My husband had a business trip in Florida this past week and I decided to pack up my 18 month old son and myself and tag along for some sun and warm weather. I am so glad I did as it was just what we all needed as we eagerly await the real arrival of spring. Traveling back home is never as much fun as traveling to wherever you are going. We got up at 4:30am to pack up and head to the airport for our 7am flight. While my husband and I could rationalize and understand and drink coffee to cope with the feeling of being ripped from our beds and our vacation at an ungodly hour, our 18 month old couldn’t do any of those things. For the most part he was a dream and the whole travel experience seemed to be more exciting than anything else for him. But there were moments when I could see in his eyes and hear in his consistent repetition of saying “mama” over and over that he was cooked and needed to be back home surrounded by familiarity and structure.
Our flight was full of families as Florida is such a wonderful and convenient trip from the northeast. The flight was rather turbulent and I think we were all relieved to touch down at JFK and have our feet on the ground again. In making our way through the airport out to our car with all of our bags, tired, hungry, and missing the sun and palm trees, I noticed another family that had been on our flight with two kids a bit older than mine. The little girl who was probably around 5 was crying loudly, hysterically, dramatically, and without ceasing. I saw the look on her parents’ faces, they had another little boy in tow younger than she was, bags hanging from each shoulder, a look of sheer exhaustion on their faces that I am sure mirrored ours. And then the father stopped them, looked his daughter in the face, and screamed loudly “stop crying, stop crying, STOP CRYING!” Which in turn, and without surprise, made her cry even harder, to which he rolled his eyes and they continued making their way through the airport. For a moment I could relate to every single member of that family. I could relate to the little girl that was crying, tired from traveling, probably hungry, sick of walking and carrying her small backpack full of treasures. I could relate to the mother carrying the little boy, her arms aching from the weight of everything she had been lugging around since before dawn that morning. And I could relate to the father screaming at his daughter, desperate for some quiet, to be done traveling, and to have the crying JUST STOP.
Being a parent takes more self restraint than any job I have ever had. It pushes me through a maze of emotions on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. In the midst of the most ethereal joy I have ever known there are also moments of complete frustration where I question myself and life and everything in between. As a therapist and a person who has overcome my own personal battles throughout life I am keenly aware of the toll that emotional neglect has on a person’s life and psyche. I am more aware of this in the moments where my son is literally hanging from my leg as I try to make dinner, go to the bathroom, or fold laundry, than I am of my frustration. There are far too many people in this world who were told at a small and most impressionable age to “stop crying”, sending the message that feelings are not ok unless they are acceptable and comfortable. So they learn to stuff their sadness, their disappointment, their hurt, their anger, and their fear. They stuff it and it festers and grows and becomes a lump that never goes away. It manifests as headaches, stomachaches, dry skin, insomnia, depression, anxiety, insecurity. How is one supposed to shut off the negative feelings that are a part of being human? The only way to do it is to also shut off the positive ones. So people numb. They numb instead of communicating, instead of feeling, instead of embracing the dark along with the light. They end up living half a life.
But there is another option, especially as parents. We can teach our children it is ok to have all of their feelings. That doesn’t mean giving them exactly what they want when they cry, it doesn’t mean catering to their every disappointment and whimper to ease their discomfort. It means sitting with them in their discomfort and allowing them to feel their feelings. It means normalizing their experience and teaching them that it is ok to cry. This is true and equally as important in adulthood as it is in childhood. We must give one another permission and space to feel, even when it is uncomfortable.
My toddler has temper tantrums, just like any other, and what I always choose to do is to sit with him in it, wait it out, and make sure he hears me calmly say I am here and ready to comfort him when he wants it. Eventually he stops crying and crawls into my lap, exhausted from the surge of feelings he has just experienced and knowing he is not alone. It’s what we all need sometimes. In the darkness when the world feels cold and lonely, we need to know we aren’t alone and our feelings are our road back to the light.