This used to be a sweet bedtime ritual for us. It was a way for him to feel close to me - especially since we stopped nursing - and I loved the feeling of his soft cheek against my skin and the flutter of his eyelashes as he drifted off to sleep. But in the last several weeks he has been calling me into the kids' room and demanding, "I want to lay on your button!" Over a series of nights I let myself get pulled into an arrangement that stole hours of precious sleep from me, as my restless kid rolled and flopped and cried whenever I tried to gently move him away. I would start the day resentful and grumpy, something I try so very hard to just not do - if only these kids would cooperate.
So on this particular night, as I was laying down with the kids at bedtime, I explained to my little guy that he could lay with his head "on my button" while we were reading but that he would need to cuddle next to me with his head on the pillow to fall asleep. In compromise, he was permitted to put his feet against my belly. Bedtime went smoothly enough. He got it. But then came the 2am wake-up, when he called me into the room and declared, "I want to lay down on your button!" and I offered a loving but firm no.
He totally flipped out.
This was the kind of flipping out that is incredibly disproportionate to the situation, which told me that we were engaged in something much bigger than just disappointment over not being able to lay his head on me to go to sleep.
This kid seems easy going but he can be INTENSE, sometimes putting his face right into mine to scream when he's upset, and this was the most intense I'd seen him. For twenty minutes he crawled around the bed like an animal, just out of my reach but making eye contact the whole time, unleashing the most blood-curdling screams that I have ever heard. Every so often he would come in close to punch and kick me, body flailing, and then he would scamper away again before I could hug him. Any gentle touch sent him into even more of a frenzy.
I had gone through similar stand-offs with each kid when we night weaned. Each time I had hit a breaking point, aware that I needed to set a loving limit or I was going to spiral into the sleep-deprived rage monster that reveals itself when I'm touched-out at night. I knew that I had to stand firm with this limit too, honoring my needs and my body, and I knew that we could make it through.
So I sat with him and let him unleash. I kept repeating the same phrases to him quietly, over and over: "I'm here with you. You're safe. You're not alone."
It would have been so easy to give in to his demand, just this once, and try again tomorrow.
With less resolve, I might have done anything to keep him quiet because of worries about what the neighbors might be thinking about the wild screams coming from next door.
I might have told myself that I shouldn't let him wake his brother, asleep peacefully in the bed next to us (although this turned out to be a moot point - the kids seem to have inherited the "sleep through anything" gene from their dad).
I might have gotten overwhelmed and left him alone to cry, signaling that his big feelings better be kept inside because they are too scary for anyone else around him to handle.
I might even have witnessed his scared, tired face and let pity and compassion tell me that I was allowing him to suffer unnecessarily.
But I stood strong in my instinct that he had been storing some major big feelings and that my loving limit was giving him something to push against to trigger the release of these feelings.
My commitment to the moment was rooted in all I had learned from Hand in Hand Parenting and Aha! Parenting, online communities with resources about how to place connection at the center of parenting and how to support children in expressing the primal need to release emotion in a safe space. I recalled my own experience as an HSP and the knowledge that when I need to cry, the best thing someone can do is just be with me without judgment.
When he finally declared, "I need to blow my nose!" I knew we were on our way out of the pool of despair. This is something my kids and I all say at the end of a good cry, signaling that we are emerging from the waves of emotion where we have been swimming and we're ready to climb back up onto dry, rational land once again.
Next he bellowed, "I'm hungry!" and we were in the home stretch. I got him a Hawaiian Roll with butter and let him eat it in bed - I figured we had earned a little lenience from the usual late night rules.
He leaned against my legs as he ate his bread, dripping crumbs onto the sheets. Then he laid his cheek next to mine, cuddled his feet to my belly, and fell into a deep, peaceful post-meltdown sleep.
The next night we repeated the routine. Grudging respect for the "no falling asleep on my button" rule. Another wakeup, this time at 4am. His pleading, "I want to lay down on your button!" My gentle but firm no. More tears. This time, he only cried for 2 seconds before yelling, "I'm hungry!" Another Hawaiian Roll with butter, more crumbs.
And miracle of miracles, the next night there was no wakeup until after 6am.
I suppose we engaged in a form of sleep training here, something I had always resisted. But instead of crying-it-out, we were crying-it-in. I was bearing witness to whatever emotion he needed to let out, and I was loving him through it.
The gift of loving limits and safe space for the release of big feelings is something I try to give to my kids every day, but I only succeed when I have cared for myself and tuned in to them well enough to recognize the cues that a release is needed.
When I feel a big one coming - kind of like the earthquakes I experienced as a kid growing up in California - I see the paths diverging in front of me along the fault line of my own self care. I could focus on me or I could focus on him.
When I am exhausted and depleted, I feel resentful of the idea that my kids need yet another opportunity to release their big feels. What about me? What about my big feels, my comfort, my needs? WHAT ABOUT ME??
But when I have fed and tended to my own vulnerable soft self, I can be the anchor that I know my kids want and need me to be - the same anchor my friends and family and especially my husband have been to me over the years as I have realized the power of a “good cry” in my own life as a release for all the tension and stress that have been building.
How many of us have the deep dark fear that our true emotions, our big feels, are too big and too scary to share?
How many of us worry that to release the full amount of sorrow and pain and disappointment and shame and envy and fear from our hearts will frighten away those who love us and reveal us to be weak, pitiful, and unworthy of love?
How many of us wish that we got daily reminders that we are enough, that no matter how we act out we are loved, that there is nothing we could do to scare away the people we hold most dear?
My children are still learning how to release and express feelings in a way that won’t be damaging to themselves or others. They are learning how to be who they are in this overwhelming world. I try to remember that it's a privilege to be on this journey with them, and to remind them daily that they are loved - every single part of them.
I can’t protect my children from the inevitable intense feelings that come with being human, but I can offer my unconditional presence and acceptance of all of those feelings. I can help them learn that they don't need to fear their deepest selves.
And here's a radical idea. What if that is enough in other areas of my life, too?
I’ve cultivated relationships and community that ground me and help me find joy and beauty in life. Yet at times those very relationships and community have sometimes felt like a burden because I have worried so much about whether I was disappointing, failing, or diverging from the path I was expected to follow. I didn't always feel like it was enough to just be me and show up. I made it about me instead of them.
I read a wonderful blog post this week by my good friend and fellow writer Margarita Valbuena, on her page Child Parent Connections, that reminded me of this terrifying and freeing truth: I'm not ultimately responsible for the outcome of my children's lives. I can provide for them and love them and guide them, but I'm not in control. Nor am I responsible for the lives of my loved ones. I can agree or disagree with their choices and I can do my best to offer love and support, but we are all part of an interwoven web of complex forces leading us to places nobody can guarantee or predict for sure.
Maybe instead of trying so hard to optimize and maximize and strive and succeed, we should focus on just showing up and letting each other know that those deep, dark parts of us aren't too scary to share.
Let's try to let go of our plans a little. Let's try to just accept that we aren't in control of our children, as much as we believe (and are told) we are supposed to be. Let's dive in together and show up and remind each other and our children of the truths we already know.
This is only temporary.
You will get through it.
You are enough.
You won't scare me away.
I'm here with you. You're safe. You're not alone.