Hell in the back seat

Why should we listen?

Another image from life: Traveling north. The family had arranged to meet the Feldmans at the Movil Junction. How wonderful. After ten minutes Shirit (three years old) bursts into heartrending tears. She had remembered that she forgot Nudnik, her stuffed goat, whom she had placed in her pink bag yesterday, and who so wanted to come with her to eat grass in the Galilee. They turn back. Daddy goes to find Nudnik. Just as Daddy’s triumphant cry sounds from the steps, “I found him!” Eyal (five years old) notices that he’s hungry and he doesn’t want the avocado sandwich Mommy made (“Don’t you know I hate green things?”) and he must go choose a pudding from the fridge “exactly like what Grandma bought me”. Finally they are on their way again, forty minutes late. After a quiet twenty-minute drive, they stop to fill the gas tank in one of those “wallet traps” that kids love so much. “I want to come pay too!” (Eyal) “I just want chips!” (Shirit). Now everyone gets out. They have to put on shoes because there are puddles out there and to walk carefully between the puddles and the car—everyone is rushing to fill their tanks, they must get to Jabel Paluha today to see the hollyhocks blooming—and they buy chips for Shirit, and a chocolate surprise egg (“Darn, I got a puzzle again”) for Eyal and pay at the counter. Daddy is done filling the tank, and suddenly a familiar voice from among the shelves. “Mommy! This is the Dag Nahash’s latest, I have to have it, everyone already has it,” says Nadav (nine years old) stoically, pointing at a plastic square with a price tag of 79.99 NIS. “What do you think this is, a shopping trip?” (Daddy) “Come on, get it for him, finally something he likes.” (Mommy) A debate, a wallet, a bag, a puddle, the car, doors opening. “Mommy, you promised that I would be next to the window later!” (Eyal) Doors slam. A short argument (ten minutes). They carry on. They fight. We’ll listen to the new Dag Nahash, we won’t listen to the new Dag Nahash, twenty minutes, until they reach the traffic jam at Yokneam and the topic changes. “I have to pee,” (Shirit) “Hold it in for a bit,” (Daddy) “I can’t” (Shirit, her tears rising). A short argument. “Okay, I’ll pull over here and you’ll go quickly by the road.” (Daddy) “But I’m scared.” (Shirit) “Take her at least to those bushes there, behind that restaurant.” (Mommy) “Fine, we will turn in here and park at the mall, we’ll stand here another twenty minutes in this damn traffic jam, just because the kid can’t hold it in a little.” “Hold it in for twenty minutes.” “Fine, I’m calling the Feldmans to tell them to go on without us” (Daddy, very irritable, already by the wheel)…

The experience of parenthood can usually be compared to a family trip up north, in which the parents are in the front seats, leading their children from place to place, from stage to stage, and the children just have to sit quietly, in the back seat, and wait patiently to reach their destination. Mommy and Daddy will tell us when we arrive. The goal is usually to reach whatever is after high school or the army, for us to arrive successfully at adult life. On this journey, any stop, any disturbance, any detour is considered a failure, a mishap. Usually, without even noticing, we parents relate to our child’s illness, his difficulty adjusting to preschool, his unacceptable behavior, even his tears, as a flat tire. Something that makes us need to stop quickly only because we have no choice (we can’t just keep going), we hastily change the wheel and carry on.

This doesn’t work.

Unlike the car, the goal of our children’s disturbance is to get us to stop. To get us to turn off this lane that we mistakenly thought was the right track. To get us to stop and notice that this is not the right track and it doesn’t lead us anywhere good. To get us to choose a different path. One that better suits our child and us.

We might not necessarily want to listen. And we definitely might not want to stop. In many cases when we are with our children, we prefer to just keep on going, at least another few kilometers, turn up the radio and somehow not listen to the creaks, the signs, the pain of our children, we continue to travel “our path” at any cost, to cling to our ideas, to preserve our habits—anything but stop. We already know, we already feel deep within us, that if we stop we will have to listen, and if we listen we might hear voices that will not allow us to continue along this path.

