Category Archives: Empathy Toolkit


Why Are You So Clingy When You’re Sick?

sickchildWhy are you so clingy when you are ill?
Why wouldn’t you be?
It’s a wise thing for a little person.
Your instincts are to cling close to the person that will take care of you.
Your instincts are to cling close to the person that will clean you up and help you take little sips of water.
That will keep you safe when you are too sick to keep yourself safe.
Your instincts know nothing of all the amenities of modern-day life.
Right now those instincts of yours speak louder than all the parts of your mind that do know those things.
They tell you that the safest place is here.
In my arms.
Where I can care for you.
Of course you’re clingy.
Your tiny body contains much wisdom about your needs.
So cling close, little one, you are tiny still, but together we will be big.

He Had a Bad Day.

He had a bad day. I could see it on his face as he walked off the bus.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”

So I let it go.
Then when he was ready he cracked wide open and told me about the things that were bothering him.

I said that they would bother me too. That I experienced some of those things, and that they taught me compassion for others and clarified who I wanted to be.

Some things we don’t think about until they happen to us.

Then I helped him come up with strategies for next time.


Sometimes kids tease because they are teased. It is not nice or right, but their parents value toughness and thick skin over compassion. We value compassion over thick skin. So things that seem normal to some kids seem cruel to ours, even if they are far from bullying.

Children repeat how they are treated.

So the child who is told not to be a crybaby will tell other crying children the same thing. Not out of malice, but because this is the response that he has learned.

We talk about safe places and true friends. About the difference between family and aquaintances.

We talk about how he feels in the moment where he says or does similar things to his brother or sister. About honesty and about kindness. About finding out more about ideas before dismissing them. About how to present an idea that you want people to listen to. About making sure to listen to the ideas of others because very few people are open to listening to people that don’t listen to them.

Long slow conversation that took many turns as he tried to piece things together in his head, gave me more examples of situations. Asked me what-ifs.

He was too fragile to be nice to anyone, so I made sure that he had space, books, his bed. Calm. He chose to accept this retreat I offered, and I checked in constantly offering head rubs and shoulder hugs.

Then later that night dad put the little ones to bed and we spent time in the big overstuffed chair in the library reading some books together and snuggling.

He had been building up all the little stresses for some time before he boiled over.

He went to sleep happy, loved and at peace.

I could have gotten angry about the negative things he was doing and his short fuse. I could have felt manipulated by his tears of frustration when he was unable to quickly and easily complete a task he does each day.

I didn’t.

Let the Lesser Words Go

All the words there are, simply start a war
“manipulative”, “careless”, “ungrateful brat”
“conniving little cur”, “an artful boor”
no rod for your back, don’t be a doormat.

The things we notice are the things that float us
or the things that pull us down
the things that buoy us or the things that destroy us
and the things that make us drown .

Words so focused on upset, so simple to forget
you- a tiny little hand, a chubby little cheek,
Me? So big and strong, been around so long,
But anger makes us weak

I pause, I breathe, grasp at straws, sink down to my knees,
look at you, all the things that I love
God, give me patience please.
I can sit and talk without towering above.

little messes, broken things, grownup stresses,
words that others have fed me,
I can pass those words on like outgrown dresses
I refuse to have you dread me.

Open arms, pull you near, no more anger and no more fears,
I won’t let those words between us,
open heart, my head can clear, a gentle touch to brush our tears,
let there be love, nothing more and nothing less.
no more sadness in-between us.

I’ll let those words go, love the you that I know,
innovative, curious, endlessly creative,
You grin and you glow, strive to grow,
Dear one, you’re impressive, such a blessing
when I let the lesser words go.

(Written after a series of posts on one of the support groups by mamas that are working to let the lesser words go. <3 You’ll let them go, mama. You will. Be gentle with yourself, too, as no one was gentle with you.)

