I can remember exactly where I was standing in our apartment when my son said to me, “please don’t give me one of your speeches.” He had just shared with me something that happened at school and he must have watched an expression move across my face that signaled to him I was about to launch into a speech, because he was right, I was about to talk AT him. I gasped in surprise when he said it, and we both laughed. I remember walking out of his room that night feeling a combination of gratitude that he had called me out and also disbelief that at some point, I had shifted to being the parent who gives speeches to my kid when what he really wanted was for me to listen.
When our kids are little, so much of our relationship is about us explaining the ins and outs of their “why” questions. Why does the bus have so many wheels? Why does the moon look big some days? The on and on questions of a toddler that at times make you wonder if your head might explode, are a daily challenge to your depth and breadth of knowledge. Many evenings in those days, when my kids finally went to bed, I was so tired of answering questions, that all I could do was sit on a couch in silence. Time did move on and my kids became tweens, but I discovered that at times I was still answering their questions and responding to their struggles in the way I did when they were little — my job was to impart wisdom and their job was to listen.
During my training as a therapist, one of the aspects that took a long time for me to learn was the act of “bearing witness” to my clients. People coming to see me didn’t need me to fix them or their problems, but more often needed me to just witness their experience and validate their feelings without telling them what to do. My role was to ask questions, show compassion and help my clients develop the tools to figure out their choices. With some clients, especially the ones who would say, “I just want someone to tell me what to do,” I literally had to sit on my hands to remind myself that I didn’t need to fix, I just needed to sit with them.
At the beginning of quarantine, on my many different Zoom meetings, I found myself chuckling to myself each time a “host” of the meeting would remind participants to mute themselves when they weren’t talking. I kept thinking of the amount of meetings that I had been in my years of working that would have been so much more fruitful if we had all muted ourselves when it wasn’t our turn to share. Having that prompt during this current reality of online meetings has made me so much more thoughtful in work settings about when I choose to share and when at times, my job is just to sit and listen. I realized I could transfer this newfound knowledge to my personal life as well. As complications started to arise at home for my kids about new online social realities or missed baseball and soccer seasons, I knew there wasn’t a lot I could say. The skill of “bearing witness” from my training as a therapist and the more recent mute option from endless Zoom meetings became relevant in my home life as well.
Week five of quarantine was not easy. The novelty of online learning, having family movies at night and lots of Nutella in the house had worn off for all of us. The questions about “how long?” and “when will?” started to enter our family dinner conversations more and more. What I am finding is that my job is to briefly give the information that I have and then remain quiet and bear witness to their tears about missing teachers, teams, sports fields, friends, etc.. As much as I want to point out silver linings and sufferings of others, I was reminded of my son’s request for less speeches. I don’t have to literally be mute — I can ask questions like, “can you tell me more about that?” or make empathetic statements like “I’m so sorry” or “I know this is painful” and rub their backs or brush their hair. But, this week, I hope to remember when it is my time to sometimes just sit on my hands, put myself on mute and bear witness to their processing of this unimaginable time.
You can subscribe to the Dynamo Girl Newsletter here.