Softening by a Summer Splinter

Posted on June 5th, by Sara Easterly 2 comments

My eldest daughter returned home from our family vacation last weekend with a half-inch splinter in her palm and I did a happy dance (even if just in my mind). Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want is to see my daughter, who’s three-and-a-half, in any kind of physical pain. Pain aside, though, that splinter was a gift to my daughter and me.

I’d lost my parenting posture over our vacation, struggling a bit with personal overload and also having a hard time collecting her in the midst of so many other, more interesting sources of excitement.

For starters, there were her doting grandparents, who have a tremendous amount of love to give and delight in every opportunity to attend to her every whim, as grandparents so naturally do. Then there were her three cousins – one still a baby and the other, while slightly older, quite mild mannered. All three were perfectly comfortable with my alpha-prone daughter – already inclined to take care of others – directing their activities and play, carrying them around, and generally mother-henning them for three straight days. And oh, the freedom of running loose on the beach, mingling with “big kids” from all the other families vacationing in nearby cabins, while the grown-ups sat around the campfire talking and relaxing (maybe a bit too much).

As the vacation wore on, my daughter became more and more alpha, demanding chocolate, fiercely yelling “No!” at any attempts to put on her jacket or feed her breakfast or nurture her in any way, and expressing a lot of resistance to any requests. What’s more, she was having a harder time than usual keeping her hits in – they furiously flew out on her little sister and dad.

Thanks to having immersed myself in the Neufeld material for the last couple of years, I had both the eyes and the vocabulary to clearly see what was going on. I knew I’d lost my posture, big-time, and that I needed to collect her and get back in the lead. And I also saw that too much freedom, and distance from Mom and Dad, was scary for her. Alpha behavior comes from a place of insecurity, after all. I’d allowed my daughter more freedoms than usual, forgetting, in all her nurturing “wiseness,” that she’s still so very young. Even with that understanding, though, a couple of times I had a hard time seeing her as anything other than bratty.

I whisked her away on a couple of occasions for nature walks. “A chance for you and I to have some special time together,” I said, “I’m missing my alone time with you.” While those situations helped get me back into the role of her compass point, such opportunities, on a quick weekend getaway with 11 people sharing a cabin together, were fleeting. And it was also clear by how much frustration she had that she was due for some tears to help soften her heart. But those would have to wait for more physical and emotional space.

As our vacation came to a close, we said our farewells and listened to our child bark orders at us and proceed to chuck sunglasses and dolls around the car. I jokingly whispered to my husband, “Brace yourself. Mama’s bringing on some major futility later.”

As we drove home, I confess to almost vengefully plotting all kinds of opportunities for some firm “No’s” to help accomplish this goal of bringing in some futility for her, thus drawing out her tears and softening her heart. Had I tried to accomplish this at that moment, there was no way I’d be able to act as a kind and loving ‘angel of comfort’ at the same time.

Upon arriving home, though, I discovered her splinter. She recoiled when I asked to look at it – afraid of the pain, I think, and also defended from being taken care of. It wasn’t easy, and it required a huge amount of patience and coddling and love, but I was finally able to convince her we’d have to get it out. “It’s not going to feel good and it’s going to take a lot of courage,” I said, “but it has to come out.” She screamed and railed against me, but I was able to stay calm. “I’m going to feed you lunch first,” I said. “You let me know when you’re ready for me to take out the splinter.”

After a couple of bites of her sandwich, she bravely told me she was ready. Thirty minutes and a lot of screaming and kicking later, the splinter was out. We had a family celebration to flush it down the drain… and almost instantly felt her frustration draining, too.

“I’m tired, Mama,” she said, sweetly snuggling into my shoulder. She let me carry her back to the kitchen, hand-feed her every last bite of her sandwich, and rock her to sleep. It was a beautiful moment between us, and such a good reminder for me of a few things…

First, the importance of reading my child – drawing on my map (the Neufeld Institute learnings) and also tapping into my intuition to get a feel for the big picture. Had I continued to see her as bratty, my reactions would have been fierce and more frustration-inducing and alienating. But seeing her as a scared and overwhelmed, still-small child, desperately needing me to take care of her, in spite of appearances that she could take care of everyone else, evoked a completely different response – first from me, and then from her, with the almost immediate softening.

It also reminds me how much my alpha posture is evolving. When I first came to the Neufeld material, I had a tendency to panic upon the slightest signs of any behavior even remotely alpha, wanting to “fix” them right then and there. Or, instead of getting ahead of her needs, I’d try to out-alpha her in the moment. “You’re not in charge,” I’d snap. “Mama’s in charge.” Sooo not helpful! Now, thanks to more practice and time to digest the material, I’m a little more relaxed. I saw what was going on. But I also knew it wasn’t something that required immediate attending to – that we’d have to wait for the right circumstances, and I had faith that I’d be able to find them.

I’m not saying my job of getting, and staying, in right relationship with my daughter is complete – all thanks to one splinter removal. But it reminds me how stepping into my confident parenting posture is an ongoing process. Just like my daughter, I have good days where I’m totally feeling it. And days where I feel more like I’m faking it. Then there are days where I can’t even fake faking it, depending on an array of factors that usually boil down to how much rest I’ve gotten, how much creative solitude I’ve had, and striking the right balance between the other things going on in my life – those that fill me up and those that drain me. And weekends like this one, where I may not be stepping into my parenting posture like I’d like to, but I can still mentally stay there by keeping an eye out for the right conditions where I’ll be able to get it back.

I had no idea the chance to swing my posture pendulum back would come so easily in the form a simple summer splinter, spotted within minutes of returning home. But it was the perfect opportunity to put me back in the lead, in a position to nurture and care for my little girl, who so desperately needs me to be big for her and to take care of her – in a world that can seem big and painful and scary to her, splinters and all.