“What’s wrong, Mama?” my four-year-old daughter asks me after dinner one night. I tell her that nothing is wrong and ask, “Am I making a sad face?”
“You’re making your serious face,” she informs me. I don’t doubt it. We’ve had a lot going on lately, and it’s likely my mind was in a few places at once. More than just being alerted to my “serious face,” what struck me most is the realization that my kid is watching my face for emotional cues. If I exclaim something abruptly, or verbally express feelings of joy or disappointment, then I expect her to pay attention to facial reactions. But in quieter moments, like at the end of a meal? Not necessarily—and it caught me off guard.
Recently, I had a friend over and, at one point during the visit, Anna excused herself from the living room, saying she was grumpy and needed to be alone. Fair, reasonable, understandable—I didn’t think much of it myself. “Does she normally just do that?” my friend asked, confused. I guess she does, but it just hadn’t struck me as unusual before.
Anna was verbal from a very young age. In fact, sometimes people would tell her to “use her words” or “say please and thank you”—as parents often do—and I would wind up frustrated. They only said this to her because she was already verbal, and not because it was necessarily an age-appropriate expectation.
While it seems oddly formal to excuse herself, I appreciate that Anna can identify and verbalize her feelings. When she was younger, I sometimes felt like I missed out on some of her babyhood because I rarely had to guess what was wrong or what she wanted—she would just tell me. Now, giving herself alone time seems like a natural extension of that.
It works in both directions. She’ll tell me that a silly video they showed at school made them “laugh and laugh.” She’ll tell me she dreamt about beaches and ponies and it was so happy (truth be told, I think some of her dream recaps are fabricated, but I still appreciate them). Likewise, she’ll tell me when she wakes up from a nightmare (she had a particularly disturbing one last week where she and some characters from the Arthur cartoon were strangled by cats), or when something hurts her feelings. Once she had a cold and her eyes were watery and she came to me so confused: “Mama, I have a tear, but I’m not sad!”
I’m not one to shy away from my own feelings and, for the most part (within reason), I try not to hide having a range of emotions. While I don’t want to be erratic or extreme around my kid, I’m not of the opinion that moms need to put on a shiny, happy face at all times.
Read more: How to raise an appreciative child>
Of course, emotions are complicated—even for the tiniest of people. It’s not easy to verbalize the fact that hurt feelings don’t always mean someone did something wrong or should apologize—sometimes it’s just the way you feel. Anna resists rules, for example, because they “are boring and not fun” sometimes, or she resists discipline because it “hurts her feelings.”
There have been a couple of times recently where she’s told me she feels sad and doesn’t know why. I remember feeling this way as a child sometimes, and explaining it to my own mother—although I think I was older when I experienced it. I guess explaining that emotions don’t always have a clear-cut cause-and-effect will be my next parenting challenge.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.