Moment of truth by the tub

On our last day in Sanibel, Grace and Whit were horsing around in the pool. She dunked him aggressively and he was very upset.   My mother immediately reprimanded her, asking her to get out of the pool for a few minutes. Grace, in classic form, dissolved into tears. She sat on a chair by the pool, wrapped in a towel, hot pink goggles pushed up onto her forehead, forlorn and in full-blown pout mode.

Finally I asked her to come back to the condo with me and we walked, hand-in-hand but in silence, through the parking lot. She was sniffling and, I could tell, making a real effort to calm herself down. Often she asks for “deep breaths,” where she sits on my lap or we hug and take deep breaths together – this has been effective but I am now thinking she needs to figure out how to calm herself down without me. Anyway, she was trying hard and I could tell.

We got to the condo and I turned on the tub for her, because she was freezing and her purple lips were chattering. As she stood in the bathroom, naked and shivering, I looked at her suddenly all-grown-up body. She is so tall now she comes up to almost my chest. She seems startlingly unfamiliar, lean and lanky, with endless limbs, though I can still see that faint birthmark, more texture than color, on her left hip. I remember noticing that birthmark for the first time when she was mere days old.

She turned to me and I could see she was still crying. Overcome with identification and empathy, I crouched down in front of Grace, realizing that she is at that awkward height where standing I’m too tall but crouching I’m too small. I looked up at her tremulous face. “Gracie?” she looked at me, a tear spilling over her right eyelid onto her cheek. “It’s hard to be the older one, I know. Isn’t it?” she nodded at me. “I was that, Grace. I know. Everybody expects you to be grown up all the time. It’s hard, isn’t it?”

Her face just crumpled. She leaned into me, hugging me awkwardly as she was now taller than I was. “It’s so hard, Mummy. Sometimes I just get carried away and I lose control,” she choked on her words, crying hard now. I pushed her away only so that I could look her in the eye. “I know, Gracie. I know,” I said, firmly, “sometimes what you feel is really strong, isn’t it?” She nodded mutely, tears flooding down her face. “I know, love, I know.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I folded her body, all angles and long, skinny bones into my arms. We stayed like that for a long moment until she broke the embrace, wiping her eyes. She looked at me and I could tell she felt embarassed. “Grace.” I looked at her, almost sternly. “I know. And I know what a good, good girl you are, and how hard you try. I know. I promise. And I can tell you that your feelings, for the rest of your life, will be really strong. I still feel like I lose control sometimes. And it’s scary.”

She stared at me, a combination of fear and thanks in her eyes, and I could see how much she wanted to believe that I was being sincere. I think we both felt we’d revealed a lot, so she stepped into the tub and we moved on to other matters, but something essential happened in that bathroom. I saw a young version of myself and she saw that the strength of her emotions was going to be a lifelong battle. Yes, Gracie, I know what it is to feel out of control. I know what it is to feel pressure to be the “good one” and to do as others want you to do. I know all of those things. I wish I could teach you how to stop those feelings, but i can’t. I honestly have no idea. I wish I did.

26 thoughts on “Moment of truth by the tub”

  1. See her, hear her, teach her to know the feelings and use them. Give her a place to become. All easier said than done, but moments like this one go a long long way. Oh to not have to spend a lifetime shedding the expectations and pressures of “the oldest” – but there are privileges too – and she will know those in time. I wouldn’t trade my position, but I would have given my right arm for someone to simply acknowledge that I HAD those feelings instead of forcing me to deny and repress them. So you are off to a great start.

  2. Thanks for sharing a beautiful moment in parenting. Lyndsey. I hope you realize what you gave your daughter. Children have a deep need to be seen and heard and understood. We can’t always make it all better, but we can simply be there with them. Lovely.

  3. Oh, thank you for this … it’s so hard to know what to do, isn’t it? So it is helpful to hear someone say I’m not totally lost. Yes, I think the real goal (at least for me) is to teach her to embrace – or at least honor – these feelings, and not to fear them. There is no point in trying to pretend they are not there, after all.
    I’m glad you commented as I am glad to have found your blog! Thank you!

  4. I can’t possibly fix this “problem” for her, or in any honest way tell her how to handle it better, so I figure the best I can do is witness her and tell her she is neither insane nor alone. Thank you for the reassurance – it means a lot. Truly.

  5. She, you, we – it’s always sweet to know we’re not alone. Someone who tries to understand is a gift. An answer isn’t a gift, empathy is.
    And honesty is priceless.

  6. Wow. You’re a really good mom. I’m taking away a lesson in this for me and the way I sometimes relate to my son. I definitely saw my son in this post.

    Thank you for sharing and for your wisdom.

  7. You were present with her; you saw and heard her; and she knew this. There’s nothing better that you can give her (or anyone) than your presence and your full attention.

  8. What powerful, beautiful, loving parenting. To be seen, to be reassured that we are not flawed or faulty for our feelings, to know that we are not alone, to be honoured for the effort we make to live well – that’s what all of us need when our emotions scare us.

    I believe you just gave your Gracie an extraordinary and rare gift.

  9. Lindsey, you are doing such a good job. I remember moments like that when I was where Grace is. And I wish someone had told me what you told her.
    Love to you on this incredible journey that is motherhood.