Breathe In, Breathe Out (The Zen in Tantrums)

Small flailing body in my arms. Screechy loud upset voice over wishes and desires that conflict with each other in ways she can’t understand. Frustration. This loud little thunderstorm isn’t a big and powerful thing. It is just bigger than the her I’ve known as she has grown to be this size. Just like her hands look huge in all their littleness, as they are so much bigger than the newborn hands she used to have.

Breathe in. (the scent of her hair has changed since she was a newborn. Less overpowering babyness and more little girl). Breathe out.

Breathe in. (She has grown so much since she was born. Big little hands. Big little feet. So tall!) Breathe out.

Breathe in. (She is so tiny still, in my lap. Hands dwarfed by mine. Feet so small.) Breathe out.

Breathe in. (She has words now, but so few and so hard for her to say. She repeats them over and over to try and get them right.) Breathe out.

Breathe in. (Feel my own size. My own strength. My own bigness. Look at her from the scale of me and where I have grown, not from the scale of how tiny she used to be.) Breathe out.

Oh little girl. Trying to be as big as the little things inside. I’ll hold my calm for you. You can rage it out, let it go, and when you pause to look at me I’ll be those open arms for you to clamber into, still wailing. I’ll hug you tight and tell you it’s okay. Storms pass. It’s all a part of growing. Your body will calm against my own, your breathing will slow, you’ll look up at my face and your tears will slowly stop. Red eyed, damp-cheeked, hiccuping from your sadness and upset.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I love you, little one.

Why’s My One Year Old Throwing a Fit?

Is it because I’m a bad parent? No.
Is it because my child is trying to manipulate me? No.
Is it because they’re being naughty? No.

So what is it?

Brain development. Plain and simple.

A human is not born with a fully developed brain. A newborn is born with just what is needed to survive. The ability to regulate body temperature, cry to alert caregivers, and to breathe. They’re not even very good at regulating their own temperatures or breathing in the beginning. This is why skin to skin contact is so beneficial for newborns and premature babies. Being next to an adult helps them regulate all those things that they’re not able to regulate yet themselves.

Once they’ve conquered the ability to remain alive they’re on to the next level of development. Physical movement. Again their abilities in this area are less than stellar. Thus they need to be carried somehow. Baby carrier. Stroller. Once they’ve developed the ability to regulate their muscles and move they don’t need as much support anymore. (Although you still wouldn’t trust them to cut up their own toast with a sharp knife because their fine motor skills are still developing.)

Emotions. Same thing. As they are developing the child needs additional support and the proximity of an adult caregiver to help them self regulate. They might nurse, they might snuggle, they might bounce in the adult’s arms. This helps bring them back down as they are learning to deal with emotions.

Emotions become easier to cope with as the left side of the brain (logic) and the “upper” brain functions (self control and long term thinking) develop. The hemisphere of the brain dedicated to logic tends to develop slowly across childhood, and the “upper” functions? They’re not done developing until the child is in his or her 20’s.

So a one year old? They’re a small physically incapable human being that has most of the emotions of an adult and none of the logical ability or self control to manage those emotions. They also have no ability to communicate what they are thinking or feeling or to use words to express what they are feeling. What does that LOOK like? It looks like a screaming, flailing upset child. Aka a fit.

But we’re told as a society that when our child “throws a fit” we should isolate them and that they are “being manipulative”. So instead of providing our physical comfort to help them regulate we isolate them and get irritated because we are “being manipulated” and baby picks up on the irritation if it’s there. (I get irritated sometimes too even though I know all the science and facts and reasons.)

So not only is baby upset that their entire world just broke (they lack the understanding of context and the fact that a broken piece of bread isn’t equal to death and doom and destruction) but NOW their caregiver is angry or upset and may be avoiding them.

Look at adults and how adults handle strong overwhelming emotions. We have words. We have context. We have a pretty decent ability to understand the “scale” of things. Our brains are fully developed and we have the CAPACITY to self regulate. Adults sometimes break things. They experience road rage. They become irrational. Doubt that? Look at your emotional state when your child is throwing a tantrum. Are you the paragon of even temperament and inner peace? Or do you sometimes have a VERY HARD TIME COPING?

