The Wonder of Empathy

Stephanie Land Single/Step Parent

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I was a heap on the kitchen floor, leaning against a cupboard, my knees drawn up to my face to hide the tears leaking from my eyes. My daughter Mia, who was three, noticed me for what felt like the first time that day. We’d just returned from a kid’s concert at a park, and she’d been ignoring me in that blatant way only a three year old can. I’d spent the entire show watching a man perform Mia’s favorite bedtime CD, while she ran around playing tag with a few other girls, often screaming. Getting her into the car was like strapping a two-by-four into a five-point harness.

“What’s wrong, Mama?” she said.

“Nothing, sweetie, I’m just frustrated.”

“Why are you frustrated?”

“Because we had a tough day.”

She paused for a beat or two then, but not much more, and said, “Well, if you get frustrated so easy, maybe you shouldn’t have kids!” I raised my head, mouth probably open, and watched her march off to her room.

This is the little girl who kicked the fetal heart rate microphone they held to my belly at seven months’ gestation. The one who arrived on the morning of her due date, after just a few hours of labor. The baby who never slept unless cradled in my arms. The toddler who refused to nap, and would run across the length of a soccer field before looking back, laughing.

I watched my attachment, unschooling, stay-at-home mom friends with their young children, allowing them to decide when it’s time to leave the park, waiting for them to finish digging holes, their patience and joy beaming from their faces. I was a single mother, a full-time college student, and worked 20-30 hours a week. I didn’t have a lot of extra time. I also had a child who not only had unending energy and verbal skills, but willful ideas of how the day would go. My world of organization, to-do lists, and scheduled activities crumbled around me. I had to let go. I had to surrender. 

But we also had to learn how to deal with the many times a day when it was time to get some fucking shoes on and GO.

I learned my daughter liked to know what was going to happen that day. She still does. Last year, she went to preschool in the morning, then to different friends’ houses for the afternoon while I was in class or at work. Mia learned what day of the week it was, and whose house she was going to. An important part of this for me has been always following through with what I say will happen. If by some chance it won’t work, I’ll call whoever I can so they can inform Mia of the change in schedule. She now wakes up in the morning, and not only knows what day it is, but what activities her kindergarten class will do, and what the weather will be like. Our life may be a little crazy and chaotic most of the time, but we both have a general idea of how to cope.

I also discovered there’s a certain magic in giving twenty, ten, and five minute warnings on transitions. My daughter does not like surprises. Even stopping for ice cream will upset her.  As an infant, she seemed to never close her eyes. The girl just likes to know what’s going on. We take advantage of this knowledge as parents, or don’t always realize that children really have no idea what’s going to happen unless we tell them.

It took a couple of years, but we also figured out how to give each other some space to breathe in the midst of an argument. My daughter will argue for the sake of it. She will tell you the sky is not blue, and she won’t budge. A friend of mine who babysits often recently quipped that despite being a lawyer, he can’t win an argument with my six-year-old. Mia’s excellent at justifying, bargaining, lying, and manipulating to get her way. She also might have some sort of sixth sense for seeking out times when adults are most exhausted to go in for the kill. There were many times that I had to peel her off my leg, put her in her room, hold the door closed, and take a time out before returning to the heat of battle. But she also learned the importance of taking time to collect herself when she gets too worked up. In this learning process, I spent a lot of long nights on the couch, shell-shocked after she went to bed, when she went through a “testing” phase.

I used to feel like a failure every day. There’s always another kid who seems to have their shit together more than yours. Ones who ride bikes, swim, and read by age five. Or the ones who seem to potty-train themselves, and never mess up the barrettes in their hair. I used to think this was a fault of my parenting. Now I know it’s just my kid’s personality. It took me a few years to figure out how to choose my battles, when to breathe instead of argue, and know what my kid needs from me as a parent. I’ve really only tried to teach her four things: independence, empowerment, self-awareness, and empathy. The rest will come in time. I mean, I doubt she’ll use training wheels at age ten.
Last night, I walked home at 9:30 from class, texting my babysitter on how to calm Mia down for bed. She couldn’t choose a stuffed animal to sleep with and spiraled. “She just needs you to be there with her,” I said. I walked up to the house and saw them through the window, sitting together in the midst of her pile of plush toys. Mia was under the covers by the time I took off my coat and went to our room. I rubbed her back, then listened to her tell me what a hard decision it was. “So it sounds like you needed the right panda,” I said. She nodded, and looked down at the ragged black and white bear in her hands. “What if I let you sleep with my special panda tonight?” Her eyes met mine. She smiled, and nodded. I’d been there for her. In that moment, she was understood.

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About the Author

Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land's work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change, and through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID: A Single Mother's Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home, is forthcoming through Hachette Books. She writes from Missoula, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters.

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