The day that changed my life didn’t start out promisingly at all.
My almost three-year-old son had pinkeye in both eyes. His eyes were really gunky, and he didn’t feel well. I managed to gather up his little brother and bundle us all off to the pediatrician. It was a short visit. He prescribed eye drops. As I picked them up at the pharmacy, I began to imagine how to get those eye drops into my son’s eyes. My mental images weren’t pretty.
Parents know their children. I knew that Jacob would not lie down and let me put drops in his eyes. If I were two, I wouldn’t let a grownup do that to me either. What were my options? Wait till he’s asleep? Impossible. Trick him into it? No, there’s no tricking a child about eye drops. Backed into a corner no parent wants to be in, I figured I would have to overpower him, pin one of his arms under each of my knees, force his eyelids apart, and bomb him with those drops. I love my boy. How would he be able to trust me after I did this to him, not once but three times a day?
I put the treatment off for several hours, dreading the inevitable. Then, as I was putting the baby down for a nap, a new thought occurred. I was involved in an interesting new experiment. I had struck up a listening partnership with another parent who was in dire straits. I would listen to him for an hour, and then he would listen to me. We were experimenting with what happens when people really listen, at length. We were both having tough times as parents. We wanted to do better. Weekly, we took hour-long turns listening, then talking. We were learning to accept the feelings that might come up, along with the concerns we each expressed.
This had given me so much more patience with my children. And the father I was listening to, whose wife had run off, leaving him alone with his six-month-old daughter, was managing to emerge from near paralysis. Week by week, we listened with all our hearts, but gave no advice. I found I liked to listen. And I loved the results.
So when the baby was asleep, I decided to see what would happen if I listened to Jacob. What could I lose? It wasn’t an emergency. The baby was asleep. So, what the heck!
I brought him in on the big bed, and showed him the bottle of drops. “Jacob, I need to put these drops in your eyes to make you better.” He cried. Big tears. I listened. When he slowed down, I showed him the bottle again. “These are going to make your eyes better.” More crying. And he was beginning to sweat. I listened. I offered eye contact, figuring that this was a way to show him that I was on his side, even though I had that bottle in my hand. I showed him the eye drops, and he cried. We stayed close, and went back and forth like that for a good long time. So much crying! Then, I asked him if he wanted to see the dropper. He nodded yes, so I opened the bottle, removed the dropper, and squeezed a few drops back in. It was a graphic demonstration of things to come. He threw himself back on the bed, kicked, flailed, and cried harder than before.
The baby was still asleep, bless his heart. By now, I was really curious. I had once or twice in my life experienced my mind clearing after a big cry. I remembered that deep, anchored feeling you get when someone cares, and listens. But would this work with a two-year-old? Where would this end?
I demonstrated drops falling several more times. He cried long and hard each time. Then, he stopped and asked, “Can I do the dropper?”
“OK, sure,” said I, glad for a break in the storm.
He squeezed drops into the bottle several times. It was fascinating to him. I said, “OK, now we need to squeeze these into your eyes.” He threw himself back and wailed once again. But this time, he stopped quickly. He got up, looked at me, and said, “I want to do the drops.”
Now there was an idea that had not occurred to me! He wasn’t yet three. It was my job to do the drops. But after a few seconds, I said, “Sure you can, but I’ll have to help you.”
I laid him down on his back, put two drops into the dropper, and placed his hand where I thought it should be. I told him to keep his eye open. He squeezed two drops, and they landed perfectly. I tried not to fall all over him in amazement. He wanted to do the second eye. One drop missed its mark. He redid that one, got up, blinked, and climbed off the bed, ready to play. That was that! Drops went in smoothly, no fear, no complaints, from then on. Amazing!
That was the day I understood that listening gave me the power to truly help my sons. Here was a way to get through an impossible situation. He could express his feelings, and I could be his partner, keeping him safe until he could think for himself. We each had our job. Working together like that, who knows what fears we could conquer. Who knows what love he could feel, even when I had to say no, or make sure a difficult thing happened. He was little, I was big, but here was a way we could work it out. If he could shed his fear of eye drops, we could work out almost anything!