Understanding what helps US cope can help us help our children cope.

Feeling supported, feeling listened to, being given the space for the emotional storm to pass, being held in a comfortable calm set of supportive arms, not being yelled at, not being treated as though your emotions are manipulative, being given coping tools, having words put to your experiences, developing an understanding of how things work, being able to communicate, not feeling dismissed, having a “full cup” emotionally, not being bored, not being overstimulate, not being overtired, not being hungry, not being stressed out, etc.

Is life perfect? No. But we can try and understand how to create an environment that doesn’t over-reach our child’s abilities to self regulate. And if our toddler throws a fit? We can recognize it for what it is. Overwhelm. It’s simply no different from when a toddler tries to run and does a face-plant instead.

They’re still developing the emotional ability to cope with life.

Creating a Clingy Child through Parenting

Mammals naturally attach to their caregivers and naturally detach from their caregivers as they mature. A young child when scared by something will run towards a caregiver even if running towards the caregiver brings them towards the frightening thing. As they get older they naturally change to the adult fight or flight response which is to run AWAY from the frightening thing even if that involves running away from the caregiver.
Insecure attachment creates attachment issues not secure attachment. It makes it so that the child has to seek out and cling and manipulate in order to get the comfort that they instinctively need but that they are not able to get in any other way. Children are resourceful and will find ways to have their needs met if their needs are not being met. It’s an excellent survival trait.
When they have to work so hard to have their needs for attachment met they don’t go through the natural and healthy peeling off phases the way a securely attached child will because they’re WORKING for what they need.
A child who has an abundance of healthy food available at every point in time doesn’t become a food hoarder. A child who knows that food is scarce becomes a food hoarder. Survival trait.
So why does a securely attached child look like they have an attachment issue at different points? Why will a nine month old freak out when left at daycare? Why will a child cling to their mother or father and be fearful of strangers? Because that’s what normal childhood development looks like. And it’s healthy. It only looks like an attachment or fearfulness issue if their developmental phase isn’t being respected. And since often this developmental phase is addressed as an issue that the child needs to be “broken of”, it often becomes a prolonged phase that parents vow to never repeat with a future child.
My 15 month old daughter walked into the YMCA childcare center all on her own and didn’t look back. When she was ready to come out she walked over to the door and threw herself up against it with a funny tongue-out smile and patting hands because she knew that I was there and ready to be responsive. I have had to leave her with other caregivers. But I make sure that when I come back I work on repairing our attachment and making sure that she feels secure. I don’t expect her to bounce immediately back to normal. I expect her to act like a child that has gotten lost and then been found. And she does. And I reassure. And then she toddles off again when she feels secure.
When she gets older she will understand that she can ask the caregiver to come find me in the YMCA and she’ll be fine with being there because she knows who to ask. And then I’ll leave her there while I go work out or swim alone in the pool for some “me” time. Until then it’s just a fun experience for her where she’s experimenting with independence. I’m “waiting out” the developmental phase and letting her move rapidly ahead of where she would be if I was trying to ‘train’ her into comfort.
Children’s instincts have them prepared for a world where it’s easy to get lost in the forest and not be able to find their way back to their cave. Where they can get eaten by lions and tigers and bears if they are separated from their caregivers. They need to grow enough for their understanding and mental capacity to catch up to the fact that they live in a world with telephones and GPS systems and door locks and very few wild tigers.
Pushing them away before they’re developmentally ready triggers panic upon separation.

In some kids they’ll process that it’s fine to be left alone and that mommy will come back to get them. When mom HAS to go back to work, there’s sometimes no other way. And they do learn. Different kids at different rates depending on their personalities and the caregivers they are left with and how their parents approach the separation.

Because I have a choice I’m choosing to wait it out and take the slow gentle road.

