Today is my daughter’s third birthday. As I was listening to her dad put her to bed tonight I overheard her say “But I don’t want to be three Daddy. I want to be two again. Next year I will be three okay?” I have noticed that lately she has wanted to play “baby” quite a bit. She will lie down on the floor with her feet and hands in the air making cooing sounds. Then she will show off for me how well she can crawl. After a minute she will announce that she just learned to walk. It drives her dad a bit crazy, but, having worked as a counsellor for several years, I know all too well what is fueling this “regression”. The simple truth is this: change is scary.
We, as adults, might think of all of the changes she is facing as progress, and rather exciting progress at that. We applaud each time she masters a new task and tell her what a big girl she is. But toddlers are no different than we are as adults. Change makes us all a bit nervous. Adults, as a general rule, do not do change well. Think back to the last time you decided to lose weight, or quit your job, or eat healthier, or quit smoking. If you are like most people, before you actually attempted any of those things, you likely spent a good chunk of time in ambivalence; that lovely place where part of you wants to change and the other part is decidedly not as excited by the whole prospect. So instead of changing, we hem, we haw, and we list three good reasons not to change. Then after months or even years of this hemming and hawing, we decide we’re really going to do it this time. And we do it! We’re off and running for a few months until we mess up or drift back into old habits.
When I think of how many changes my daughter has experienced in the last few months, it’s no wonder she wants to re-visit being a baby. In the last month alone we weaned her, as gently as possible (it did not turn out to be very gentle), from nursing and her bottles. A few short months ago she started big girl swimming lessons where mommy doesn’t go into the pool with her, but instead watches from the sidelines. We’ve been talking to her about getting her a big girl bed; which will mean that instead of sitting quietly in her room with her until she falls asleep, she will go to sleep on her own. Then we told her that she would be going to a big girl pre-school in the fall, which will mean that daddy won’t be there with her. When I think about it, being a big girl doesn’t sound exciting at all! All of it seems to involve letting go of something that makes her feel secure. Of course it’s scary. Of course she wants to regress back to being a baby where mommy and daddy were always there with her.
But there is also that part of her that wants to take the risk of growing. It is that part that I see at her swimming lessons: once her little hand leaves mine and she takes those first few steps into the water towards her teacher, I no longer exist. I see her joyous smile after she emerges from dunking under the water after slipping. I hear her tell this story with pride over and over, “At swimming lessons I dunked my whole body in the water when I slipped!” It is that part of her that I see at the playground when she climbs up a tricky ladder, slips, and then catches herself. “I’m okay mommy. I caught myself!”
It is a delicate balance, as a parent, to honour both of these parts. Our own fears can invite us to pay too much attention to her fears and insecurities and stifle the part that wants to take a risk. On the flip side our own impatience can invite us to stifle those valid fears and push the change before the child is ready. What has helped to remind me to be more compassionate to her ambivalence, is to draw on my own experiences of ambivalence and the process I went through to overcome my own fears. I try to live the mantra “Be what you say.” If I want my daughter to have the courage to take risks and overcome her own fears and ambivalence, well then I better darn well be able to do it myself. Hence my other motto, “Do something that scares the shit out of you on a fairly regular basis”.
My favourite example was a 20-day canoe trip on the Clearwater River in Northern Saskatchewan as part of a guiding course. River canoeing was thrilling, but very dangerous. People die canoeing rivers all the time. To paddle a river safely takes skill, skill I did not have confidence that I even possessed. On this trip we were learning to be guides. The river we were paddling was a class two river, while we would only be certified to lead a class one, which was much less dangerous.
It was near the middle of our trip that it was my turn to be the guide. I had been dreading it. My experiences of guiding our hiking trips thus far had not gone smoothly, apart from the meals I prepared. That morning, as got everyone up, I tried to portray an air of confidence. But in reality I was filled with anxiety. I felt completely incompetent. This trip was supposed to be as traditional as possible, no fancy stoves or freeze-dried food. That day, of course, it snowed. Starting a fire to cook breakfast for our group of 20 was a nightmare. It was not a good start to the day.
