attempt to kindly help the other person put their feelings in a labeled box, up on the shelf, where it can collect dust and, kindly, get out of the way of everyone else walking by. We don’t mean it this harshly. But that’s what we do with other people’s emotions. We attempt to shelve them as quickly as possible. And without making a scene.
Toddlers teach me so much. Part of it is because I have, on average, 74 of them running around me all day, every day.
You only have three toddlers.
Okay, smart alec. But more than one toddler in the same room is like a very scientific, chemical reaction where exponential multiplication happens at an unbelievable rate and it’s super mathematical and proved by science and involves biochemistry and calculus and is like a Facebook algorithm. There are SO many of them.
I watch the way these tots interact with big emotions—unable to put words to what they’re feeling, yet expected to reel in the tantrum and behave appropriately. Sometimes I think, gosh, I’m so glad my husband doesn’t look at me when I’ve having a hard day or feeling extra buckets of feels and say, “Ssshhh, sshhh, it’s okay, it’s okay. Stop. Stop. Stop crying. 1, 2, 3…” Let me tell you right now. That would not end well. For him.
I watch these massive amounts of toddlers and think, what would a 30-year-old version of this tantrum look like? A 40-year-old version? How would I hope to express myself? How would I hope to be met and talked to and cared for?
I have one two-year-old who is a 24/7 passion show. I mean, this kid eats, drinks, sleeps from his heart. He uses the biggest words and longest sentences, converses incessantly, and engages every muscle of his face while communicating. He so acutely expresses fear, joy, affection. I’m really in awe of his ability to convey—in one way or ten, simultaneous ways—what his heart and mind and body are experiencing. He tells me when he’s mad, sad, frustrated, hurt, or if he thinks someone is upset with him. Sometimes a fork is thrown across the room in the same moment he’s admitting anger. Sometimes the lip is pouting and tears are welling as he tells me he’s “so sad, Mom; I’m so sad.” He’s my greatest teacher and biggest conundrum. He forces me to evaluate what I actually think and believe about emotion, and how I’ll choose to engage it. With control tactics? Trying to bring the level down to my comfort zone and scale of understanding? Trying to make the volume level and amount of words and fantastical array of physical gestures suitable to my needs?
No and yes. I add 30 years to his 2-year-old life and think about him wrestling with big emotions. I think about how I hope he’ll express himself, and the ways he’ll bring self-control into the mix. How he’d communicate hurt to his spouse. How he’d express frustration to his child. How he’d handle being misunderstood by friends, or underestimated in the workplace. And I think about what my part is in helping him get there… helping him know it’s okay and normal and even wonderful to feel. To feel anger or sadness or joy or excitement. To feel embarrassed or surprised. To feel opinionated and strong disagreement. To feel enamored and in love. These are good things. Feelings are good things. Things worth expressing and putting into words. And also people—people—are worth our self-control. Worth knowing how to talk about and show those big emotions. How to do it without manipulation or assault or disregard. How to show hurt without hurting. How to express anger without erupting. How to lighten and honor a room with joy and happiness.
This isn’t about parenting. Yes, my life is about parenting all day, every day. But this is about communicating, living, adulting. This is about connecting with others. About emotional intelligence. About being powerful people who can voice feelings and receive those expressed emotions from other people. Without always worrying about the end result, yet having a clear picture of where we want to, eventually, end up. This is about patiently and calmly getting down on our knees next to a fallen someone, drawing near, and inviting them to name anything and everything they feel.
Surprise. Embarrassment. Pain.
And no more “you’re okay, you’re okays.” It’s scary and uncontrolled. It’s loving and unhurried. It can’t be manipulated or contrived. It’s uncharted-yet-always-planned-for empathy. And I haven’t figured it out. But I want to. For my two-year-old, for my husband, for my friends and family. For myself. For our world and community at large, which has so much social media expressed, energy-charged emotion surging through its veins and plains. Between my 2-year-old and my Facebook page, I’m pretty confident there’s never been a more fitting and necessary time for emotional intelligence. May it increase, here and now, starting with you and me.
Show me where it hurts.
Until next time, Ana