About a week after my daughter was born I had my first official parental breakdown. Riley was born several weeks early and was receiving medicine through an IV, which had to be moved every couple of days. On this particular occasion, a nurse was unsuccessfully trying to find a vein that wouldn’t collapse as soon as the needle was inserted, and my tiny daughter screamed with every jab until her howls were echoing off the walls and she was so purple she looked as though she might burst.
Instead of being the strong parent I felt I needed to be, I burst into tears myself. It’s something that only a parent can understand, but the pain of sitting there watching my baby hurt was greater than anything I had felt during my unmedicated labor. My heart ached, and that sampling was only a taste of what parenting had in store.
I never realized that it is possible to actually feel someone else’s pain, but that’s exactly what moms do. When my kids fall and scrape their knee, my knee stings and my heart tugs. When they bump their heads, my hand flies to my own forehead as if I were the one with a throbbing knot. I know that I don’t literally feel the pain that my children experience through some weird cosmic force, but I swear, I hurt when they do, whether it’s from a boo-boo or the emotional pain of hurt feelings. Not to get sappy, but I honestly love them so much that I cannot stand the thought of them being anything less than comfortable.
I think that most parents have some comprehension of how tough parenting is going to be. You can’t fully understand it until you’ve lived it, but we pretty much all go in knowing that we’re not undertaking an easy task. But I think that the pain of parenting comes as a bit of a surprise. And even more surprising is our desire to take that pain as our own, to know that we would do absolutely anything to make this little person we created feel better.
I consider myself a pretty caring person, but there are very, very few people for whom I would be willing to put myself in any sort of danger or extreme discomfort. I just believe that, for the most part, humans instinctively look after their own needs first. Or at least they do until they reproduce, and then it’s a whole new ballgame.
My youngest child had colic, and I honestly would have walked barefoot across burning coals to have stopped his crying for five minutes. Not because my sanity desperately needed the break (although it did), but because of the fact that he was obviously in pain and I was powerless to do anything for him—it made my entire body ache.
So like the rock of a parent that I am, I spent many nights crying with him as we paced the floor. I could feel like a complete failure for my inability to stand strong in the face of my children’s pain, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with caring about someone so much that I actually hurt for them. As long as I’m not wallowing on the floor and am able to perform my job as a parent, maybe what I’m really teaching them is compassion. Maybe I’m showing them that strength sometimes comes with tears and love sometimes comes with pain. And when my 9-year-old comes to me crying because her little brother got hurt, I’m truly proud that she is able to care enough about another person to cry for his pain. If nothing else, I’ve taught her to truly love, and that’s a lesson that we could all use.