My co-guide for our paddle that day was my friend Vicki. She took the stern of the canoe, and I was in the bow. The role of the person in the bow was to follow the orders of the person in the stern. When we came upon a set of rapids, we instructed the group to paddle to the shore so that we could plan our line down the rapids. The goal was to avoid tipping at all costs. The water was very cold and there was a real risk of hypothermia. To paddle the rapids safely we needed to plan how to paddle the rapids, what strokes to use and when to use them. Vicki and I made the plan and instructed the group on how to navigate the rapids. Each canoe made it through following our directions. I felt a small burst of pride – our plan worked! Finally, it was our turn. Everything was going well until Vicki misunderstood the signals from our instructors. Instead of slowly paddling backwards, which everyone had done successfully, she changed her instructions and yelled at me to paddle forwards at full speed. I could hear the panic in her voice. I knew it was not the right call, not what we had planned, but my job was to obey. “Paddle harder!” I heard her yell. I felt helpless to do anything but obey her. We struck a rock and the canoe slowly overturned. I felt the icy October water hit my body. Then I did what I was trained to do. I rescued the canoe and started swimming to shore with it. My instructor had to yell at me three times to let go of it and just get to shore. Once there everything went into full alert. I had to get out of my wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. Someone had to find me dry clothes as my pack was in the water. Someone else had to start a fire. I could tell that Julian, one of the instructors, was worried. I felt like a complete idiot.
That night I made dinner for the group. Dinner was usually my strong point. That night, however, I ran out of food before everyone had eaten. I scrambled to make another meal, knowing that people were cold and hungry. Once I had served everyone, Julian noticed that I wasn’t eating. I told him that I wasn’t hungry. He asked me if I was the type of person who didn’t eat when I got stressed out. I said yes. He gently told me to eat. I listened. Later that night I walked as far away from everyone as I could. I cried and cried. The day I was supposed to prove myself was a disaster. Everything had gone wrong. At least, I thought to myself, the next day I would go back to being a follower and not a leader. Tomorrow would be better.
When I woke up the next morning I was told that we were staying there for the whole day. When I asked why I was told that we were staying because they recognized that I was scared shitless. We were going to spend the day going down the same rapids over and over again until I regained my confidence. My heart sank. If there was one thing I did not want to do, it was go down those rapids again. I heard later that when I got into the canoe with Pat, our other instructor, my face was white with fear. What I remember most about that day was Pat’s determined gentleness. He knew I was scared to death, but he also knew that I could do this. He never sounded discouraged, or impatient, or frustrated. He showed me that even paddling in the bow, I had more control than I thought I had had. We paddled down those rapids together over a dozen times. The last time we went down we did it with me in the stern, barreling right down the middle at full speed through the waves and filling the canoe with water. I was calm and breathless from joyous laughter.
Later that evening, I found myself bawling again. But this time I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t from despair. I was surrounded by people and felt a strange mixture of joy, sorrow, love, relief and gratitude. They had seen me. They had really seen me. They saw my fear and my courage and they had honoured both. They didn’t berate me for being afraid, but didn’t support me in that fear either. They supported me through my fear with compassion and a belief in my abilities. I will never, ever forget that.
That is the memory that I hold on to when I see my daughter struggle with her own ambivalence. I see my daughter. I see her fear and her courage and I honour both. I have compassion for her fear. I honour it by comforting her and holding her close to me. I tell her that I know that feeling discouraged and disappointed and sad feels yucky. I tell her that I am here for her. I tell her that she’s my little baby. But I also honour her courage and her desire to grow. I gently push her towards her goals and clap with pride when she tells me “I did it mommy! I did it all by myself!” I say “Of course you are!” when she reminds me that she is not a baby or a little girl, but a big girl now. I want her to feel seen. I want her to know that I love and accept and honour all of who she is, her fears and her insecurities as well as her courage and abilities and strength. I want to see her barreling down her own rapids, breathless with joyous laughter.