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Making Space for Feelings

December 17, 2009 | by Sarah Smith

Despite being raised in emotionally deprived homes, my husband and I forged a nurturing bond that sustains our family.

My husband and I were both raised in homes that nurtured our physical needs, but not our emotional ones. We were not neglected; we were thoroughly middle class. I had ballet lessons, and drama lessons, and spent my summers at a country club. My husband studied piano, and went to boy scouts and summer camps.

Yet when we met, we recognized in each other a profound loneliness. It was the loneliness of being seen and not heard. It was the loneliness of never knowing what it meant to have a voice in the family.

The challenge in having been raised in this sort of family is that once your emotional needs have gone unacknowledged for so long, you begin to question whether you are entitled to have them. We both became intellectuals, academics who lived lives ruled by the mind rather than the heart.

We needed to learn how to move towards each other, rather than silently retreat into one of our many books.

After we married, we needed to learn how to move towards each other, rather than silently retreat into one of the many books that lined the walls of our home. We needed to learn how to say, “I need you now. Please close your book and pay attention to me for a moment.”

It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come naturally. We read books that rabbis and therapists had written about how to have a good marriage, and for homework, we practiced the exercises they recommended. We wrote lists, and charts, and learned how to actively listen. We stumbled and fell as we strove to develop true intimacy. That was preferable to taking refuge behind the familiar walls of silence while pretending that we didn’t have emotional needs because we were too afraid to voice them. We eventually succeeded in forging a bond that could both nurture us and sustain a family of our own.

People often marvel at how expressive our children are. My four year old knows how to say, “Please don’t make me do this. It’s too scary for me.” His older sister can say, “You made me a booboo in my feelings when you said that, and even though I wasn’t crying with my eyes, I was crying in my heart.” Sometimes, I hear her say to her little brother. “Don’t cry. Use your words. Tell me what is wrong.”

The rule in our house is that there is always space for feelings, and while their feelings don’t determine our house rules, it is our responsibility as parents to recognize how our behaviors affect them.

My kids have clear boundaries that they know not to cross. They go to bed on time and do their homework even when they don’t feel like it. And they also know that we are here to listen, that they are assured a chance of being heard.

Sometimes it is my listening more than my answers that are truly an act of love for my children.

It is not easy to assume this extra responsibility of listening as well as teaching, of learning as well as guiding. But it's worth the extra effort. When my children go to bed, I use this time as I tuck them in to listen to their last fading thoughts about their day. I know who there friends are. I know who hurt their feelings. I know that sometimes it is hard to listen to a teacher who talks in a funny voice, and that the tendency to snicker at those times can be overwhelming.

Yet I also know that occasionally these random thoughts are chased away by more serious concerns, such as “Do you love me when I misbehave? Then why do you punish me?”

At those times, I believe it is my listening more than my answers that are truly an act of love for my children. I hope that one day my children will recognize the that each word and thought that they shared was heard, and held, and remembered, and became part of the fabric of our home.


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