“Have you considered that he might be highly sensitive?” my son’s teacher asked my husband one morning, a few months after my three year old started preschool.
The transition to those few weekly hours in school proved to be an exhausting hurdle for my first-born son. He hated that I left him behind in a place that wasn’t home, with people that weren’t his parents. He made his disapproval known with his furious tears. He kicked out at anyone who dared to venture near enough to console him. Worst of all were his desperate heart wrenching cries of ‘mama’ as I closed the classroom door behind me, my own eyes brimming with tears.
I reached a point where I wondered if preschool, a completely voluntary undertaking, was doing my son more harm than good, but his two wonderful teachers reassured me that this time away from home was getting easier for him. I could see for myself that the little boy I picked up from school, a mere two and a half hours after dropping him off, was a happy, animated one. It was goodbyes he had a problem with, for more than a year.
The teachers told us that our son observed the other children attentively, but it was months before he’d join in circle time activities, and even then his participation was discriminate. He held back; he played alongside his classmates but not with them. A tearful new child with separation issues of their own would prompt my son’s eyes to fill with tears. Another child’s pain distressed my son. Preschool proved to be an emotional minefield for a boy who soaked up the feelings in a room without any conscious effort.
The term ‘highly sensitive’ meant nothing to me six years ago, back when I was the bewildered mother of a three-year-old boy who seemed unable to tolerate the world around him.
I didn’t know then that twenty percent of children have a finely tuned nervous system and therefore feel things more intensely than others. They process deeply and indiscriminately, with no filter. It was the reason why my son would cling, overwhelmed, to my leg at the mother and toddler group or glue himself to my lap during story time at the local library. It was why classrooms were so overwhelming and why he turned down invitations to birthday parties as he got older.
Back then, before the words highly sensitive strolled in and made themselves comfortable in our lives, I didn’t know why my son thrived when we stuck to a routine, but went to pieces if we deviated from it. I didn’t know why he was so happy with the familiar, but new places and faces always brought on tears. When my in-laws declared my toddler son needed professional help because he couldn’t stray from his bedtime routine to attend their evening birthday parties, a little doubt crept in, but I stood my ground and trusted my instincts. I didn’t know why but putting my son into his own bed at the same time each night worked best. It still took hours for him to settle with his father or me at his bedside, but at least there, in the safety of his home, he would eventually drift off to sleep.
There was much I didn’t know back then, like that being highly sensitive is probably genetic. I spent so many hours as a new mother feeling like I was unfit to be one. My newborn’s constant crying sent me over the edge and made me question how a mother could become so irritated by the cries of her baby, by his need for constant reassurance of her presence, for her constant touch.
Why did my son cry so much? Why wouldn’t he lie in his bed and nap? Why was I so desperate for him to nap in his bed anyway? Why did he need me to hold him to feel comfortable? I saw other babies, happy, sleeping in their cots or prams, and wondered what I was doing wrong. For three years I stumbled around feeling like I was falling short every step of the way. I was emotionally exhausted. I figured I just wasn’t a natural born mother.
And so one day my husband came home with our son from preschool and threw the words highly sensitive into the air. I scooped them up and put them into an Internet search browser, oblivious in that moment of the impact those words would have on our lives.
Words floated around the computer screen: Dr. Elaine Aron; ‘The Highly Sensitive Child’ book; twenty percent; overwhelmed; empathy, misunderstood; highly emotional, normal; deeply moved; overstimulation; feel intensely.
My beautiful sensitive boy. Not fussy. Not shy. Not socially challenged. Not high maintenance. Not in need of professional help. Just a highly sensitive child. My highly sensitive child.
A deep processor. Aware of subtleties. Easily stressed in busy places. An emotional sponge. Overwhelmed by noise (like the constant cries of a baby). Not a terrible mother, just a highly sensitive parent needing downtime to function, needing to withdraw from life sometimes to recharge – an impossible ask with a newborn.
They are words that took me gently by the hand and showed me the mother I needed to be.
They are words that helped me be a more patient, understanding mother to two more newborn sons who also cried often and inconsolably unless snuggled safely in their mother’s arms. I doubted myself less, and held my babies more.
They are words that guided me as we looked for a new school for my eldest son when he was six, one where he could feel heard and understood.
They are words that inspired me to make our home the one place in the world where can we can all truly and safely be ourselves.
They are the words that help me navigate the blurred line between protecting my highly sensitive children and wrapping my sons up in cotton wool.
There was, in an instant, an answer to the why. I not only understand my children better but also myself, and those words still cloak me, protect me as I assert the needs of my sons, my own needs, as we make our way in a world that wasn’t designed with us in mind.