Children learn better with consistency than with inconsistency. So I try to be as consistent as I can and when inconsistency happens then I make sure to put in more work to repair the inconsistency. Just as I would with any other area of parenting. Insecure children are created by insecure attachment, not by secure attachment.

What a lot of parents see is the impact of “creating a monster” by allowing their child to be securely attached and then panicking and pushing the child away when they’re naturally more clingy as they go through a developmental phase. Yes. That will create a very clingy child. Pull ’em closer when they need to cling. Reassure them that it’s okay to go be independent and it’s okay to cling and that they’ll go be more independent again when they’re ready. Because it’s normal. And they will be ready. Because independence is FUN.  

Illogical Logic and Your Three Year Old Scientist

When my oldest was three I was cutting up some food for him. “That piece is too big!” So I cut a smaller piece. “That piece is too small!” so I cut a piece in the middle. He pondered. He looked at it. It was not right. He looked for words. “That piece is too… tooo… MEDIUM!”

Ahh.. The illogical logic of a three year old. Everything is wrong. Harry and Mary Contrary were clearly three years old and going through that divine time of frustrated declarations that things are just too darned medium.

Three year olds are scientists. They are reverse engineering the world around them. They’ve been provided with this huge thing called language. Their brains are exploding with new connections. They are able to imagine things that they haven’t heard words for yet. They’re able to understand that words can command actions and that sometimes words can change things and that other times they cannot.

They’re toddling through the minefield of communication and logic.

And their effort look a lot like the early efforts at walking. Awkward. Off balance. Lots of falling. Frustration.

They have no “common sense”. They can’t tell the difference between “It’s bedtime. You are going to go to bed now.” and “It’s not raining outside.” So they try to change the rain with words. They try to change the rule with words. They try to change the shape of their breakfast with words. And slowly they learn the things that can be changed with words and the things that cannot be changed with words. They learn the words to change another person’s behavior (“Please”) and the words to express what they are seeing inside their imagination when something is “too medium” (triangles not squares, cut the chicken between those two grill lines please.) Adults get frustrated when they don’t have the words, too! Or when their words don’t seem to be understood. Just think about how annoyed some adults get when their cappuccino is too much like a latte because their mental picture of a cappuccino didn’t match up with the barista’s mental image of a cappuccino.

This is what learning looks like. Three year olds have no “common sense” because common sense is learned through experimenting and seeing the results. Children don’t learn the reasons behind common sense by simply listening. They learn obedience. Obedience will fail them the second they don’t have someone to obey.

When I was eighteen I started teaching myself how to be a computer programmer. The way I learned was by opening up code written by someone else and making changes. Most of the changes that I made broke things in rather random ways. Slowly I learned not only how things worked but also how they failed. Had I learned strictly from a book I’d know how things worked but I wouldn’t understand how they broke. And when you’re trying to fix something you need to know how things break so that you can recognize the broken bits and you can dig them out and fix them.

This is what three year olds are doing. They’re working through logic by breaking the logic. They’re working through logic by exploring. By making changes that do not work. By being scientists. Scientists have no common sense. They put it aside and do ridiculously dumb things to see what works. To confirm their suspicions. To discover.

Your three year old isn’t being contrary to spite you.

He’s doing science. He’s learning common sense. He’s exploring all of the things that we take for granted because we learned them so long ago ourselves. He’s being brilliant. Inquisitive.

So how do we deal with this little doer-of-science?

I repeat the things that will not change calmly. I understand that they can be upsetting. I know that when I’m learning something new and I’m upset I need to step away for a bit to calm down. I recognize this in my child. If they are not able to calmly accept something that will not change, I help them step away for a minute and then we approach the same problem from a different angle.

I am not afraid of their upset. I am not frustrated by their upset. I do not get angry or afraid or sad or frustrated when my fifteen month old falls during the process of walking. I can be there for her emotionally while she deals with her upset. The same thing for my three year old. I can be there for him when he’s crying because he can’t make the rain stop by commanding the clouds. I can be there for him when he’s upset because he can’t change bedtime by declaring that it’s morning. I don’t need to try and change these things, but I can recognize how frustrating it is for this newly minted explorer of logic.  I can help him find the words to express the frustration and to communicate more clearly about what it is he is trying to do.

