No matter how clearly we speak, how much we share, how well we verbalize, no two people ever hear the same thing. It seems to be an inherent part of being human. Words enter both ears at the same time but how they ping around inside our heads is a completely different event. And how it comes out in the end is like playing the game “telephone”. It’s never goes in the same way it comes out. No matter how hard we try. How often have you felt so frustrated you wished you had recorded a conversation just to prove exactly what you said? Regardless of relationship- spouse, parents, children, co- workers, boss, contractor, sales person… It’s all the same, what we hear is different.
As I wrote in the post “Are men from Mars and women from Venus?” two people were present at dinner. Both speaking words the other misinterpreted. The woman wanting to discuss their relationship but not knowing how to begin, worried he was unhappy at the topic. He was really just distracted by the traffic jam on the way to the restaurant, unaware of his girlfriend’s discomfiture. It always amazes me how differently people hear and interpret the exact same words. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we had the same conversation because what I’m sure was said is nothing like the other person swears was spoken. And it’s just not adults. It starts the minute we learn to speak.
At one point, my daughter slowly moved out of her room and into the hallway. Over the holidays that year I had given her a pop-up fort with 101 Dalmatians on it, thinking she’d have fun playing with her friends. Instead she chose to make it her bed at night. Initially it held just a blanket and pillow. But after a few days her stuffed animals started to join the party. This entourage slowly inched into the hallway and eventually found its way to my bedroom door. At first I thought it was cute. Weeks later, knowing she could hear every conversation and see everything I watched, it grew exhausting. Believe me, watching G-rated movies or carefully censoring my phone calls with friends and family while she was in “bed” sprawled across the entry to my room was not relaxing. I tried everything.
I finally had to let her cry unimpeded while I was in the garage with the radio blaring, knowing I had to stand firm- she had to stay in her own room at night. This finally worked but she still demanded to sleep in that tent, on the floor, surrounded by every stuffed animal she owned. She came as close as possible to the hall but refused a complete withdrawal to her bed. I couldn’t figure out why. Sure I had all sorts of psycho babble reasons- she couldn’t deal with the divorce and needed to feel close to her Mommy. She was afraid I’d leave and had to stay in close proximity to ensure I was there. She found the bed too big and empty, wanting the small, intimate space of a fort filled with animals. . . I could go on. But no matter how hard I tried to lovingly attend to each possible motive, she never wavered in her demands to stay on the floor at the door’s threshold.
Frustrated, after months of wondering how to help my baby I turned to a friend, begging some magical insight and direction. Being a therapist, trained in these situations I was sure she’d have just the right answer. I waited with bated breath for her brilliant advice. “I haven’t a clue, ” she responded.
Crestfallen, I didn’t know what to say. I’d tried everything. If she couldn’t help, who could?
Then she said the most ridiculous words yet, “you have to get into her head and find out why she feels the need to do this.”
That’s what I’d been trying to do for months, and had failed miserably. How exactly was I to do that? I talked and talked until I was blue in the face. “Maybe” my friend said, “that’s the problem. Let her talk.”
Hmmm. I’m an intelligent, loving mother- exactly how do I do that when getting more than a muffled “uh huh” was close to impossible?
My friend’s honest answer?- “I haven’t a clue.”
That weekend I took my daughter out to a park and then the mall. We just wondered around talking about school, friends, home, and store fronts. We giggled and laughed as only a three year old can do. Passing by a place that lets you make your own stuffed bears, I picked up a “Mommy” and a “baby bear” and pantomimed them sharing, laughing like us, making the point that Mommy bears take care of baby bears. That’s when she screwed up her face and disagreed vehemently saying it was the other way around. I was dumbstruck. Where had this come from? When I asked that exact question, jumping in to explain why she was wrong, she fidgeted, looked every where but at me and shut down.
Realizing the error of my ways I backed up, took a deep breath and said,” I always thought Mommy bears take care of baby bears so they can play and go to school and learn and never worry about anything but growing up healthy, loved, happy and safe.” She picked up the mommy bear, held it in her arms and said, “That’s why baby bears have to protect Mommy bears. They put them in an incubator. If they don’t stay in the incubator, Mommy bears die.”
Horrified, I asked what she meant by an incubator. “That’s where Mommys won’t die because they ate fish!”
Ate fish? Incubators? What was she talking about? And what did fish have to do with anything?
Desperately trying to keep up with my sweetheart’s twists and turns I hadn’t a clue how to respond to that statement, so I asked, “Why do Mommy bears die if they eat fish?” “Because they get really, really sick and then go away.” The terror on her face was heartbreaking.
That’s when it hit me. She used to love to hear stories of when I was pregnant. How she was inside my belly, floating gently, hearing, feeling, eating. . .everything I did. I’d shared how safe and protected she was until I could hold her in my arms. But I also told her how the first few months were filled with bouts of terrible nausea. Once it was so bad I actually hit my parents in the front seat of a car when they didn’t pull over fast enough. And fish made it so much worse- I had added how, “Even the thought of fish made me so sick I thought I would die.”
Who knew how my 3 year old would hear this. Who knew it went into her little ear, pinged around her brain and came out the other side- fish kills mommy! My poor, sweet baby had taken this literally and decided she needed to protect and keep me safe in an incubator, like my belly, or I’d die. A concept she couldn’t fathom let alone deal with. All because I’d told a story about fish! Wow, not in a million years could I have anticipated this answer.
I was finally seeing a glimpse into her scary, frightened world and how she was desperately trying to cope. That night I told her the “incubator” was wherever anyone felt safe and loved since that place would always protect them.
When she was a baby she had slept under the window but once she outgrew the crib and moved on to a beautiful canopy bed, it no longer fit there, so it was moved to the opposite wall. Clearly she knew this new spot wasn’t right. Clearly she had felt that loss and was searching for another safe spot hence the fort and dozens of stuffed animals for protection. We ceremoniously took off the canopy and moved her bed back to the window where it belonged. We then placed all her stuffed animals around the base and proclaimed:
“Our incubator is back. The only place where it can protect us both.”
I carefully tucked her in and reinforced this by placing more stuffed animals around the blankets edge. Nothing was getting through this fortified location! Once I heard, truly heard her fears and needs, sharing them diminished their hold and they became less frightening. The ritual of setting up the “incubator” every night in her bed kept us safe for many peaceful months. Until one day it became unnecessary and disappeared all together. She had moved on.
Now, when I see myself getting into a conversation that’s going nowhere fast, where we’re both talking at, not to, each other, I remember the incubator and the lesson it taught me. Regardless of age, we all need to be heard. To have our fears and concerns acknowledged. Sometimes it means letting the other talk, sometimes it means listening to what initially sounds like gibberish until, with patience, it makes sense. Either way, we all have an incubator that needs to be honored. Until that happens nothing moves on.