Susan's Blog

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Reading another person

One particular image that keeps intruding in my thoughts is Nat’s pale face in three-quarter view, his mouth and long jaw pointing slightly downward.  This was a day or two ago. It seemed like for hours Nat had been flitting from one couch to the other like, his skinny pointy limbs perched briefly, like a nervous dragonfly. The rest of us were clumped together in the living room, calling out things we’d read that were funny, our words popping in the air and amusing us like tiny firecrackers.

Nat, of course, was quiet and easily ignored (by the others, or so it seemed), but I was constantly aware of him. I realized that his presence there, staring and silent was making me feel sad, sorry for him. This is a typical feeling I have around Nat, I have to admit. And I want to know why.

So on my bike ride today, I let the image turn around and around with my fat tires, bumping along like the crenelated treads. As often on these rides, the mixture of still air (especially cold, still air), familiar music, and repetitive thoughts came together and formed an insight. I believe that we parent primarily through projection. Projection is another form of empathy, whereby we can connect to and understand another person’s frame of mind. From our children’s earliest days we have to figure them out because they cry, and so we learn about them through observation and intuition. Intuition is a knowing from within, without words. But where does this knowledge come from? Ourselves.

When I see Nat sitting silently and apart from us so much, I want to know how he’s feeling. I think back to when I was a child and how much it hurt to be on the outside of a group. So much so that I now avoid groups, for fear that I will be excluded. It threatened me to my core, somehow, to be a child that orbited others. I needed connection so badly, so deeply, that without it I may have felt as if I did not exist.  Some of that is still with me today, although I’m much stronger within now.

Nat orbits us most of the time, and his wolflike snout and wide wild animal expression in his eyes make me conclude that he is suffering. I connect the points with a story; I look at the evidence of his alone-ness and then I posit what that must feel like to him, because of how it feels to me.

On my ride I was listening to some song, I can’t remember now, and a phrase surfaced, that somehow caught my attention and made me think of this issue. In a flash I thought: if this is projection, then it is not necessarily accurately Nat. It is accurately about me. It is an expression of my experiences and my desires. For I wish more than anything that Nat would be part of things in the living room in the way that the rest of us are. Not only because I want to hear from him; but also because I don’t want him to be left out and therefore sad.

But it is I that fears being left out; I am the one who feels sad. Nat’s face forms a long lonely wall, but it might actually only be a matter of bone structure.


Oh, Susan, what a wonderful insight. Parenting IS projection, and that’s why I think it’s so hard not to become enmeshed with our special-needs kids: we are really guessing, projecting, with the best of intentions. Thanks for the reminder.

— added by Jenny on Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Thanks Susan … and it isn’t just parents. As a sib, I strongly relate to this too.

— added by Kate on Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I agree. I spend too much time worrying if my almost grown children are happy. They have their ups and downs like anyone. Expecting them to be grinning and dancing with joy every minute would be unfair to them because it would rob them of experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions.
Nat may feel the way I do when I am in France and the people around me are talking too fast for me too keep up, or they have a local accent that is hard for me to decipher. Yes, I am happy to be in France among well-meaning colleagues but following the flow of conversation is exhausting to the point that eventually I just want to be alone with my thoughts and a chocolate croissant.

— added by Jill on Friday, February 24, 2012 at 7:42 am

So honest and brave, Susan. We are indeed parenting from the inside out, sometimes from OUR hurts.

— added by Brenda (mamabegood) on Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 3:44 pm