When I was a 10 year-old girl, I lost a battle with a pot of boiling oil. In an attempt to make homemade corndogs, things went horribly awry and I ended up in a fight with an exploding grease fire. While it was incredibly scary to me at the time, I have grown to understand that the damage could have been exponentially worse.
My parents were at work. They were likely assuming their girls were enjoying the day off of school, the always-welcomed benefit of harsh Midwest winters. I am sure they didn’t expect the call from their frantic daughters who were at that point uncertain of the extent of the damage.
My parents rushed home, breezed past the lingering smoke, blackened ceilings and shriveled kitchen curtains, and found me with my hands submerged in water in the bathroom sink. After quickly assessing the situation, we jumped into the car and sped our way to our family doctor. I left the office knowing that the fire had miraculously missed my face while singeing my eyebrows, eyelashes, and bangs. About 40% of the top of my right hand received 2nd and 3rd degree burns. There were some additional spots up my arms but the major damage was to my right hand.
The next few weeks were full of pain and tears. My dad took on the job of changing my bandages. He had been a factory worker all of his adult life and had helped mend lots of minor cuts and burns throughout his time there. So it made sense for the task to land on him.
Since my father died in August of 2016, it seems that one of the strongest memories of my father is how he cared for me during those days following the grease fire. I remember day after day sitting on the couch with him. I’d cry and at times, I’d scream. He’d tell me he was sorry for the pain as he pulled away the gauze that seemed to be almost glued to the raw burned surface of my hand. He would blow cool air on my skin to ease the pain. He knew that the process was hurting me but he sat with me and cared for me nonetheless. I remember that he had to remove the bandage, allow it to air out for 20-30 minutes, apply the prescribed salve, and rewrap my hand. Over those 3-4 weeks, my father spent a lot of time focused on taking care of me and comforting me. I later learned how hard those days were for my dad and how many tears he fought back through the process.
Other vivid childhood memories with my father include times when he entered into the pain of my disappointment after not being chosen for a high school team…and when he entered into the pain of my sadness when some longtime friends started playing pranks on me that they thought were funny but I did not…and when he entered into the pain of my loneliness during the downward spiral of my first significant relationship.
My dad wasn’t a man of lots of words. His gift was always his presence. He showed up time and time again. He showed up for the exciting times…when I had lead roles or received awards. But he also and maybe more importantly showed up for the hard times…when my hands were burned…when my heart was broken…and when I needed to feel safe. He didn’t say much. Not that I recall. I just remember knowing that he was there when I was hurting.
These memories have impacted my parenting. They’ve caused me to consider what matters most to my own children.
As parents, I imagine that a lot of us at one time or another have assumed it is our responsibility to keep our children from pain. While, inarguably, I do believe we have a great responsibility to protect our children and provide safety and security for them, pain will inevitably enter the picture at some point. No one seems to be immune to pain. Maybe you have seen pain enter your child’s world through an unwelcomed diagnosis, through peer conflict, through a parent’s illness, through academic struggles, or through negative comments directed their way.
As parents, we can have the tendency to obsess about the ways we are falling short. Sometimes, we may even interpret our children’s pain as a result of our failure. Getting stuck in these beliefs will most likely lead you to being lost in your own shame and emotionally unavailable for your children.
Your child does not need your perfect words. They do not need your perfect answers. They do not need your perfect solutions. They do not live in a perfect world…and I am coming to learn more and more that the expectation of perfect words, perfect answers, and perfect solutions distracts us from what they do actually need from us…presence.
What I remember most about my dad are the times that he entered into my pain. I am grateful that he didn’t pretend that the pain didn’t exist. That he didn’t excuse the pain away as “not all that bad”. That he didn’t offer quick solutions. That he didn’t say a lot of “You should of’s”. What I remember most was his presence, and the comfort I felt from being seen in times of celebration and in times of heartache.
What I am saying is this…my dad was enough. He wasn’t perfect but his steady presence in the face of my emotional pain was enough. It was actually all I needed from him in those times. They are the memories I cling to now that he is gone.
The good news for us is this: What you have to offer your children is enough. You are enough. You will not keep them from the experiences of pain but you can offer them a place where they are seen and known and loved regardless of the bumps and bruises they display. Being a safe place when they experience pain today, means that they will grow in the confidence of knowing that you will be a safe place for them in the future. Once you find a safe place, don’t you always want to go back?
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou