My 4-year-old has been having a hard time sleeping lately. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but rarely a night goes by without her screams yanking me awake. By the time I stumble into her room, she’s sobbing with fear, stuck in a space between sleep and wakefulness, unable to communicate what’s happening.
I snuggle her, tuck her back into bed, and say a silent prayer that she doesn’t wake again until morning.
We were sitting on the couch the other day when she told me that she’s scared of the night monsters. AHA! We were finally on to something. I had found my nemesis, and I readied myself for battle. My mind immediately began scanning back through the various articles and parenting books I have read over the years for ideas on how to destroy my latest foe.
Dream catchers. They were the first thing to come to mind. I bought one for each of my girls last year on a trip to New Mexico. I never got around to hanging them up; now was the time to dig them out again. Also, I read somewhere about filling a spray bottle with water and labeling it “Monster Spray” and letting your child spray the room. That could definitely work. Maybe I could also find her a special blanket? I remembered feeling safe under my heavy quilts when I was young and battling my own night monsters.
I started to share my ideas with my little girl. She listened carefully to all of them, and then looked at me and said, “Mommy. You just have to be with me a little bit and they’ll go away.”
In that moment I was reminded of my long standing tendency to want to fix all of my daughters’ problems. For every struggle my girls face in life, from potty training to social challenges at school, I want to find an answer. I head to the Internet or the parenting books for the best possible solution to how to get a picky eater to try a new food or an anxious child to get in the pool for swim lessons. Armed with my newfound information, I leap into action, outlining star charts and setting timers, determined to check that box so we can both move on.
It rarely works. The girls aren’t motivated by the gold and silver stars. The fun we had cooking together just isn’t enough to get my daughter to actually try whatever it was we made. For so many different reasons, my contrived interventions rarely lead to the desired change.
Somehow I always seem to forget the most powerful tool I have in my parenting arsenal: myself. My presence. My snuggles. My funny voices and the way I can raise just one eyebrow as I glare at the girls with an exaggerated sidelong glance. My reassurances that I also wished I could be the older sister, that I also felt terrified on the first day of kindergarten. My willingness to sit, night after night, in the dark of their room while they fall asleep, even as I know that one of them will likely be up in a few hours, screaming in fear at the night monsters.
Perhaps I forget because even after six years and two children, I still have a hard time believing that I have the ability to soothe another person. No matter how many times I hold a crying child in my arms until her body calms and her breathing slows, I am always amazed that I, as deeply flawed as I am, so flooded with anxiety, so prone to knee-jerk reactions, can help my girls find a little peace. Or perhaps it’s because I became a mother in an atmosphere of the latest research and best practices and top ten lists, none of which seem to say, “Stop researching. Stop buying. Just stop and sit and be with your child. That’s the first step, and possibly the last one. You’ll figure out what to do from there.”
I suspect it’s also because I suffer from the same affliction that torments parents the world around: I don’t want to see my children in pain. I don’t want to see them in pain because I don’t them to hurt, and also because I don’t want to feel their pain. I spent the first three decades of my life trying to figure out how to escape from sadness and anger and fear and confusion, and now I live with two little people who are still learning how to put words to those experiences. And they need me to do it with them.
It’s hard. I’m tired. I’m busy. I’m overwhelmed. I’d rather just fix the problem and move on. I just want to take all of those moments when my little girls’ smiles are wide and their eyes are bright and everything seems so clear and easy and make them every moment.
But they’re not every moment. Far from it.
And the more I try to jump in and solve every problem they have, the more I try to fix my daughters, the more I am telling them that they need to be fixed, and the more I am telling myself that my worth as a mother depends on my ability to fix them. Neither could be farther from the truth.
What they really need to learn, and what I have lived time and again and still need to learn, is that there is no fixing in this life. Sure, there are times when Hello Kitty Band-Aids and brief conversations with teachers can smooth things out for a while, but for the big stuff that really matters, there is rarely a solution. There is only us, and the moments when we can remember that our children just need us to be with them until the night monsters go away.
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