I was having a rough day. My husband, Dove, was having to work long hours, leaving me with a greater share of the childcare and housework than usual. We were getting over being sick. I was not completely sure how I was going to complete everything on my long to-do list for the day. But I was trying. I loaded the dishwasher, and pushed the ‘start’ button. Nothing happened. Dishwasher would not start. I checked the breaker and the power connection. I could not figure out an obvious or easy fix. The dishwasher, as far as I could tell, was completely dead, and full to bursting with dirty dishes.
And in walks Cat, wearing a party hat and carrying a stuffed pig. Apparently unaware of the stress and frustration I was experiencing in that moment, she brightly informed me that it was time for Mr. Pig’s birthday. “Let’s go, mom! The party is in my room!”
Now, ordinarily I love it when she independently comes up with interesting activity ideas. And my daily tasks are flexible enough that I can usually join her in her playful imagination games. But I had nothing like the emotional reserves to just jump in and join her in her game right at that moment. I needed to wash these dishes, and now I had to do them all by hand. I told Cat that I would come to Mr. Pig’s party after the dishes were done.
Of course, doing dishes is not a need. If I put off the chore forever it would certainly cause problems, but did I need to do the dishes right at that moment? Nope. I didn’t need to do the dishes any more than Cat needed me to come to Mr. Pig’s party. What I actually needed was to regain my sense of security and control. I needed support. I needed some space to process the chaotic and upset emotions I was experiencing right then. I was not thinking clearly enough to sort all of that out at the time, but I knew from experience that getting the dishes done would help.
And Cat was experiencing very different needs. She wanted to connect with me, and play. No doubt she sensed my emotional turmoil and wanted to help fix it. She wanted a return to our calm, joyful connectedness, and was asking for it in the only way she knew how. But I couldn’t see all of that in that moment – I was as blind to her underlying needs as I was to my own. I knew she was asking for something that I did not have to give at the moment, so I told her not right now, trying hard not to add “I’m a bad mom” guilt to the list of things stressing my brain. I knew logically that it was important for me to maintain a balance between Cat’s needs and mine, rather than constantly modeling self-sacrifice. So I held my stance.
I told Cat that the birthday party would happen when I finished the dishes. My best attempt at a compromise. But Cat was not happy. She was oblivious to how stressed I was, and how important it was to me that I get just one task off of my to-do list. She asked again. “How about now?” And again. And again. At first I was patient, simply repeating what I had said. But she kept asking. Over and over again. And now I was getting angry. Cat was not making me angry – she was being inconsiderate, to be sure, but my anger was primarily caused by the pile of problems I was dealing with before she ever entered the room. If I were not already emotionally vulnerable, this exact behavior from Cat would have been mildly annoying, rather than infuriating.
But I was angry. And Cat’s behavior was not helping. So I tried to explain. I told her that if she continued to ask me to come to the party when I had already clearly responded to her request, I could no longer promise that I would be emotionally ready to join her when the dishes were done. She could end up having to wait even longer. I asked her to please give me some space.
She waited about 10 seconds. “Ok mom! How about now?”
That was it. We had officially reached my limit. I heaved a sigh. “Cat,” I said, “This stops now. If you ask me to come to Mr. Pig’s party one more time, the answer will be no. I will not come to Mr. Pig’s party at all.”
Cat looked at me with a stunned expression. We only have a few rules in our house, but the rules we have are brick walls. No means no. Always. We don’t say ‘no’ often, but if we say it, we mean it. There are no idle threats. Her hands dropped to her sides, she looked completely defeated. She walked out of the room and shut the door behind her.
You can bet that I was going to make use of the space she was finally allowing me. I finished the dishes, and while I did so I acknowledged and worked through all of the confused, overwhelmed unhappy emotions I was experiencing. I started to feel a greater sense of control and capability. As I worked, the intense emotions and stress fell away, and I was able to consider the problems I was having more rationally. I reframed my situation as a puzzle to be solved, rather than a battle to be fought, and that changed everything.
As I finished the last dish, my thoughts went back to Cat. And the little drama that had played out in our kitchen. With my rational brain back in charge, I could easily recognize the needs that were behind Cat’s intense request about the birthday party. She needed connection, and play. She had done her very best to communicate that to me, but in that moment, I had been too tied up in my own stress to respond to her with empathy and compassion. But now I could. I went to find her.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, silently. Doing nothing, tears streaming down her face. My heart broke for her. Poor kid. I felt sad, but not guilty. I am not responsible for her feelings, good or bad. Cat’s feelings are hers. And it’s normal for uncomfortable feelings to come with difficult lessons. Cat was learning a bit more about accepting and making space for the feelings and needs of the people around her. I told her that I was done with the dishes, and thanked her for giving me the space I had so badly needed. I asked if she wanted a hug. Yes, yes, yes. I gathered her up and we snuggled for a few minutes.
I felt her begin to relax, to return to a place of peace and trust. And we talked about what had happened. I told her I understood that she had been needing some connection, and attention, and play when she asked me to come to the party. She nodded, sniffling. We talked about the fact that I need things too – sometimes I need space, sometimes I need to get things done. And we talked about how sometimes we can compromise, or take turns. She can help me, or wait. And we talked about how play and connection can happen anywhere, anytime. This new idea, this challenge completely took over Cat’s imagination. And suddenly the birthday party was forgotten, instead we joined forces to tackle the laundry monster, playing together while also working on the next task on my to-do list.
Sometimes, powerful emotions blind me to my actual needs, and Cat’s. And when that happens, processing the emotions so that I can see the needs more clearly is my top priority. Because the truth is, once we’re actually talking about the authentic needs we’re experiencing, finding a solution becomes simple. We can play and connect over laundry, or a pretend birthday party. I could have regained my sense of control by washing the dishes, or stacking blocks in Cat’s room while we played ‘birthday party’. Acknowledging and releasing the waves of anger, grief and fear that inevitably arise now and then unleashes the creativity and love that we need to find a solution that meets everyone needs, and helps us towards peace and joy.