If you get to Kerby Lane Café early enough on a Saturday morning, the time of day when you wait not necessarily for a table, but for an available high chair, you might get the chance to meet Dori Kelly, balloon artist and face painter. Dori saunters cheerfully from table to table sporting a fanciful balloon crown to showcase her handiwork. My two year old daughter Sofie requested a flower hat, which
Dori swiftly fashioned with great flair. The pink flower protruded up from the back of the hat on a green stem and bounced playfully with every movement of her head. Pancakes. Balloon hat. What more could a girl wish for? When we arrived home we went into the backyard to blow bubbles and she proudly donned her new colorful headpiece. As she jumped around catching bubbles, the one-size-fits-all balloon hat eventually slipped off of her head and onto the grass. And then the inevitable happened. Pop! Pop! Pop! .
. . POP!
And it was gone.
“MY HAT!” she cried. “What happened to MY HAT?” And then I heard the most awful howl as tears welled up and cascaded down her face. I knelt down before her as she fell into my arms and sobbed into my shoulder. After a few moments she looked up and over to where she saw what must have been a very confusing sight. At one moment there was this bright, whimsical treasure and the next moment, nothing. All that lay there were the pink and green fragments of shredded latex in a pitiful pile on the grass.
“What happened to my hat?” she asked again, a bit calmer. I put my hands on her tiny shoulders and looked into her teary brown eyes.
“Your hat popped, baby.” She fixed her eyes on mine as I said this and tried to process what that meant. Popped? What does that mean? Where did it go? What happened to my hat?
“My hat. Popped?” Said initially the way she parrots back unfamiliar words and phrases she hears but doesn’t quite understand. Then she looked back over to the sad pile again and said it to herself, quietly, “My hat popped.” Then back to me again, and this time as if she were telling me what happened. “My hat popped.”
“Yes, it did. How do you feel?” Having a therapist for a father, this is a question she’s heard before. She buried her head once again into my shoulder and cried in a less dramatic way, sad, but without the shock and devastation that came with the first round. “Are you sad?” I asked after a few moments.
“My feelings are sad.”
“It’s o.k. to feel sad. It was a good hat.”
“My hat popped,” she said again as this new understanding now started to solidify in her consciousness. I don’t want her to be sad. I was sad that she was sad and I don’t like feeling sad as much as the next person. Tears welled up in my own eyes as she experienced this first of many, many losses that will inevitably occur during her lifetime. I suppose I could have tried to bury my own feelings like I’ve done a million times before. I could have told her to stop crying, it’s just a stupid balloon hat. It didn’t even fit! Or I could have tried to distract her and ask if she wanted some blueberries, her favorite food. I could have promised to get her a new hat. Anything to alleviate her sadness!
If you’re a parent, you want to protect your child from anything that hurts. You want them to be happy--always. Mindfulness has taught me that all experiences are essentially O.K. I don’t mean, O.K. like “good.” I mean, essentially there is nothing wrong. Each moment is a teacher—if you are open to it. So as much as it forced me to feel things I didn’t want to feel, this was my moment to learn something, too. What kind of father do I want to be right now?
The part of me that wants to spare my little girl any bad feelings was screaming, “Save her! Get her out of there!” But this is the part that is afraid, reactive and anxious. I know this part all too well. Actions that spring forth from this part of me only provide short-term solutions at best. Often they make things worse. In the long run, I am still fearful.
Then there is this other part of me that has an eye out for the long game. And when it comes to raising children, the long game is essential. I hate to imagine the kind of loss or sadness my baby girl will experience in her future, but I’m no fool to think I can save her from it every time. Loss is a natural part of life. I don’t make the rules. So I have to ask that given this inevitability, what do I want to teach her? How can I prepare her?
I don’t want her to run from everything that is painful. I want her to be open to experiencing the breadth of human emotion without getting capsized by any particular emotion. I want her to bounce back and to adjust to life’s ebbs and flows. Equanimity. I want her to FEEL. Everything. So in that moment, the answer to what kind of father I want to be is one who can hold that space for her and let her feel it. Be there. Daddy up, and feel it with her. Think of it this way. What would I be teaching her if I didn’t?
This whole ordeal lasted maybe five minutes. She finally said, “It’s o.k.” and helped me pick up the unhappy remains and throw them into the trash. If you give a child the space to feel what they are already feeling, you’ll see that like anything else in this wide universe, feelings come and go. All is transitory. Even hats. What an existential truth to be learned for a two year old! The rest of the day and for at least a week afterward, Sofie would randomly say as a matter of fact, “My hat popped.” To which I reply, “I’m sorry, Bug.” And then she goes, “It’s O.K., Daddy”
And it is.