Neta discovered, when she was thirty-three, with three kids and a respected position as the manager of a large branch of an insurance company, that her children were really suffering. It began when she noticed that she didn’t really want to come home from the office. While she was still at the office she was overcome by fear of the arguments and the shouts that awaited her from the moment she opened the door and until they finally fell asleep. It caused her pain and despair. When I first met her, at a sort of introductory evening in which I explained my approach to parenting, she responded to my suggestions with cynicism and ridicule. “Come on, this is a child who hasn’t been falling asleep at night for an entire year. You seriously think that if I pay attention to the sense of home in my life he will suddenly fall asleep?” By the time we set up a private appointment six months later, she was in complete despair and much more open to new suggestions. She agreed to stop and listen. When her husband noticed the change that resulted from our meetings, when he saw the children responding to her new way of listening to them, when he felt the ease and softness that began to spread over the relationships at home—he closed up and became irritated.

He sees the change, and with all his love for his children there is no way he can’t see that something good is happening—but he is so afraid to stop, to ask the questions. He remembers how he was raised, he knows how to work with children, when to act gently, when to be tough, and doesn’t want to suddenly doubt, here in the middle of his life, the only tools he knows how to use. It is no coincidence that he is irritated. Even though he doesn’t really know what Neta is doing, he feels that it will mean that he will have to ask himself some difficult questions and perhaps turn away from the path he had never doubted and had never consciously chosen.

For this reason, I always make sure to ask if it suits my client to listen. To stop and listen. This can’t be taken for granted. When we agree to stop, it’s not always possible to get right back in the car and keep going.

Sometimes, in order to listen, we have to give up the Feldmans. To give up the blooming hollyhocks and maybe even the entire trip. What’s often hardest of all is to give up the feeling that we know what we are doing, the knowledge that we even have a general direction.

Again and again, when I notice that there is a hiccup, that one of my daughters is causing trouble in the middle of a journey, there is a voice within me that pushes me forward, saying, “Okay, we’ll caress her as much as she needs, we’ll listen a little, we’ll accept her feelings a little, we’ll understand what’s going on and then we’ll keep going, onwards!” This voice doesn’t really want to listen. Not to them and not to me and not to anything. This voice comes from a place deep within me that prefers the journey to the travelers. That prefers knowing over listening. That prefers to be in control. That is willing to be stressed out and to be inflexible and rigid for the sake of control—anything but be confused, anything but have to stand there next to the road helplessly, with no answers, with no ready solutions. Since I have already completely chosen to be involved in a deep conversation with my daughters, since I have no desire to push them forward as I was pushed forward, this doesn’t last long. At a certain point I remember that this voice urging me on is not really me. And then I take a deep breath, and another, and I completely stop. I give in to the question. I release myself to the depths of shame (“What—you? For years you’ve been helping people with their children, and you are still standing there weak and confused by the road, a bag of chips in one hand, a little girl in the other, a canceled plan echoing like an insult through your head, and you don’t know what to do?”) And then I switch to listening.

With my girls, it is easy to differentiate between listening and imposing. Only when I really stop and listen and be present, only then they are willing to receive what I really want to give them. Only then do they truly join the conversation.

When we agree to listen, the “family flow” changes. This is no longer the accepted way of moving where the adults sit in front and ferry the children from place to place. The adult—me, for example—is still behind the wheel, but next to me is a child, in the seat next to me, and she is four or ten or sixteen and she has the map. Together we decide where to go, when to accelerate and when to slow down; I drive and she navigates. The map is in her hands, because she is more familiar with this map, titled “A Life of Love”, than I am. She really knows it by heart. Everything I have forgotten that I know, she still remembers clearly. Since we are well-practiced on this journey, we often experience it as a “green wave”. Sometimes we go very slow, sometimes very fast and we often stop, but somehow whenever we approach the crossroads, the traffic light—as if it had been waiting just for us—changes to green.

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