“Stop laughing at me! I don’t like it!” We were riding our bikes on a beautiful, breezy morning, but Elliot was in a mood.
She was right. I was laughing at her, but gently, I thought. I didn’t know what had set her off exactly, but I could see her frustrations mounting. I was trying to jolly her out of it.
But she is twelve and takes her moods very seriously. She was having none of my gentle mockery and rode off quickly away from me toward some trees.
We all have a fundamental need to be seen for who we are and to be unconditionally accepted. Unconditional acceptance means that our mistakes and dark moods are allowed and do not take away from our essential lovability. It means, “With me, you’re safe,” and allows for communication and intimacy.
Usually mothers provide this for children. But usually mothers are not perfect at this, and our children have to offer the lesson again and again!
Wait. I’ll back up and speak just for myself: my children have faithfully taught me how to give unconditional acceptance to them. But this morning I was offered another lesson in how to recognize the need for unconditional acceptance when my daughter hid from me.
Seeing Elliot head away from me and toward the trees this morning reminded of the first time she ever ran away. I was putting her baby brother down for a nap and, when I returned, two-year old Elliot was gone and the back door was open. Beyond the backyard were the woods.
Panicked, I enlisted the neighbors. As we called for her I felt sick with worry and guilt. The truth was, it was not an easy time for our relationship. Her brother’s arrival was very upsetting to her and I found her very challenging.
As we searched I was vividly reminded me of a time I hid from my grandmother. She had, I believed, been giving my twin brother too much attention. My brother was so good, so cute and sweet and sunshiny . . . in fact, he still is, and I adore him. But at the time it was painful to me to be, at best, just “one of the twins,” but usually the overlooked one. [Mom, if you’re reading this, I have no idea if this was objectively true! It was my perception and belief, so I was always looking for evidence of it].
So I hid from my grandmother. At first I enjoyed watching her look for me. It was proof that she was thinking of me and that she valued me. But as her worry increased, I felt naughty and came out of hiding. She simply fell down on her knees and hugged me tight!
I thought I was going to be punished! I had wanted to punish her! But she didn’t punish me. She forgave me, instantly, and I was humbled and grateful. Though I did not have words for it at the time, I felt unconditional acceptance in that moment.
After about ten minutes of searching for toddler Elliot, I returned to the house to see if she’d come back on her own. As I approached the back door, I saw her smiling little face peeking out of it. I fell on my knees and embraced her. If she was testing my love, my answer was as unequivocal as my grandmother’s had been!
Still, it took me years more for that lesson of unconditional acceptance to fully sink in. Until I learned it, Elliot continued to put me to the test.
She had tantrums every day until she was almost six years old. I believed her tantrums were expressions of defiance, so I would leave her to cry alone. When she was “ready to be social” she could come find me, and I would welcome her back. After almost four years of it, with no glimmer of change, I was worn to a frazzle and admitted defeat. At a friend’s suggestion I tried unconditional acceptance.
Friend, it worked in five minutes. (I tell that story here.)
Elliot stopped having tantrums, but she does occasionally still put my love to the test, like this morning.
But once I figured out that each time she tests me she is fundamentally asking for the same thing – the same thing that I asked my grandmother that day: to be seen and to be loved – I could respond effectively. Yes, there is always a topic that needs to be addressed, some subject on which she wants to be heard. But before we can get to that, she has to know that she’s unconditionally accepted. Only then does she feel safe enough to reveal her hurt or worry. If she does not feel safe, she’ll run away first.
When she rode away from me this morning I was annoyed, and carried on my own way. But in a flash of grace, I remembered how this works. She wants to be looked for. She wants to be found.
I turned around. I found her bike on its side by the trees and Elliot sitting on the ground nearby, knees to chest.
“You okay?” I asked, with compassion this time, instead of mockery.
She looked at me and nodded slowly. A small smile crept over her mouth and spread gently to her eyes. Whatever had been bothering her, she was over it.
“Ready to go for a ride?” I asked.
She climbed on her bike and rode up beside me.
Motherhood is a long game. We’re only half way through it (the children-under-18 part, that is) but I am so glad I discovered unconditional acceptance when I did. I’m so glad Elliot never gave up trying to teach me. It shows me how to let go of my pride as a mother and listen to my children with an open heart.
“I love you,” she said. In other words, Thank you – for looking for her, for finding her and accepting her unconditionally, every time.
When your child runs away, do you look for her? How do you greet her when you find her? How does your child teach you how to give unconditional acceptance?