Last week, my daughter turned 4 years old. I cannot believe how fast the time has gone. It feels like it was only yesterday that we brought her home from the hospital, all 8 lbs. and 6 oz. of her. I still remember the newness of those early days. The Olympics had just finished, and the 2008 presidential election was underway. Back then, four years felt like the distant future, and yet here we are. As one friend shared, once you have a child, "The days are long, but the years are short."
Parenting is an ever-changing, dynamic process that requires as much inward reflection as outward preparation. It is, as one of my colleagues shared, a path of service. When we embody motherhood, we give birth, not only to our children, but also to life.
When I think of her words, I think of an article, "In the Service of Life," by Dr. Rachel Remen. In this article, she talks about how we serve "with ourselves." Serving others draws from all of our experiences. It is the "experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Parenting is no different. We serve our children through all of our experiences, and the knowledge we gain from these experiences.
Every year as my daughter's birthday approaches, I take time to think about what parenting has taught me. I reflect on the lessons I want to pass down to her and the stories I want to share. And every year, I realize that she is one of my best teachers.
When she was a little over 2 years old, I enrolled in a 10-week mindful parenting course. This course taught me the value of really being in the moment and paying attention to all that unfolds between us. I have used these skills, which include mindful breathing and meditation, to calm my parenting woes. I have also used these techniques to help her during difficult times. For example, when she had to have allergy testing, the thought of her undergoing a scary, unknown medical procedure naturally induced some anxiety for us both. When the time came for the test, we held hands, focused on the sticker box the nurse gave us and took deep breaths, in and out.
Mindfulness helps me see myself, and in seeing myself, I am able to see her too. For example, I grew up in a family where money was always a struggle. As a mom, I am able to give my daughter things that my mom could not give me. However, she does not carry the wounds that I do. She does not come from a place of deprivation, and to surround her with toys and goodies, because I did not have them growing up, is about me and not about her. The space that opens up when we really take time to notice ourselves is truly incredible; it never ceases to surprise me that many of the hurts we carry into our adult lives stem from not being seen in childhood.
And so I value this reflective time, it is an emotional and mental note of what has continued to emerge on my parenting journey. Below, are a few lessons that have blossomed this year.
1. Our children learn through relationships and we are their best examples.
From pregnancy to birth and beyond, I have learned that we are in this journey together. The relationship I form with my daughter lays down the emotional foundation that will inform many, if not all, of her relationships from here on out. If she knows that she can rely on my husband and I, and trusts that we will support and guide her, she will learn to expect this of others too. By giving her enough room to explore and remaining accessible when she needs us, she will have a secure base from which to explore the world. She will also learn that it is safe to build intimacy. These skills have been particularly useful this year as she has built many new relationships with teachers and friends, and adapted to many new rules at preschool.
2. here is incredible power in saying you're sorry.
Like any mother, I've had my moments -- times when I've lost my cool, said something I regretted or reacted instead of responded. Whenever this happens, I always make a point to say that I am sorry.
Recently, we were on a long airline flight. We were both tired and looking forward to returning home. She accidentally hit me in the head with a toy and I became frustrated. I asked her to please be careful, and then I realized there was an edge in my voice. I apologized and said I was sorry for getting upset with her. She responded by saying, "That's OK Mommy, I was just going to say that I am sorry too."
Admitting our own failures and having moments where we can repair the emotional hurts inflicted with our words is one of the most healing things we can offer our children. It models that no one is perfect, and admission of one's shortcomings helps build understanding and connection.
After getting upset with her, I realized how confusing my words were. When she accidentally hit me in the head with her toy, she was merely behaving like any other 4-year-old. My reaction came from my own place of frustration and exhaustion. By admitting and repairing my own parenting hiccups, I hope I model that I can take responsibility for my actions, and through this, teach her to take responsibility for hers.
3. Being empathic is the best way to teach empathy.
Motherhood has taught me that the best way to teach empathy is through being empathic. No manual can teach our children how to relate and respond to feelings as successfully as we can. Without a sense of relatedness to their experiences, written advice on the pages of books merely remain as undigested bits of information.
This lesson has carried me during trying moments, big feelings and transitions. Recently, we moved to a new home. Like any parent, I wanted to tell her how exciting her new room, neighborhood and home were going to be, but realized that was a reflection of my own feelings, not hers. In talking with her about this change, I was mindful to leave room for her own affect, and I tried not to undo any hard or sad feelings that she was experiencing.
I learned that change brings up our own natural anxieties. I was worried about how she would adjust. In my own worry, I was tempted to tell her how exciting and fun this 'newness' was going to be as a way of reassuring myself about the OK-ness of it all. Once I noticed my own feelings, I had more room for hers. I realized it was OK if we were all sad to say goodbye.
4. She is my best Zen master.
Last fall, my daughter began preschool. We spent the summer preparing for this day: potty training, adjusting naptime and transitioning to a big girl bed. The first day arrived. As we approached school, I hugged her extra tightly as I thought about how fast these three years had gone, and how she was no longer a baby. When the time came for school to begin, I held her hand and walked her to the door. I better hold on extra tight, I thought to myself, certain this was going to be a hard transition for her. When she saw her teacher, she let go of my hand, walked inside and didn't look back. I could see her little face from the window. I was tempted to wave, but realized it was my turn to let go.
An earlier version of this article appeared on The Conversation