T’was two nights before camp and he asked to talk about it….again.
Me: “Okay, we can talk, but we are not going to change our mind.”
Him: “I just don’t think I can do it, it is too hard.”
Me: “It is hard, but we all think you can do it. Abba, Ema, and your siblings think you can do it.”
(yes, I am the weirdo parent who speaks in 3rd person still… sometimes I think it allows some distance from personalizing what I am saying...)
Him: “What if I can’t?”
Me: “Then we’ll figure that out too.”
Puff, Puff, Chug, Chug, Off we go… I think he can, I think he can, I think we can.
(Hopefully, all the toys, dolls and clowns are rooting for him, too...)
Just to complicate matters, I was asked at the last minute to accompany an early morning flight of campers from Phoenix, meaning that I would have to leave him in California without me the night before camp...sigh. But, of course, by the time I thought about the ramifications for my own kid, it was too late to change my commitment and I now had to put my trust in the camp community to help make it happen.
I think he can, I think I can, I think he can…
BUT can WE? Sometimes, it isn’t just about the kid, sometimes it is about the dynamic. I started working hard to compartmentalize my creeping worries.
The Background: Homesickness runs in my side of the family (not with my other children) but within my own family tree. As the story goes, my mother went to camp where her mother was working as a nurse and was still shipped home due to homesickness. (Grandma Sophie had to stay as it was her job.) Many decades later, I went to camp away from home too... A camp where my college age sister was head of girls camp...and I was still horrendously homesick even with her presence on site. ...At 13, I was traveling Europe with my Mom and Sister and still have the teddy bear I named ‘Homesick’ on that trip…and even my brother, the other night, told me about being picked up 3 nights into his summer camp experience due to making himself sick, because he was missing home so much. Sigh. On the other hand, my husband and his siblings spent 9 weeks every summer at camp… his own mother’s happiest part of childrearing, summers without her children.
Sometimes in a parenting partnership one partner concedes. In my husband’s mind it was indeed time for our last born to put on his big boy pants. Despite my worries, I conceded. How bad could it be? After all, I was working the front office to help with tuition costs. He had a trial run last summer spending days with a cabin and returning at night to sleep with me. My husband asked multiple times if I was going to give in… absolutely not, I promised. I promised over and over again.
I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….
I return from my chaperone flight and my little dude was actually excited! ...Wait, could this be? Only 12 hours ago I had a late night sobbing phone call from his overnight in the Rabbi’s family quarters. Woo hoo! It only took one night and he was set! Lice check, fever check, and off he went with his counselors!
I think he can, I think he can, I think he can… and at this point, maybe he thinks he can too…
Not so fast. We still had some hurdles ahead. By dinnertime, he was teary eyed thinking ahead to his first bedtime within his cabin. I started negotiating... (I know, I know, bad idea)...
Me: “Just try a few nights buddy, if it is really too hard, we’ll know in a few nights.“
Him: “Really? You promise?”
Me: “Yep, I promise.”
What the hell was I doing?! ‘I promise, I promise’...and for 2 more days I promised!… I even promised we would talk to our Rabbi friend, the Director, to see what we could do. As the next two days went by there was a mixture of tears and happiness. If he didn’t stop to think about it too much, he was having fun, enjoying all the activities, and sharing about how “awesome” his counselors were....But still….
Him: “It’s hard.”
Me: “Growing up and trying new things is hard, but this is a great place to try, I’m close by, and you are safe.” (This was all okay so far… I was hoping the other office Moms were enjoying my display of calm parenting, I was of course a pro…)
Him (Tears, pitiful face, and all): “Okay, so how much longer?… I don’t think I can do this… when can we talk to the Rabbi?”
Well, shit. In my attempt to negotiate and make it all okay on the front end, I really hadn’t thought ahead… I don’t think I can, I can’t, I can’t … I promised, I promised… what the fuck are all these staff members doing in the office? … I don’t think I can...I don’t think I can…whose issue is this?
And out it came...face to face...eye to eye...in a supportive, but final, unwavering voice…
Me: “Jacob, this is really hard for you, I know, but you just have to suck it up. I can’t stay and work in the office while you are at camp if you can’t handle it. You have great counselors, this is a great camp, and I know you can do this.”
Suck it up? Really? Did I say that to my kid?! Did five other camp affiliated people just hear me say that? Do I really call myself a Parenting Coach? Maybe they didn’t hear me? Oh, they heard me… they are all just acting like they didn’t hear me… why do I ever use the word promise?!?
I was at a loss for how I was going to make this work. My one last hope, despite my poor choice of words, was to show him empathy while at the same time being clear in attributing the emotions to him. I was okay, this was about him.
I might have been falling apart inside...feeling guilty for not addressing his attachment issues earlier and better...feeling pissed I had promised my husband… wasn’t I the parenting expert?... why the hell was I letting the other half dictate this?… shit shit shit… yes, I was falling apart inside… I knew I was losing the battle… but, my saving grace was Jake didn’t know. I was still his secure base even if inside I was losing ground on my own emotions.
Peter Fonagy*, uses the terms “marked mirroring” and “unmarked mirroring” to describe parent reactions to children’s emotions. He writes: “We find our mind initially in the minds of our parents and later other attachment figures thinking about us. The parent’s capacity to mirror effectively her child’s internal state is at the heart of affect regulation. The Infant is dependent on contingent response of caregiver which in turn depends on her capacity to be reflective about her child as a psychological being.”
I err on the side of oversimplifying Fonagy’s work by using this limited example. Theory of mind, reflective function, and mentalization, has relational intricacies and is a very nuanced part of a child’s social emotional development, I encourage you to read his work in more depth. But, suffice it to say, that in order for a child to organize their own emotions, they need their emotions mirrored, but not joined and escalated. When we empathize but also differentiate, over time, our children learn to organize self experience. Supporting the development of mentalization and the ability to think of one’s own emotions separate from others’ is a process that begins in infancy and develops in the course of the ongoing back and forth relationship between child and caregiver and doesn’t hinge of course on one interaction.
By organizing emotional experience children learn to think about their own thinking. On this particular day, while reflecting, I pulled from Fonagy’s work to keep my parenting and emotions in check.
It is true, I was falling apart inside, I was ready to give in… my own homesickness feelings were creeping in…along with my brother’s story he had just told me about Mom and Dad picking him up from camp after 3 days…but was this about me, or was this about Jake? Jake didn’t know I was falling apart inside. I hadn’t coddled and cried with Jake, I hadn’t told him I couldn't handle myself without him, or I was lonely and couldn’t believe his evil father was making me do this. Instead, I chose to calmly listen to him, I supported his feelings, but I seperated from his panic... so he could separate.
I think he can, I think I can, I think we can…
And you know what? He did.
From that day forward, his visits to the office were all happy. The day after our meeting, his counselor suggested Jake only visit once per day, and he agreed he could handle that. We never had to talk to the Rabbi and there were no more tears. There were, of course, more negotiations for a few extra care packages (but intermittent rewards are okay, right?)...this was BIG progress!
(I would think that the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain were very very happy…)
And the Dad at home… that big old black engine who wasn’t sure the Little Engine and his clown of a mother could do it… well, he was happy too!
WE thought we could and WE DID!
*Peter Fonagy, PhD, FBA, is one of the world’s foremost investigators of child development and attachment research.
One of his most recent publications is a book entitled; Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of Self