It was my first birthday as an empty-nester. My husband took the day off work and planned a fun-filled day. A homemade breakfast with fruit, scones, and clotted cream. A visit to a butterfly garden and a conservatory where we discovered a bonsai tree as old as I was. A picnic lunch and later dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. What a splendid day.
No one else remember my birthday that year. No cards or calls from my parents, sisters, or kids. This was very odd – never happened before or since. But at some point midday one child did text me a pleasant birthday greeting.
As we texted back and forth, this child little-by-little began sharing their grievances. They reported how they were seeking counseling … and the counselor felt they suffered from post traumatic stress disorder … a result of trauma in Russia … and in our home … and … I began to sense the conversation taking a turn in a direction that didn’t seem very celebratory. So, I finally said, “It sounds like you have some things you need to share with Dad and I. Why don’t you put it in an email and we’ll get back to you in a few days.”
I knew I needed to offer an open heart – just not on my birthday.
The letter came and we got slammed pretty hard. This was not the first time one of my children had sent a harsh letter. By this point in my parenting experience I had learned the importance of these letters. They were never easy to read. They hurt. But they also communicated hope.
Like puking – my children were getting toxicity out of their systems. Once it’d been shared – and (gross as it sounds) received – the poison lost its power. Continuing with this analogy, if you’ll bear with me, I didn’t have to ingest what they spewed at me. I could receive it, but I didn’t have to take it in. Sometimes I had to be like an armadillo – with a hard exterior while maintaining a soft interior.
I’d learned that if my children sensed I wouldn’t listen, or feared I would only come back at them with parenting rhetoric, they would have kept silent. They shared their pain because they wanted to know if I really cared.
In truth, they wanted a relationship with me. If they hadn’t, they would have walked away and I’d have never heard from them again. Their harsh words were an attempt to get painful memories out of the way of a positive relationship.
I learned that it accomplished nothing to try and set the record straight. Their perspective may have been totally wrong, but it was reality to them.
At the same time, I didn’t apologize for something I didn’t do, or for something I did that before God believed was right. But I at least learned to say, “I’m sorry you’re hurting.” Or “I’m sorry for the ways I hurt you (without agreeing to their specific offenses). Will you please forgive me?” Because the truth is, I did plenty to hurt my children outside their list of offenses.
And I also learned to say, “Thank you for sharing your heart with me.” Because as cutting as their words were, they were still a gift. My children were facing pain in their lives – a healthy thing for them to do. They couldn’t begin healing if they kept past hurts stuffed in the back corners of their hearts.
If your children at hurling angry, hurtful words at you, I have a feeling that deep inside they are pleading, “I hurt and I need a mommy to care.”
It may be time to crawl into your armadillo suit and let them spew. Don’t correct – right now, anyway. Just receive. Say thank you, and then give yourself time and space to recover.
You may need to revisit the conversation at some point. I never did. I believed the most important thing for me to do was to really listen.