Parenting requires us to use a lot of different aspects of our emotional intelligence. And many of those values might not have even been used much before we had kids.
Sure, lots of adults would claim they understood emotional intelligence values, like empathy, before having kids. I was definitely one of them! Coming from a Social Work background, I thought I had the concept and practice of empathy down solidly.
But the level of empathy that parenting requires of us, to navigate and support our children's development, was something I had never experienced before.
And what's more, and what I didn't expect to discover, was the empathy I would have to practice with my husband. Yet, going into parenting with him, just like working as a social worker, I assumed my empathy skills were adequate.
How naive I was...
I remember the exact moment I truly understood what empathy was. It hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Before I share this story, I just want to make it clear that my husband and I are very loving and capable parents. Mistakes happen. That doesn't make us, or any parent, bad or unfit to care for our children.
This story starts a bit before the actual day I learned what empathy was. I'm not exactly sure how far beforehand it was, but our firstborn daughter was only a few months old, I was having a terrible time breastfeeding and both her and I were miserable.
During a very difficult breastfeeding session, I got very flustered and upset and decided I needed a minute alone to calm down. My baby was screaming, of course, which added to the stress of the moment.
As suggested to me, in moments like this, I placed her in her crib and went to ask if my husband could take over for a bit so I could calm down.
The mistake I made was putting her down in the crib with the blanket we had been using earlier while trying to breastfeed. Just like 'they' warn new parents about infants and blankets, she kicked it up over her face and couldn't get it off.
She continued to scream and cry. My husband was just finishing up something on the computer before coming upstairs so I was standing outside her room, listening to her scream and feeling like screaming myself.
Luckily, my motherly instinct took over right then and made me go into her room where I saw what had happened with the blanket. Instantly I picked her up, tears exploding from my eyes. She was fine but I was not.
Anyone who has had this experience can understand the depth of guilt and anger I felt towards myself. It was unbearable. The fact that she was fine didn't even register to me really. I felt like I had just committed the unspeakable.
I got over it eventually but to this day, thinking about it makes my heart sink like nothing else.
Fast forward a few months to when our daughter was crawling and to the day it was my husband's turn to make a mistake.
Our rental house at the time was small. There wasn't really anywhere for her to go without me being able to see her, except of course, the basement stairs.
We had a baby-gate on the top of the stairs and usually always had it closed. But, as I'm sure you've already guessed, one day my husband forgot to lock it closed.
He was in the backyard and I was in the living room. Our daughter crawled into the kitchen and before I could catch up to her I heard the sound of her little body rolling down those steep, cement stairs.
I ran to her, screaming out the window for my husband to come inside.
She was okay, thankfully. Scared and shaken up but nothing broken and no signs of concussion afterwards.
My husband was beyond upset with himself for forgetting to lock the baby-gate. He could hardly look at her without crumbling in guilt.
He apologized to her and then to me - looking at me with the most shameful eyes I'd ever seen. And in that moment I was flooded with the purest sense of empathy I had ever felt.
Now, I'm not saying that to understand empathy or to be empathetic towards someone you must have had a similar experience as them. But in this instance, it was our shared experience of parenting mistakes that imbedded in me what true empathy was.
There wasn't a molecule in my body that felt angry towards him for not locking that baby-gate. All I felt for him was empathy. I knew the pain he had in his heart. The pain of feeling, just as I had, that he had almost caused the unspeakable.
He too eventually let it go but I'm sure if you asked him today he would admit there is still some guilt locked away inside from that incident.
Since then, there have been many moments in our co-parenting journey that have taught me the true meaning of different values.
Parenting with someone else takes a whole new skill set of understanding, compromise and forgiveness.
It isn't always easy of course. But when we get up each morning and begin another day of co-parenting, we silently reconfirm the commitment we made, by becoming parents, to use that new skill set and support each other as we learn together.
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