We arrive at our farm-stay by late afternoon. We’re going to stay on a farm, we’ve told the kids with the kind of enthusiasm that works on toddlers, or like we’re impersonating telemarketers trying to upsell the experience of camping.
The interior of our outbuilding – floor rugs, furniture, bed – is covered with a layer of dirt. “I get the bed,” Col announces about the saggy futon dusted in silt. No one argues with him.
The farm is funky – gardens, hammocks and pigs interspersed with numerous empty, hand-built outbuildings, like someone prepared for an influx of interns who never came.
I am ready to unroll sleeping bags, to find a broom and sweep out our weekend home when Rose grabs my hand and bursts into tears. She’s sad about finishing the last Harry Potter book in the car, about our dirt-strewn quarters, the composting toilet and her two friends swimming at the lake back in Durango without her. At this stage of my parenting education, I am so clear that an outburst of feelings – like sap developing in a tree wound – is the psyche’s healthy response to emotional pain. There is nothing to fix, explain or change. In fact, the most helpful thing I can do is not obstruct the flow, to allow mourning to be a useful response to sadness.
I hold her, hug her and listen. I put myself in her shoes. “It’s hard to think of your friends together without you – you want to be in on the fun!” I venture. She cries harder for a moment, but I know this helps the sadness burn cleaner and quicker.
“Hey, Rose,” Col interrupts, “There’s a pingpong table in the community building. Come play!” Rose nods and then tells me, “I want to go play, but I just don’t want to be distracted from being sad.”
“You want to get it all out so you can go play with your mind free?”
I notice that Rose and I are developing an implicit agreement around challenging emotions. She knows to lay her raw experience at my feet, that I will hold her fears, anger and jealousy, and she will emerge feeling lighter. Throughout the weekend, she’ll need empathy for missing her friends, for school starting and for Col breaking hammock agreements. And each time, it feels like we’re underwater together, dog-paddling through the waves of discomfort.
My role is simply to stay with her; to exude care; to toss away all my previous training that sees pain and wants to distract, fix, educate; to say without words: Your emotions are nothing to be scared of. And sometimes, I think: This time we might not emerge from the shadowy depths, like when Rose says, “I’m ready to go home,” and we have two more nights away. But I keep swimming, listening, seeing it from her perspective, trying to put words to her experience. Eventually and often suddenly, something shifts, and she’s sprinting to the pingpong table calling out, “Wait for me, Col!” Again and again, I observe that allowing all emotions is a pathway to resiliency.
I can remember when parenting was about keeping the kids alive, moment to moment. Somehow it seems simple looking back: scanning floors for choke-ables, teaching the kids to ask, “Is your dog friendly?” before shoving their hands in open, drooling jaws. I’m heartened that even though my children’s well-developed airways keep choking off the danger list, my contributions are still needed. Seeking empathy for emotional pain is a life skill, like changing a tire. If we can allow sadness in, knowing it will pass and likely contains information about what within us needs care and attention, we’re less likely to reach for harmful distractions.
“Thank you for your tears,” I tell Rosie later.
“Why do you say that?” she asks.
“Because they tell me you’re not scared to face what’s true for you.”
Rachel Turiel teaches nonviolent communication to groups and individuals. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her blog 6512andgrowing.