It’s funny the things kids remember.
This thought dawned on me as I put conditioner on my then six-year-old daughter's freshly shampooed hair. She reminded me to leave the conditioner on for five minutes so her hair would be extra curly. I shook my head in amazement knowing this tidbit was something her aunt had told her almost a year earlier.
I set the timer on my watch and placed my hand under my chin as my daughter continued to play in the tub. While thick droplets of conditioner made ripples in the bathwater, she began to talk. In the same breath as a request for a moisturized scalp came a horrendous recollection of me at my worst.
Avery remembered arriving at a holiday event in our community only to have to leave immediately. She remembered I was angry, that I started crying, and that my dear friend Jennifer walked us outside the building to comfort us.
Avery remembered Jennifer saying, “Sometimes moms need a little time to be alone and take a deep breath.”
Avery didn’t remember that her dad had been traveling for work week after week, that I’d just discovered her sister’s third case of head lice in a two-month period, and that the new holiday shoes she and her sister were wearing were producing blisters, which caused incessant whining.
Naturally, Avery did not remember those things; all she knew was that she was scared because her mom was falling apart… and another adult had to rescue her.
This is precisely what happens when living in a perpetual state of overwhelm—whether by one’s own doing, by circumstances beyond one’s control, or a combination of both.
Existing in a constant state of stress has a way of unraveling the fabric of your well-being until you completely come undone. And you can only stand there watching it happen, because you can’t save yourself.
My friend Jennifer helped me collect myself so we could go back to the party and attempt to grasp a small shred of joy in an evening so shattered. I remember walking behind my loving friend, watching her hold my children’s hands, even managing to produce smiles on their tear-streaked faces. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m glad that’s over. No damage done.”
Who was I kidding?
An imprint was left that night, a tender red mark on my daughter’s impressionable soul—a mark I would not see until several years later, when the smell of hair conditioner triggered an agonizing moment in her young life.
What compounded the significance of the memory was how surprised Avery was by her own emotional reaction. I watched as she blinked back tears, saying with embarrassment, “I can’t believe this is making me cry.”
As I watched my child struggle to maintain composure, all I could think was this:
Never again will I wonder if the harsh tone of my voice is absorbed into impressionable ears and spirits…
Never again will I wonder if my irrational rants are retained in young souls…
Never again will I wonder if the “bad” memories are cataloged right along with the “good” in her memory bank…
Because then I knew.
But this story is far from over. This story is not about guilt, shame, or regret over things a person cannot change. This story is about hope.
What happened next was pivotal.
I looked into Avery’s face and said the only words that could be said to a child who remembered the harsh words and actions of an overwhelmed mother.
“I am sorry. I am so very sorry. Will you forgive me?”
Avery threw her whole body into her act of forgiveness by wrapping her arms tightly around me and whispering, “Oh yes, Mama. I forgive you.”
Then I took Avery’s hands and told her something that was absolutely critical. I told her I was learning how to cope better in times of frustration and stress. Not only was I using restorative “Hands Free” time periods to push away the demands and distractions of the world so I could hear my innermost needs, but I was also paying attention to my body’s warning signs.
I told Avery that I could sense when a blow-up was coming.
“I feel this flash of heat in my face, my thoughts speed up, and my hands start to shake.” I explained. “That’s when I know a collision is coming. Like when you and your sister are bickering… like when I lost all the edits I’d done on my book… like when the neighbor was so nasty to me about our cat. Well, when those factors intersect with my own negative feelings, there is a moment of impact.
So just like a driver who is anticipating a damaging collision with another vehicle, I let off the gas… I pull back… I take a three-second pause to avoid causing permanent damage.
In this pause, I can really SEE the person in front of me.
When I look at you during one of these times, I can see my baby who is learning, growing, and counting on me to teach and guide her. Really SEEING you helps me respond with love rather than overreact.”
With gratitude spilling from my eyes, I told my daughter the hopeful discovery I’d made: Even a few seconds of pause can prevent tragic results. Even a few seconds of pause can help me choose love in moments of stress and struggle.
The moment of impact…
What we wouldn’t do to prevent hurtful words spilling from our lips—leaving tender marks on those we love the most?
The moment of impact…
What we wouldn’t do to save ourselves from years of regret and shame?
The moment of impact…
Sometimes it only takes a moment of pause to avoid a collision.
My child is fourteen years old now. And with fourteen comes teenage angst and attitude… excessive talkativeness and forgetfulness… anxiousness and irritability… but it always helps to look at her, really look at her, and remember:
She's only been on this earth for fourteen years.
She is my baby.
And she is counting on me to teach her, accept her, and guide her with love.
I can’t go back and change the past, but I can do something about now—now when my children are depending on me to provide a safe, consistent environment when the world is so scary and unstable.
I am trying to do things differently now.
When the collisions of life are upon me, I look at my children’s faces and remember that what I say and do in that moment might very well be with them forever.
And in that brief moment of pause—just before the moment of impact— love has the power to save me from myself.
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