I’m not a very good listener. The problem is, I think I am.
Because with total strangers, I am excellent. New people to me are like books. They have a whole story and a lifetime of experiences that I am interested in uncovering.
But I can go into autopilot pretty easily when it comes to my children. There’s something about the repetition, the sameness that makes me tune out. Every night, right after reading her book, my daughter complains about belly aches. Every night she says it’s hard for her to sleep. Breathe, I say. Drink water, I say. I’ll snuggle with you, I say. My list of responses are as “pat” as her list of complaints.
And there in a dark room, so very close to bedtime (and even a little closer to my own free time), I confront my daughter, and my own inability to really listen to her. “Why all these complaints so close to bedtime?” And finally she admits, “All day people are telling me to do this and that and the other thing, this is the only time that I have to tell you! How would you like it if nobody could help you when your belly hurt?”
She is a sensitive soul and has a strong sense of justice.
And she also has a point. I feel helpless about her bellyaches. My husband and I have tried everything. Radically altering her diet. Invasive procedures. Herbs. Probiotics. And instead of finding another creative solution, it is so much easier for me to just to give a reassuring, “It’ll be ok.”
But tonight, there in that dark room, I decided to do something different: I let time expand. “Tell me anything,” I say to myself, more than to her. “I’m here. I’m listening.”
This new choice was my own variation on “Shma Yisrael,” the prayer we say every evening at bedtime. “Listen, Israelite person (read: me) who struggles with slowing down to create moments of presence when you are with your daughter. Listen to her. She has stories to tell, a small life that is growing daily. Stop rushing.”
And then she starts to share her feelings about camp, friends, fitting in. Bellyaches are a code word for “Imma, listen to me.”
I know that active listening is a skill to be learned. I teach it at Becoming a Soulful Parent trainings, which I facilitate. “Everyone pair up and take turns to listen to your partner without interruption. And listen fully. Don’t listen for how what you are hearing relates to you, listen for the whole. The whole story, the words and meaning that lies beneath the words,” I say.
Yet at home, sometimes I am so busy with my own story to really enter into hers. “Don’t you see how hard I am working here?” my actions say. “Don’t you see that I am really tired and still have dishes to wash and emails to respond to?”
But she deserves to tell a whole, big, complex non-linear story. And I need to be privy to it.
“Hear one another to story,” says Nelle Morton. If I can clear out the places to really listen to her, maybe she will start listening to her own voice and make sense of the emerging story of her life.