“I’m upset because I want the rain to change. The rain won’t change. Can you tell me why the rain won’t change, mommy?” Of course I can! And then we can go splash in the puddles. Because even when you can’t change something you can find things to enjoy and other questions to explore.

And the toast thing? Ahh.. Yes. It wasn’t that the piece was too medium at all. It was that he didn’t have the words to tell me how he wanted it to be cut. When I told him I couldn’t see the picture he was seeing in his head and that he could show me with his finger how he saw it.. I learned that he was hoping for long straight lines, and after that he knew to ask for “stripes”. Tantrum solved. Language barrier conquered. Frustration dealt with. Lesson learned: Ask for new words to describe the picture that you see inside your head.

Empathy Week: No Rush of Love that First Time Holding Her

One of the things that pulled me out of the mommy wars was all of the stories. This week I’m sharing the stories of other moms that have touched me through their experiences. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email me at and I’ll publish it here this week. (All names will be changed to initials to keep them anonymous unless you give me permission to use your name.)

S’s Story:
My daughter was born after a lengthy labor and, ultimately, a c-section. I was induced with cervadil which, for some reason, caused me to have something my midwife referred to as “rolling contractions”… meaning that one rolled right into the other, nonstop, no breaks. I had two shots of a narcotic to try and ease the pain, but they did nothing. I labored without pause for 14 hours before finally giving in to an epidural. After the epidural there were 7 more hours with no progress. My midwife suggested it was time for a c-section. The medicine for the c-section made me nauseous, the heat of the room and the proximity of people close to me made me claustrophobic, and the fact that I hadn’t slept in almost 48 hours was helping absolutely nothing. All excuses, I suppose, to make me feel better about the fact that when the doctor said he was going to put my daughter on my chest so I could see her I told him not to. I looked at her for the few seconds he held her in front of me but I didn’t really see her. I couldn’t see past my own misery.

They took her away and sent me to the recovery room. It was after 8 pm. I was told to keep trying to move, to stay awake and keep trying to move my arms and legs. The sooner I could move, the sooner I could go upstairs to see my new baby. But I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to force myself to function. I just wanted to sleep. I could never remember being so sick or so tired. I knew that somewhere there was a baby waiting for me, that suddenly I was a mother and I needed to get to my baby… I knew those things but couldn’t bring myself to care. I thought about telling them to give my baby a bottle. I wondered if people would think less of me if I asked them to keep my baby in the nursery overnight and I would start being a mom in the morning, after some sleep. Just thinking those thoughts made me feel terrible – this was my first moment as a mom and I was too selfish to do it. It was a terrible feeling.

Finally I was taken upstairs, still pretty immobile from the waist down, and this brand new baby was put into my arms. I stared at her and knew that everyone was watching me stare at her. My sisters, my mom, my husband. I nursed her for the first time. Everyone watched and waited. I said the right things, I suppose, made the right faces. But I wasn’t feeling it. I thought she was cute. Mostly I just wanted to sleep.

One by one people left. My husband fell asleep on the bed next to mine. The meds wore off and I could move. The hospital was dark and quiet (for a hospital), and it was just me and this baby. This perfect, tiny, amazing baby. Suddenly the rush that everyone talks about was there. I didn’t sleep that night either, I stayed awake almost the entire night staring at this baby and learning how to nurse and watching her sleep.

Someday though, my daughter is going to wonder what it was like the first time I laid eyes on her. I wish I had a better story to tell her.

Empathy Week: Best Laid Plans

One of the things that pulled me out of the mommy wars was all of the stories. This week I’m sharing the stories of other moms that have touched me through their experiences. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email me at and I’ll publish it here this week. (All names will be changed to initials to keep them anonymous unless you give me permission to use your name.)

