I’m in a reflective mood. Our daughter and firstborn, Elliot, turned 18.
Before I had her, I knew I wanted to be a mother, but it was a blind instinct. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Honestly, I thought parenthood might be like it was on tv: the baby would be an adorable accessory to an otherwise unchanged life. Hardly! It wasn’t a cosmetic change, but a fundamental one.
It has been one of the best surprises of my life.
I feel very lucky. As parents, we’ve always enjoyed the immeasurable advantages of good health, education, well-paid and secure employment, and a stable marriage. I am deeply grateful for these blessings.
Still, motherhood challenges even the luckiest mother. But those challenges have taught me much. So, on the occasion of her 18th birthday, here are some of the lessons Elliot has taught me.
At 10 months, Elliot started refusing to eat her breakfast. At first, I was confused – she loved her breakfast! When she persisted, I became annoyed – why was she being difficult? When she kept it up still, I grew offended – she was preventing me from doing my job, which is to feed her! I sat opposite her highchair and chased her pursed lips with a spoon as she turned her head this way and that.
And then, the most extraordinary thing happened: I saw myself – a grown woman, fighting with her baby. It was ridiculous.
I sat back, exhaled, and dropped my weapon (the spoon). Elliot looked at me curiously.
“You don’t have to eat if you’re not hungry, honey,” I said. “I trust you.”
She studied me and smiled. Then she picked up the spoon and fed herself.
I think it was the first time we’d truly communicated. I hadn’t been listening before. I hadn’t been seeing. But now I understood:
- She is her own person, not an extension of me. We are in relationship; I do not control her. She has her own desires.
- She communicates through behavior – which includes refusal. She wasn’t being difficult or “making my job impossible.” She just wanted to feed herself.
- She is trustworthy. Trusting her allows me to be curious, rather than affronted, about those moments when she doesn’t go along with my agenda.
These insights were profound. I hadn’t realized how tightly I had been holding on, how braced for conflict I was – and she, my adversary! No more. Now I saw her as my partner in crime! And just like that, I started enjoying motherhood.
We had a really great time together after that. But I lost my way after her brother, Nathan, was born the next year. I felt at the limit of my capacity, so I had little patience for those moments when Elliot hit her limit, too, and erupted in a tantrum. I just gritted my teeth, believing she would naturally grow out of them in a year or so. But they persisted for years. Just before she turned six, I reached out to my friend Alicia, a psychologist and mom of three, for help.
“It only takes one person to change a dynamic,” she told me.
“You’re saying I need to change?” I asked, incredulous. “But I’m right! If I relent, she wins!”
“You’re the only one who’s fighting,” she said. “Elliot is just trying to communicate, and you’re not listening.”
At this, I remembered the highchair epiphanies, and I softened.
Shortly after, the children and I were in the park after school. As I distributed snacks, I noticed Elliot starting to spin up for a tantrum. Instead of hardening toward her as I usually did, I took a deep breath and relaxed my body. She noticed and studied me. I smiled at her. At that, she relaxed her body, smiled, too, and ran into my arms for a hug!
She never had another tantrum again.
It was an unforgettable lesson of:
- The power of unconditional acceptance. No matter what you’re feeling, child of mine, I am not afraid, and I love you.
- The power of breath and relaxation. Just pause! Try it and see what happens!
- How resilient children are. They can let go of “entrenched patterns” in an instant and never look back.
Thank you, Elliot, for all you teach me. You have not only made me wiser. You’ve helped me to love better and enjoy more.