Her hands pat my thighs in an increasingly urgent pattern, my legs numbing under the repetition. I’ve been tuning her out for a half-hour because I need to make some progress on dinner. I stand at the stove. The big cast iron lid clatters down on a huge pot of rice. I’m trying to be careful with the heavy lid but I’m straddling a loud, insistent two-year-old and she is hard to ignore.
“Mama, can you pick you up.”
I know what she means, and I scoop up her lithe body as she wraps her legs around my waist in one memorized movement. She gives the best hugs. I love the way she snuggles into my neck with the pure enjoyment of being in my arms, but today, after a quick snuggle, she’s wiggly. I feel like a jungle gym.
With her strong little hands, she grabs my lips and smashes them into a puckery duckface and giggles. I am thankful I haven’t yet gotten the head cold making the rounds through my house, otherwise, I would have been terrified of suffocation. Growing bored of duckface, (which is a fantastic lesson to learn as early as possible to prevent many stupid looking selfies), she begins to pry my lips open and shove her salty fingers into my mouth. She is having fun “playing” with me, but I don’t want her hands in my mouth. I have basic boundaries, and heaven knows where those hands had been that day, and I’m fairly certain they hadn’t been washed recently enough for my comfort.
As I dodge her advances, wondering why she can’t be still and just snuggle, I notice a boogery snot trail across the left shoulder of my black wool sweater.
What the heck!
Where did that come from?
I don’t ponder long when slurpy sniffing and hacking coughs come from the next room. It is like nails on a chalkboard to me. All three of my kids have head colds in varying degrees, but the kindergarteners have it the worst. I know they would feel better if they just blew their noses. Snot is practically falling out of their faces begging for a little ride into a Kleenex, but they are afraid, stubborn and won’t blow. I can’t fathom how they can be afraid of snot and boogers considering that every other time I look over at them, their fingers are stuck up their noses. I can’t blow their noses for them, and it is driving me crazy. I am tired of trying to manage nose blowing. The number of times I heard “I can’t” or “I don’t want to,” already today has ratcheted me to my breaking point, but I don’t know it yet.
My husband walks into the kitchen as the oven timer signals the rice is finished cooking. I must have some kind of expression on my face that resembles distress.
“Are you okay?”
I nod quickly. Hoping he’ll give up.
I say nothing because I don’t have words to describe what is happening to me. My emotions have piled up so high, and I can’t discern which one is the most prominent.
He lifts the lid off of the pot, hot steam puffs out into the room, and I feel a twinge of envy. I wish I could let off steam, but I am just trying to hold it together. I am trying to not snap in a rage. Something within me has been simmering on the back burner, and I have just been putting a lid on it, but I don’t really know what.
“What’s wrong?” he asks again.
I just cry.
I need to be alone. I don’t want to be anything to anyone for a while. I just want to sit with myself, and not be touched. I hope with enough isolation from everything my negative emotions will fade, and I’ll return to normal. But it never works out that way. Instead of calmly going back to their corners, my emotions compound and fold inside each other, piling up and sending me into a mental fog. I become disoriented and overwhelmed, unable to articulate what I’m feeling at all and shut down.
I have always thought my emotions were just these things that took over; stuff I couldn’t control or didn’t know how to control. But I have learned that every single emotion happens for a reason. Our emotions are not things that happen to weak people who lack control but are precious clues intended to illuminate our unmet needs.
In the same whiny voice of my sniffly 5-year-old, I find myself saying “I don’t want to.” I don’t want to dig under my feelings to understand what is really bothering me. What if I find a lot of messy, scary, and painful things down there—things that will require work? I’ve been helping little people work through their emotional upheavals all day, and I’m spent. It is easier to stuff down my own emotions because all of my energy is used putting out everyone else’s emotional fires, anyway. Back Burner, here I come.
That’s Mom-Life. Right? Giving ourselves up completely for those we love? Isn’t being a good mother measured by our willingness to fall on our swords for our people? That is what I thought while crying in my kitchen in front of my dumbfounded husband, with my wiggling toddler pulling fistfuls of my hair out to the side like bird wings. I knew down deep there were things I needed, but because I am a mother—a role I have always assumed must be immune to having needs—I didn’t give myself permission to tend to what my mind and body were crying out for. For the longest time, I’ve thought that motherhood was martyrdom—a badge I would wear proudly even if I were burning at the stake.
But come on, mamas, isn’t it time we acknowledge our needs and elevate them to the same level of importance to which we hold the needs of our dearest family members?
When we ignore our emotions, we say to ourselves that our needs are not as important as the needs of the people under our care. Needs are needs—justified and essential, regardless of what kind of human is having them.
Through my tears, I stand next to the pot of rice and grab onto the first emotion simmering in my head. Irritation. I am irritated because my personal boundaries are being violated. I look my daughter in the eye, smile and tickle her because I realize she is trying to tell me that she needs my attention. Then I gently put her down, and she scampers off, satisfied. Frustration. I want to control my life and help my children get control of theirs, specifically their snotty noses, but I know I can’t be in control of their lives. I decide to let go of my need to control the nose blowing and realize that eventually, they will learn on their own. The last emotion I apprehend is anger. I am mad that I never seem to have personal time, but I realize that is because I haven’t articulated my need for solitude or scheduled it into the family calendar. I look at my husband and say “I need to take some time to be alone. Would it work for me to leave you to do the bedtime routine by yourself?” He nodded and said, “Of course.”
I reject the long-held idea that emotions are not reliable and that when I display emotions, I am weak because I can’t access logic. I want to stop putting myself on the back burner emotionally. I know my emotions are meant to help me diagnose and respond to gaps in my wellbeing. In my best moments, I can be brave enough to look beneath my emotions to discover how I can pursue healing for the broken places within myself.
We are deep, complex beings full of needs, and it is vital that we seek to fulfill them.
Our emotions are valuable. They illuminate truths within us and call our attention to needs which are just as important as those felt by our loved ones. Be brave enough to lift off the big iron lid that keeps everything pent up inside, and look at what is cooking. Recognize and acknowledge your emotions, but take it a step further and dig under the surface of your feelings to let the underlying truths waft up into the air. You might be surprised by what you find (it’s not rice).
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Jennifer Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.