Pain that’s not there, empathy as a mother

Lately Katie has been getting upset when she doesn’t get a chance to say goodbye when we leave friends or family. I totally understand- I get pretty upset when people I care about, particularly Eric, leave without goodbyes. We usually tell her to say goodbye as we’re leaving, she hesitates, and then once they’re gone, she starts to cry. Eric will let it pass, but if I can, I scoop her up and run after the person, or call the person so she can say bye-bye.

This alone breaks my heart, seeing her upset like this, even over something as trivial as this. She’s an incredibly empathetic child; she knew something was wrong when Eric and I argued last week and she used to cry whenever Curious George would get into trouble or when one of the characters gets into trouble on her movies. She gets this from my mom and me. We both take on other people’s emotions- I think we’d both say, we probably take on other’s emotions a little too much. I know Mom can relate, but when I see it in Katie, it surprises me the way that it conjures the fiercest protective reaction and intense, emotional pain on my part. My heart burns seeing her upset in relation to another person, even if that other person meant her no harm. Watching Katie as she interacts with or reacts to other people or soothing her pain after a failed interaction sets off a complex emotional response within me that seems like the most intense manifestation of my love for my daughter that I’ve concretely felt so far. Oh God. How will I handle it when she gets to middle school???

I think I can trace this reaction back to the first time I realized that Katie was not the center of her day care teacher’s universe and that sometimes, Katie has to take a back seat to another person. It was humbling when I watched one morning after dropping Katie off at her first day care as the teachers moved from crib to crib, rocking and calming each of the other infants in sucession in preparation for their morning nap, but, having slept on the 45 minute drive to school, Katie played by herself on the floor. She was fine, she did not need their attention. I had to check myself and my sense of pride when I got privately indignant that the teachers did not say hello to us when we arrived. I was the one who felt slighted and neglected, not my child, I realized. But they could not have tended to Katie. They didn’t need to.

But the very first time that burning, protective response fired up was watching Katie play with the three daughters of a friend of ours. The girls are wonderful and loved playing with Katie, who in turn loved playing with them. At one point, however, the oldest sister was benignly giving Katie a hard time. Again, Katie was oblivious and played along with her new friend, intent on jumping on the bean bag that the girl was blocking. I was anguished that someone was picking on my kid.

At Katie’s day cares, she’s had no problems relating to other kids for as long as it’s been developmentally appropriate (children under 2 don’t really play “with” other kids). It seems she’s had a couple bffs at her last day care. It was the cutest thing, dropping in to her school and seeing through the classroom window, Katie sitting next to another little girl with their arms wrapped around each other.

Now she doesn’t really get to interact with anyone her own age because she’s at home with me. My friends have become her friends. They are absolutely great with her, but, like Katie’s day care teachers, they have other concerns in their lives. There is no reason my kid should be the first thing they think of. Seriously.¬† The other night, we were leaving Rae’s house after the fireworks, it was late, and Katie was exhausted. Everyone was scattering to their cars, some of our friends had other concerns and worries on their minds as they left, and Katie began crying as we drove away. She wanted to say good bye. We said to wave to them, but she knew this was no good. She just kept crying that she wanted to “wave up close.” And this is where my heart begins to ache for her. I’m pretty sure they had all probably said goodbye, she had probably clammed up, but she was upset as we drove home. She talks of “her friends” every time she knows we’re going to be with them, even if she’s quiet when she’s actually around them.

She holds no grudges, and I certainly don’t either (just so my friends who read this know). She doesn’t remember how upset she got, she just knows that she loves being around our friends because they are so good to her. It’s like having the grandparents around when we’re with our friends because they tend to her so well. Stephie even took her to the bathroom one time without even asking. My point is, it kills me to see her upset, even when it really causes her no actual pain not aggravated by sleep deprivation. Still, these are the moments I just want to protect her, my tiny, sweet, firebrand of a little girl who will be three (!!!!!) in just a few weeks. I recognize how I project my own emotions onto her. I need to keep from letting my projections stunt her relationships with other people, to preserve what seems to be unflappable self-confidence as she grows up (she gets that self-confidence from Eric; I remember exactly the moment I recognized it in him when we were dating. I also think she might become a shameless flirt…).

I’m not sure what inspired this post tonight. Despite all our connivances to the contrary, Katie is our princess and her equally sweet baby sister is watching and learning (as evidenced in Zuzu’s surprisingly ferocious temper these days). Oh, how I love those two. I just can’t believe that Katie is almost three…

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