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The Empath

I have always appreciated Simon’s sensitivity, as I have always assumed it is a marker of a kind and gentle person.

From the beginning, I’ve had to be very careful in how I talk to Simon and especially in how I discipline him. A few times I got really worked up over something, yelled at him, and then watched him collapse into a sobbing heap. It wasn’t productive at all, because you can’t have a teachable moment with a hysterical child, and by the time equilibrium was restored, the moment was gone.

So I watch myself, and I watch others, too. I can still remember a day before Simon turned one when my mom was at the house and we began to have a heated political discussion. Now mind you, we agreed with each other. But in the grand Goldstein tradition, we jointly railed against a third party, each dumping gasoline on a joint indignant fire. At some point I stopped to draw breath, looked up, and saw Simon. His eyes were like saucers, his lip was trembling, and tears were forming. He thought something was wrong, and he was having a hard time managing his stress.

For about two and a half years, I’ve known the rules. No yelling about politics. Try to muffle screams of pain when you stub a toe, bash your head, or smack an elbow. And most importantly, I can raise my voice a bit or be stern, but both must occur in moderation and they must never happen at the same time. Gentleness is the order of the day.

In the last few weeks, Simon’s ability to read and talk about emotions has grown more sophisticated, further complicating the rules of engagement. I first noticed this at the grocery a few weeks back. I got irritated with Matt for something I can’t even remember any more and took on a snappish, dismissive tone. (It was admittedly not my best moment.) Suddenly, Simon began peppering me with questions:

“Are you mad? Why are you cross with Daddy? Are you angry, Mommy?”

He sounded curious and concerned in equal measures.

A few days later, I was trying to remember something and moved my mouth over to the side of my face in a gesture that looks much like irritation. I wasn’t upset at all, but it looked that way to Simon and he was moved to inquire about my mental state.

“Are you OK, Mommy? Are you cross? Are you happy?”

At the pediatrician’s office at the beginning of the month, the sound of crying babies launched a discussion about babies and fear.

“Why is that baby crying? Is he upset? Is he OK? Is he scared? Is the baby ok, Mama?”

Two weeks ago, God as my witness, we were on the porch blowing bubbles when a car pulled over across the street from us so that, with the windows down, the man and woman inside could have an out-of-control, screaming fight. Simon looked dazed by the whole thing, and I scrambled to get him inside on false pretences before he could get too worked up.

TJ, nee Kitty Friend, was the inspiration for a new line of inquiry into happiness. “Is Kitty Friend happy?” Simon asked Grandma and Papaw on a recent visit. “Mommy, are you happy?” I get asked many times each day.

As Simon is my first and only, I don’t know if this is textbook or not. What I do know is that it can be exhausting. I mean, there you are trying to rush a kid to the potty, negotiate how much TV can be watched, cook dinner, and do a load of laundry—possibly all at the same time!—while simultaneously looking happy enough to ward off a therapy session with a three-year-old.

Then again, I’m not sure if I noticed or cared if my parents were happy when I was three, so Simon, honey, yes, I’m happy. In large part because you care enough to ask.

One Response to “The Empath”

  1. blg says:

    Good post, Jessica.

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