“Just Momma!” my daughter would cry. “Momma do it!” During the toddler and early pre-school years my daughter would cling to me for dear life when all I wanted to do was take a shower in peace. While this wasn’t an every day event, it was still enough that it limited both of us and created tension in our lives.
These feelings of needing mommy really flared around the time she was 3 1/2. We had recently moved across the country, leaving friends and family, and she had started a new pre-school where there wasn’t space for a teacher to hold her for the time she needed to cry about separation. All of these things may have contributed to her pushing dad away more.
During this time my daughter’s dependence on me was high and I was needing a break from always being the “go-to” parent. My husband and I really wanted to help her release the fears she was holding on to so she could see that her dad was available and ready to listen to her too.
One morning our opportunity came when she burst into tears over a torn pancake. She ran from the kitchen to the bathroom where I was getting ready for the day. Instead of following the same pattern of Mommy doing the Staylistening, I checked that my husband was feeling okay with listening. He was, so I told our daughter I was going to finish getting ready and that Daddy would take care of her while I wasn’t available. Her dad took her out of the bathroom and told her that he loved her and would take care of her. She cried and cried for me to come out.
I knew the best way for my daughter to work through her separation anxiety and fears was for her to be able to show, by crying, fighting, and trembling, how hard it was for her to be away from me while I was actually right there next to her. So as soon as I was finished getting ready for the day I came out and sat by them.
My husband held his arms gently around her waist as she cried to get out of his lap and into mine. It felt awkward not to just take her into my arms. But I remembered whenever I did bring her close for comfort, the hard feelings just stayed stuck inside. After comforting her I noticed she would shut down for awhile and retreat back into herself. She would often whine and cling or find some other pretext to cry about.
We were taking a “leap of faith” in listening to her tears all the way through. My love and warmth were right there available to her, but by not taking her into my arms the feelings were able to pour right out.
I sat on the floor right in front of her and held her hands. I told her I was right by her, that I wasn’t leaving and that Daddy could take care of her. She fought and cried at this suggestion. She told me I was “Too far away!” Even though our knees were touching and we were holding hands.
“Daddy can do it,” I told her. “Daddy can take care of you.” We knew she did know this on some level, since he has taken care of her since she was a baby and they often spend hours together going fun places or just hanging out at home. Her dad repeated that he loved her and would take care of her.
We listened to her cry for me all the while gently reassuring her and staying close. Her crying slowed until she lay trembling in daddy’s arms. In a slow and gentle voice I listed all the things Daddy did to care for her, from playing to feeding to helping with pottying. I told her when she was ready she could look in our eyes and see that everything was OK, and that we loved her. She looked in my eyes first (oh, those sweet brown eyes!) and then bashfully started peeking at Daddy’s eyes. I began to well up with tears watching them reconnect with each other through simple eye contact. She smiled and it felt the cloud had lifted.
Once we were all reconnected, we decided to have Special Time together for 15 minutes. She asked to play “little girl” which means she plays the mommy and I play the little girl. Not surprisingly, she guided the play to where she had to leave me “the little girl” with Daddy. I protested and cried while Daddy gently held me in his arms. She reassured me that Daddy would take care of me and even began to list all the things he knew how to do. When the timer beeped we ended the game and I told her that Daddy and I needed to talk about the day. She simply said, “OK, I’ll be in my room.” and happily went off to play on her own.
Listening to our daughter’s feelings about needing mommy has been an on-going “emotional project.” In practicing Parenting by Connection, space is made so she can show us how hard it is for her and then feel the tremendous relief once those feelings are released. Her natural confidence always reappears after a “session” and I see her thinking well again and remembering that Daddy can care for her too.
~ Michelle Pate, Parenting by Connection Instructor and Consultant. Join her Building Emotional Understanding course beginning March 14th.