Sitting at dinner with Paul last night, my eyes rested on the table across from us. There was a family there – a father, mother and a girl of maybe nine or ten years old. It was obvious they were parents with careers, accustomed to fine dining and late night dinners after busy days at the office. The woman was on her phone, making calls and sending text messages. The young girl lost in a world of mindless games on her IPad. I watched the man steal a lonely gaze at his wife and daughter before staring absently around the room, and sadness came over me. There was no conversation, no connection. Nothing to imply they were more than random strangers seated at the same table.
Throughout the evening I found my eyes drawn back to them. Status quo. But then something happened. Something I will never forget.
The little girl put her IPad down. She leant closer to her mother and started to play with her hair. Gently, tenderly, she stroked her mother’s hair back from her face. As she twirled it around her fingers, she leant in closer again. It was one of the most delicate and intimate displays of love I have ever seen. I held my breath waiting to see what the mother would do. And with every passing second that she ignored her daughter and remained fixated on her phone, I felt as though my heart were going to burst with pain for the little girl who so desperately needed the love of her mother. I wanted to march over to the table and pry that damn phone away from her hands and yell at her, “Do you see?? Do you see what you have here right in front of you?? Put your phone down!! Put it down and see this child that loves you!! Love her back!! Love her back NOW before it’s too late!!”
Except before you point the finger, make sure your hands are clean.
What hit me the hardest watching this scene was the memory of the night before. When I had sat down on the couch at the end of the day, utterly exhausted. It was later than it should’ve been, I’d had a busy couple of days, I was short on sleep, even shorter on patience, and had nothing to give. I was emotionally bone dry, parched and desperate for all the kids to just be in bed. I needed to zone out, and I needed it badly. So I sat down with my phone, and flicked open trusty old Facebook. The mind-numbing-time-wasting-ultimate-procrastinating tool on my need-to-detach-from-reality shelf. Miss Eight came and sat alongside of me. I tried to not be annoyed that she should’ve been in bed by then, knowing I was going to be away the next night and she was already missing me beyond belief and struggling with separation anxiety. She edged in closer to me so that she could touch me – hand on my arm, she lovingly patted me, stroked me, reached out to me for contact and connection; needing reassurance from me that everything was going to be okay and I loved her.
And what did I do? I continued to scroll mindlessly through Facebook, annoyed that someone was touching me when I just wanted to be left alone. I did not put my phone down. I did not return the affection. I did not pull her in closer to me to be held. I simply tolerated it for as long as I could before telling her it was time for bed.
And it wasn’t until I sat there looking at that little girl last night that I realized that what I had done to my own daughter felt like one of the most shameful things I have ever done. I wanted that moment back. I wanted to be sitting with her on the couch, holding her close and loving her in the way that she needed me to love her. Loving her in the way that I had needed as a child. Suddenly I saw myself as a little girl again, longing for attention, affection. Longing to be held. Longing to feel important and significant enough for adults to forget their adult problems and not just look at me, but see me. I’d done to my own child what had been the cause of so many unhealed wounds in my own life. No, I’m not a parent who is lost to alcohol, drugs, gambling or inappropriate relationships. I’m not a working parent who is gone early and home late and hardly knows what her child looks like. But that doesn’t make me immune to being an emotionally absent parent. And the damage is still the same.
I recently reached the week in Brene Brown’s “Gifts of Imperfection” course where she addressed the way we avoid dealing with uncomfortable or painful feelings through avoidance and numbing. It was a week that affected me so much that I’ve not been able to go back to it. And ironically, it has hit a nerve so deeply in me that I’ve done everything I can to avoid addressing that nerve and numbing it in any way possible. My options have been pretty limited – trying to keep my autoimmune issues in remission means pretty much zero alcohol, so that rules out the possibility of regularly getting wasted. All the comfort foods I once turned to I have also had to cross of my list for above reasons. I refuse to light a cigarette because I’d probably become a pack-a-day smoker and I have enough premature aging issues already thanks to too many sun-loving years at the beach. Drugs are only ruled because I have too many friends that are cops and that would just be plain awkward if one of them had to arrest me (joking people, joking).
But what I can do is make myself very, very busy. And that I can do well. I’ve had years of practice. Being busy is maybe one of the best hiding places from those uncomfortable feelings. How on earth can you possibly find the time to deal with the seething rage that simmers just under the surface when you are so busy? And that aching loneliness that threatens to overwhelm you when you are still and quiet – who has time to feel that with such a busy life? Connecting with the people around you who want more of you than you can give because you are so emotionally spent yourself? Thank God I’m so busy that I can fob them off under the banner of simply having too many things to do to meet your emotional needs right now. It’s very easy to avoid and become numb to the things deep inside of us when we keep so busy that we don’t have time to acknowledge or deal with the uncomfortable feelings that drive our often not so great behaviours.
The thing is, we can’t selectively numb our feelings. So when we choose to numb the anger, sadness, loneliness, anxiety etc then in doing so, we also numb the happiness, joy, laughter, elation etc. Numbing makes us detach from life on every level, subtly, so that we are unable to be fully present. We have no chance of living wholeheartedly when we numb our hearts from feeling the emotions that frighten us.
I know this to be true. I know that as I’ve kept so busy and so emotionally detached from the uncomfortable feelings in me that I don’t want to address, I’ve also lost the ability to be fully present. There is a part of me that never quite feels connected. I often feel that I’m not even in my body and present in the moment, that I’m watching everything happen from outside of my body, that I’m seeing it all play out before me, and yet I’m not actually there and not actually feeling it. The fullness of the moment cannot penetrate me deeply, it merely touches me at surface level and I can experience a moment, but most times, never fully feel it. I can love my family, but never fully connect with them in the way that they need me to. With undivided attention, wholeheartedly, with no reservation and without being detached.
I can’t have that moment back with my daughter. I’ll never get the chance to make that moment right. Nor can I make right the many other moments where I have failed in my role as a mother. This is the paradox of time, that we cannot appreciate the moment until it’s gone and we can never get it back.
But there is no point living in guilt and regret of what we should’ve done better. We can instead wake tomorrow and be thankful for a new day, for a chance to do it differently, to do it better this time. To love harder and feel deeper. To live more in the moment. To show up. To be present and available to those who love us, those we are so damn lucky to have in our lives, even though we may have forgotten that for a moment.
To find the courage do the hard work and fight for our lost hearts once again.