“Was that scary for you, sweetie? How are you feeling now?” My daughter is sucking on her finger and not looking at me. I sit down next to her and wait for her answer. A minute ago I sternly told her that I didn’t have time to play and rushed off to take care of something that felt urgent. “I talked to you in a rough way just now, I think it might have been scary for you, or maybe sad. Were you scared when I talked to you angrily and walked away from you?” She nods, “It was scary…,” and accepts my offer to climb into my arms for a hug. I wasn’t always able to take responsibility for my angry actions or ask her about her experience this way. This scene is one of the many beautiful, unintended benefits to learning how to welcome all of our family’s feelings with the support of Purejoy Parenting.
I say unintended because it was my son, not my daughter, who led me to discover Purejoy, with his intensity, his fiery temperament, his hitting and throwing (after the biting and scratching had subsided). He led me to experience and eventually face my own feelings of fear, rage and powerlessness, in a way I had never done as an adult. If I had had only my “easy” child, my daughter, I would likely have never looked beyond a few tips and tricks on parenting blogs, perhaps some “best practices” for introducing solids and napping transitions. My daughter has (so far) not brought up anything near the intensity of emotion that my son used to bring up almost daily. The discomfort that arises in my relationship with my daughter is more subtle and easier to mask, so I would likely have gotten by with my old strategies – numbed my feelings or distracting myself with a funny video, and just tried to avoid any similar triggering situations next time.
And that’s not how it went. Prompted by my struggles and confusion in raising my son, I spent a few years following the trail from parent coach to parent expert to Byron Katie, etc, etc, until I found Purejoy. And this has been my last stop for the past three years, as I gradually gain self-awareness and develop new capacities through my SafeSeat and other practices. I did these practices with my son in mind, and yet I see how they have trickled into my relationship with my daughter. I see how my relationship with her grows deeper and more authentic as I steadily let go of ever more expectations of her and of myself, and simply watch us being our vulnerable selves.
It has become easier for me to witness my daughter’s discomfort without any agenda to change the course of her emotional flow. In an episode similar to the one above, I became triggered once when my daughter was rolling marbles around on a table and having them fall loudly onto the floor. I told her to stop, in an exasperated tone, and she began to cry. I could still feel my old impulse to defend myself, to blame her for my feelings of frustration, and to try to quickly cheer her up again. All of this would be to avoid my own shame and discomfort at seeing her cry – discomfort that goes along with an inner voice telling me “See? You did it again – you scared and upset your own precious daughter. You ruin everything! You make everyone feel bad – what a bad person you are!” I have been practicing getting to understand this voice, and I now have the capacity (at times) to hear it and, at the same time, question the truth of what it’s telling me, and bring in self-compassion and kindness for myself.
This allows me to make space for my daughter’s experience at the moment. I wasn’t in a rush to get this over with, to “fix” anything, or to excuse myself. I was comfortable with being right where we were, with just witnessing her sadness. I gently told her, “I see your sad face, I see your sad tears. It looks like you want to cry some more. You really wanted to roll the marbles off of the table, and I got angry and sternly told you to stop, didn’t I? Of course that didn’t feel good!” After a while I brought a toy bear which had some food stains on it and I said, “This bear is dirty. Hm, can I have a bit of your tears to help wipe him clean?” She said yes, so I wiped a few tears off of her cheeks with my finger and rubbed the teddy bear’s face. I could tell that in the past I might have thought of doing this as a ploy, as a way to ease my own discomfort by lightening the mood before she’s ready.
And I could tell that this time was different – I was aware of a soothing sense of “of course this is a little uncomfortable for both of us…and we’re both OK right now,” which allowed me to continue offering her space and kindness. I was simply giving her an opening without any urgency or tension on my part, and no disappointment if she’s not ready. Slowly her face became serious, attentive, and then she started to smile. I am grateful that with this growing capacity to tolerate my feelings, I can get to see more of what my daughter is actually experiencing, and get to know her as she truly is.
Another recurring situation that plays out differently now is when my daughter pushes me away, verbally or physically. Like if she’s in the middle of a game and I approach her with an idea, she might loudly say, “No! Go away! I don’t want to play like that!” Or if I reach out for a hug or a cuddle, she sometimes pushes or slaps my hands away and says, “Don’t touch me!” These moments are slight and fleeting, compared with similar scenarios with my son, and they are far less triggering for me. Because the trigger is not so intense, I could easily fall back on numbing and pretending I’m feeling OK, while quietly feeling resentful and ashamed. As my capacities grow, I am now more likely to face the feelings of rejection and tell myself, “Oh, sweetie, of course you want your daughter to smile and welcome your cuddles and your games. Of course it’s hard to feel rejected by someone you love so much. And the reality is…this isn’t about you. She wants to play a certain way, she doesn’t want to be touched right now, and that’s all – there is nothing personal about it. She loves you just as much in this moment as when she’s hugging you.” Then I can move back into just being there, and being ready to jump into the game or the cuddles, without any left-over resentment, when she does invite me.
Another area that I’ve noticed developing in relation to my daughter is setting boundaries. One day this spring, when the Ontario snows had not quite melted, my daughter and I walked my son to school. On our walk we noticed some fascinating stretches where melted snow was flowing under a layer of ice, and we stopped to watch air bubbles flowing downstream. After dropping my son off, I took a different route back in order to do some shopping and get breakfast for myself. Suddenly my daughter asked to see the air bubbles again. I hadn’t seen any so far on this new route, and I sensed myself getting ready to defend myself from shame, guilt and anxiety: anxiety about not finding any more air bubbles along our way, guilt for “depriving” my daughter of this cool experience of watching the air bubbles, and shame for prioritizing my needs to shop and get breakfast over her interests. Instead, with awareness of all of this going on inside me, I welcomed my daughter’s feelings. I calmly told her that, yes, we took a different route home, and we have not seen any air bubbles yet.
I was still tempted to rid myself of some discomfort by making an empty promise to find air bubbles later, somewhere else, or to downplay the fun of air bubbles, or to give up and go back to our earlier route. And I kept witnessing my discomfort and my attempts to find an escape route, and kept questioning the stories that arose in my mind and reminding myself that, in reality, there is no danger here – I can confidently lead my child and trust that we will survive whatever emotional discomfort might arise. Eventually we saw a quiet corner, away from cars, with a sheet of ice over a shallow puddle full of air bubbles, and she happily stomped on it for a few minutes.
My inclination has usually been to waver in my decisions and my boundaries, and to adjust my plans constantly based on what seems most likely to upset my kids or others. And I’m learning that my job is not to avoid discomfort in others, or in myself. This attempt to avoid has led to so much stress and rigidity throughout my life, and eventually ends in me blaming others for my own distress at “failing” them. Instead my job is to check in with myself and see what I’m truly willing to do – am I willing to go back to the other walking route and find those air bubbles? If not, if I am clear that I’m going to get some breakfast right now, I keep walking and support my daughter and myself in our uncomfortable feelings, if needed. Essentially, I am the adult in this dynamic and am able to act like one.
I am so grateful for these skills and others, because as my emotional capacity grows, I’m able to see further beyond who I want my daughter to be, and gradually see more and more of who she truly is.
Masha is a Purejoy graduate from the class of 2021. She has mostly moved on from Guess Who to cushion fights with her son and setting up all the dinosaurs in a row along the piano keys with her daughter. She is now slightly favoring improv comedy classes over stand up open mics as a participant, though it’s still a toss up for which is more fun to watch.