R’s Story:
My daughter was born in December of 2011 after a series of miscarriages. We were excited and nervous and thrilled and anxious. I had researched birthing methods and gone to classes and had my plan all mapped out. No interventions, no epidurals, no c-sections, nothing. I was strong. Heck, if I could go through the pain of losing 2 children and keep my sanity I could surely get through labor and delivery without drugs.

The morning that my water broke it caught me off guard. It was 4am and she wasn’t due for another 2 weeks. By 7am I had not only made no progress but I wasn’t dilating on my own AT ALL. Nothing was moving. I knew my plan was going to be tossed out the window but in that moment all I cared about was her safe arrival. So they hooked me up to pitocin and still nothing was happening so they kept pushing it. I went as long as I could before crying out in pain for them to give me an epidural because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Yep, there went my birth plan.

After 16 hours of labor she was born at 8:02pm on December 14. A beautiful brown haired, brown eyed little girl. After everything we’d been through to get her here, I had zero emotion. I didn’t feel that immediate bond. I wasn’t gushing with love for this little person I had just birthed. I felt empty. I was exhausted and I just wanted to cry. What was wrong with me???

I was breastfeeding, because it’s best for your child right? Despite all of the problems and her tongue-tie and inability to latch correctly. I tried and I tried and I tried. Through the 24/7 spitting up, back-arching, screaming. I tried. Through the bleeding nipples and baby’s inability to latch correctly. I tried. Through the pumping sessions and endless nursing sessions. I tried. Through my tears and pain and her screaming in agony. I tried and I tried and I tried. I thought it was supposed to come naturally and be easy??? It wasn’t.

When she was 5 weeks old I had to have surgery to have my gallbladder removed. That surgery was a god-send. If I had never had that surgery, I would have continued to try to make breastfeeding work. But at the same time and after trying formula after formula we discovered she had both severe reflux and MSPI (milk-soy protein intolerance). It took us 6 miserable months to get there but we had made it.

Despite having all the best laid plans in the world, nothing went like we expected. I never expected that I would have to be induced. I never expected to have no feelings when she was born. I never expected my child to be born with a tongue-tie making it impossible for her to latch correctly. I never expected breastfeeding to not work. I never expected her to have reflux or MSPI. I never expected any of it. But it was the most amazing lesson for me.

You never know why a person chooses to do things the way they do them. Unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, you just don’t know.

For months and months after all of that, I felt very inadequate as a mom. I felt shame that I didn’t have that immediate bond with her the day she was born. I felt guilt that I had given up on breastfeeding. I should have tried harder I thought. I read blogs that said moms that formula fed were either lazy or uninformed. I was neither but I still felt like a horrible horrible mom.

It’s now 18 months later and not only am I completely in love with my daughter, but she is healthy and happy and you’d never know by looking at her that those first 6 months were as miserable as they were. I’ve learned a lot and I don’t judge anyone like I used too. We all have our own journeys and none of them are the same. If all of this taught me anything, it’s that we just need to encourage one another. We’re all moms, we’re all in this together and we’re all doing the best we can with what we have.

Empathy Week: Breastfeeding Shame

One of the things that pulled me out of the mommy wars was all of the stories. This week I’m sharing the stories of other moms that have touched me through their experiences. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email me at and I’ll publish it here this week. (All names will be changed to initials to keep them anonymous unless you give me permission to use your name.)

G’s Mother’s Story:
Year 1959.. Tampa, Florida. My mother is 18 and she has given birth to my older sister a few weeks ago. She is sitting in the same hospital hallway with her baby in her arms waiting to see the doctor. She has no family there as she is from another country and she is married to an American living away from her family. My sister starts to root and she does what is normal to her, she starts breast feeding her right there.. Suddenly a nurse appears and scolds my mother for doing ‘that’ in public! She feels awful, alone and embarrassed, a young girl who just became mother.. She didn’t deserve that.. It’s amazing how things change in 50 years..