“Mommy, sometimes I wish you only had one daughter so you could do all of your attention to me.”
My four year old daughter said this to me last week, while her younger sister was napping.
“I know, sweetie, but you love your sister, and who would you play with if you didn’t have a sister?”
“I would play with you and Daddy. All the time.”
“But you really love your sister, sweetie.”
“I only love you and Daddy.”
And with that, my daughter went back to gently tucking in her baby dolls, all in a line on the living room floor.
As I reflect back on this conversation, I realize that even though we were both right—my daughter does want more of my undivided attention AND she does love her sister and plays quite nicely with her—I missed an opportunity to practice mindful parenting.
If we can agree that mindful parenting is about paying attention to how everyone is feeling and accepting it without judgment, then we can start to understand what happened in that moment. (I didn’t realize it at the time, of course.) My daughter was feeling, perhaps, a bit lonely or needy, a bit wistful or jealous. I, on the other hand, was feeling terribly anxious in response to her comment. A million thoughts ran through my head before I could grab on to any one of them long enough to explore it. Was I not paying enough attention to my daughter? Had I been neglecting her? Had we done the wrong thing by having another child? Did we have them too close together—they’re only 20 months apart?
My inner-life of parenting is filled with doubt, the seemingly inevitable outcome of being so deeply committed to an incredibly complex and challenging endeavor. In that moment with my daughter, I was responding to my own worries and fears, rather than the child who was actually in front of me. I was reassuring myself; yes, my daughter loves her sister, no, we didn’t screw her up permanently by giving her a sibling.
In a more mindful moment, I would like to think that I would have recognized that this little person was just sharing her reality with me, as it was, in that moment. I might have remembered the truth that I learned from one of my social work supervisors years ago: most people are ambivalent about most things most of the time. And hopefully, I would have understood that life and parenting and relationships are usually both/and, rather than either/or. My daughter can both love her sister and, at times, wish she had never been born. I can be both a good mother and a mother who doesn’t always give her children exactly what they need when they need it. Finally, I might have remembered that when our feelings are acknowledged, we can loosen our grip on them just a little bit.
Fortunately, the next day, I had another chance at the same conversation. We were out running an errand at the local craft store, just the two of us, when my daughter brought it up again. This time, I told her that when I was a kid, I felt the same way—that there were times when I wished I was an only child and that I didn’t have two sisters and a brother. She responded by telling me how nice it would be to never have to share Mommy and Daddy. I agreed with her, that it would be really great. Then she asked if we could be sure to get some stickers for her sister, too.