“You like Sofie more than me!” Tears spilled out of Mica’s eyes as the rain spit down on us. We were standing on the sidewalk. Sofie, the toddler I babysit once a week, was already in the car.
I was drawn into a squat before him, “Oh, Mica, that is not true. I don’t like Sofie more than you. But I see how sad you feel.”
We stayed like that, together. I was choosing not to talk too much, trying to make room for his feelings. Though it was also true that I was squatting in the rain, next to the car, on our way to pick up Orlando.
And soon that is just what we did — we got in the car and picked up Orlando. And went on with our day.
But I noticed a change after that… Mica was no longer as thrilled with Sofie (not her real name, by the way). He turned away from her when playing. He was generally less happy and more bossy. One time, as we were reading on the couch, Sofie arrived and cozied in with us, and I noticed him start chewing his sleeve (which is a sign of anxiety for him).
That night, at bedtime, he asked me, quite matter of factly, in an I-must-know-the-truth tone, “Mama, who do you love more? Sofie or me?”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The question broke my heart in the way only children’s tenderness can.
I told him that while I like Sofie, I love him more than the entire universe. While he seemed satisfied, I knew it would take more than words. The child’s heart lies beyond rationale.
All of our hearts do.
Because how rational is it to think your mother loves a child she babysits more than you? Sofie is an incredibly adorable toddler, and I delight in her. But she’s only here for a few hours a week. Yet to Mica it is entirely conceivable that I might love her more than him.
I wondered, is there a kernel of truth in there? And when I reflected on our time together, I could see how much bigger my invitation was to her than to him — she was a guest and I was her gracious host.
In fact, the time at the car, I was struggling to get Sofie’s car seat installed. Because she had wandered toward the street (I had forgotten what it’s like to have a toddler — they don’t stay in one place for long!), I had scooped her up and deposited her on the front seat, inadvertently leaving Mica waiting outside, alone, in the rain.
Then, just as I had latched the car seat into place, she started to fuss. I hopped out of the back seat and passed by Mica, pulled open the front door, spread my arms and eyes wide, and exclaimed, “Oh, there you are!! Thank you so much for waiting!” She responded in kind, with a big smile. Cue Mica’s outburst.
Anyone could see that Mica was “jealous” but what Gordon Neufeld might see is a child experiencing attachment alarm. Mica’s body was alerting him to a separation from his most important attachment — me.
You would think our children would know how much we love them, and that we are not going to abandon them, but it became clear to me that Mica had his doubts and that my actions with Sofie were communicating more than I realized. Rather than try to talk him into believing there was no reason for his worry, I decided to put energy into our attachment, and see if that would help him feel more connected, secure, and at ease.
Neufeld suggests that there are six levels of attachment that deepen over time given the right conditions — the senses, sameness, belonging and loyalty, significance, love, and being known. I’ve been working to bolster them in the following ways…
- I engage Mica’s senses. I make lots of eye contact with Mica. I hug him, and touch him. I include him when I talk to Sofie, and invite him when I tend to her. If I hand Sofie an apple slice and notice Mica coming for one, I get there first and hand him a piece with a smile in my eyes.
- I point out some of what is the same between him and Sofie: “You are both enjoying the bath so much!” or “You both have blue coats.” I have also been noting how Mica and I are the same — we both have curls in our hair, love books, etc.
- I emphasize belonging and loyalty by telling Mica that “we’ll” be taking care of Sofie at “our” house. I’ve talked about how me, Mica, Papa, and Orlando make a family — and that Mica will always be in our family. I am his Mama and he is my son.
- I tell Mica his birth story and that he is the only Mica ever. In fact, a few weeks ago, Mica would say in the middle of the day, “Let’s get in bed, Mama.” I would lie with him, we would cuddle, and he would ask me to tell him his birth story. At the time I didn’t connect it with babysitting Sofie, but wow! one of the ways we communicate significance — how much our children mean to us — is to tell them their birth/arrival story.
- I love him up. I say things like, “Oh, Mica, I love you!” “I like being with you.” and “I am happy to see you.” When Mica and I are apart, I write him love notes, give him a special rock to hold on to, or a sweet to eat (his suggestion . We talk about how the sweet turns to sugar in his blood and becomes my love inside his body. He loves all this stuff!
- I show him he is known. I point out ways that Sofie and I are both watching him do whatever funny thing he is doing. That we are enjoying him. That we see him. I remember he doesn’t like it when I pretend-bite him and stop myself from doing it. I surprise him with something I know he will enjoy — a book from the library or a sweet treat (this kid LOVES sweets).
Many of these actions are simple, and many of them do involve words. But the words are evoked from a heart-space and intentionally initiated by me. I am calling upon a sense of bigness — of being able to hold Mica and Sofie and whatever else comes our way.
I noticed an immediate change in Mica’s mood around Sofie. He even told me, out of the blue, “I like Sofie more now. We are getting along better.” But most importantly, he no longer has to ask if I love him and I no longer have to explain or convince him of my love. I am conveying it to him, and he is receiving it.
When things first changed with Sofie, I considered stopping babysitting. In some cases it would be right to alter one’s schedule or activities in order to limit separation. Yet it’s also possible to bridge separation, repair hurts, touch on the sadness, and shore up attachment without necessarily making logistical changes.
It is quite powerful knowing that I have the tools to reach Mica in this way. I am amazed to find that our hearts can communicate perfectly in this imperfect world.
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This post also appears today on the Seattle Neufeld Community blog. Please pop over to check out stories shared in the spirit of more deeply understanding human development and attachment while in the midst of raising up these lovely young ones (and sometimes ourselves, too).