  10. Empathy, how often our children need it and how difficult it is to provide. This is a wonderful story, one that we can all find some truth in and use to guide our own parenting.

  11. I so get this. I was the older one too, and I know my oldest struggles so much too. It’s so funny to read your description of Grace, when Mason is all limbs and points and edges too. And tall! Not ready for that. Anyway, I get it. And I am sorry I missed you here. Next time, next time.

  12. Beautiful. I too was an oldest, and I’m sure that it would have been lovely (and have saved me a lot of random suffering) had I had the sort of empathy and validation you are able to offer. Yes, we end up feeling torn and confused when we catch our kids’ overflowing feelings… but it’s the way we end up feeling that often gives the most visceral window into the way that they are feeling.

    I also love the image of standing and being too tall and crouching and being to small, especially now that my fifteen-year-old towers over me when I’m standing.


  13. Oh God. Crying over here. You are, to the letter, describing Miss D. And you know what? It IS so hard to be the older one. I was the younger child (which is hard in its own different way)so I don’t think I’ve really had this talk with D.

    Thank you for showing me that I need to.

  14. It is so hard. For you, for her. And I know this feeling exactly. Kas was the only one for the first 7 years of her life. When Kam was born we worried about how she would deal. But she has been amazing, loving, generous, understanding. All things I wouldn’t ask of her or expect but still she is. But there are those times like when she hurts her baby sister by mistake or by being careless and I immediately scold her. In an instant she falls apart while still trying to swallow hard tears.

    But I tell her afterward that it is okay, a mistake. That I know she didn’t mean it and that she is a good, good girl. I tell her none of us are perfect. I acknowledge the difficulty of what she is going through. Just as you did for Grace. This is all we can do for them. Even when it doesn’t seem enough, it is the most.

    I was also the oldest and that responsibility never seems to go away.

  15. Ugh. This piece slayed me with its beauty and with the wonderful chance to be seen and understood you offered to Grace. It is an important reminder to me to stop more often to examine the motivations behind what my older son is doing. He is older, yes, but he is 2 1/2 – not yet ready to have the pressure to “be big” that I often put on him. I need to make sure to see and understand him as well.

  16. I have to thank you for this, sincerely, because in our case, it’s the opposite. I am the youngest and I was always getting “abused,” so when my oldest is too rough on my little one, I jump down his throat. I hate when my little one is pushed or cast aside or hit, because I remember those feelings of frustration. And your post just made me stop and think about some important stuff. Thank you.

  17. Lindsey, thank you for another beautiful piece that will stay in my heart for a long while. I see myself in you and Grace. I recognize the agony of being the oldest, the strength of emotion and determined attempts to control it. My heart aches for Grace and the burden on her little shoulders. And your words, your actions were such a beautiful work of mothering art. You handled the moment with such grace.

    This – this beautiful and heartwrenching moment – this is how I would hope to be as a mother.

  18. I’ve had this conversation with Jamis more times than I can count. He is the oldest in our family, but he is also the oldest of 9 grandchildren. For years he has been reprimanded for playing too rough with his cousins and I just always feel so badly for having to reprimand. But what to do? You can’t allow him to nearly drown his cousins, either? It’s tough, being the oldest. You are expected to be old enough but you are still growing up.

    Beautiful post, Lindsey.

  19. Of course, I am crying again reading this post. You are such a wonderful mother. To take that moment and be sure that Grace knew that she was understood and that you sometimes feel the same. You are special.

    I think it is so important for our kids to know that we understand. We may not be able to “fix” everything, and that’s OK. But we understand. We believe in them. We love them, no matter what.

    Thank you Lindsey for sharing this beautiful story. Your Grace is so much like my Becca. I see her here too.

  20. I love that you did not to try to talk her out of her feelings. Sometimes it’s just this very simple and dignified acknowledgment that helps us find a way to take those big deep breaths for ourselves.

  21. Intense, so much wrapped up in this piece. I’m the oldest, and because my sister and I lost our mother so young, had to be more in control than I should ever have had to at such a young age. It’s hard to always be good, to be the big sister. I’m not good at it at all. But she has you, and you are wonderful and really everything she needs. She’s learning that you can be her safe place, but that also you don’t sugar coat things. It’s an important lesson we can give our kids I think, to let them know it’s okay to just be unhappy, frustrated and out of control sometimes. It’s healthy to validate those feelings and have a safe place to share them.

  22. A beautiful story Lindsey. What a tender and immeasurably wise moment between mother and child. I was reminded of a recent ‘awakened’ experience I had with Orion, also at bath time. He loves to take what we call ‘deep-candle-baths’ with me. I was sitting in the hot, bubbly bath and it was filling way up. He was undressing and getting ready to slowly sink into the tub with me. As we waited there together for the last few moments of the running faucet, I asked Orion what his favorite thing to do in life is right now, figuring he might say scootering or riding his bike or making paper airplanes. He took a few moments of adorable pondering complete with fingers at his cheek and he replied “taking a deep candle bath”. And in that moment I felt an opening of my heart and an awareness of his wisdom. His favorite thing in life was what was happening in that very perfect moment. I felt in the presence of a teacher, and also felt my own sense of presence swell.


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