Pam was crying tears of happiness and relief, but also sadness. The man she’d been dating for six months had asked, “How do you feel about what’s happening in the news, given what happened to you in middle school?”
Her boyfriend had remembered a small detail about her, something she had mentioned in the first week of their relationship. Unprompted, he had looked through the lens of Pam’s experience, which he had remembered after just one casual telling. She had shared her experience with him, and he had carried it with him.
It’s a story that presents in all sorts of shapes and colors, but holds at the center the same theme. It’s a story, ultimately, about listening. Again and again, clients tell me about a parent who was unable to remember the details of their life. Whether it was not remembering the names of their friends, if they preferred their sandwich bread toasted or plain, or who their most hated teacher of the moment was, the experience was the same… loneliness frustration, and suffering.
As children, when those who are supposed to love us are unable to hold the details of our life, the small pieces that put together the puzzle that is us, the result is profoundly impactful and long-lasting.
Pam sobbed when her boyfriend remembered that small detail, in part, because she had grown up with a father who didn’t remember the small things about her life. And while she knew in her head that her dad loved her, when she needed to remind him, over and over, about the name of her best friend or favorite flavor of ice cream, she didn’t actually feel loved.
Clients have described the experience in different ways; for one woman, it was the feeling of starting from scratch in each interaction with her parent, choosing details to share, building a new story about herself as if with a stranger. Another woman talked of introducing herself over and over again, reminding her parent who she was and what her life was about. And yet another told me of getting off the camp bus after a summer away and being surprised that her father actually knew which child was his daughter. To be known is to be known, in all its details.
I write this blog today as a cautionary tale for parents, and also, I hope, an encouraging tale. As inconsequential as they may seem, the details of a child’s life are vitally important; it’s difficult to feel truly known if the details of one’s life are not remembered or retained. And, most importantly, we can’t feel loved if we don’t feel known.
It’s common for children to take the blame for a parent who doesn’t listen. The child assumes he isn’t interesting or important enough, doesn’t matter enough to be remembered. The child concludes that he is the one who is broken and lacking. He takes responsibility for the parent’s inattention, in part, because a child’s primary need is to maintain the bond with the parent no matter what, in order to belong and hence survive. Secondly, a child blames himself, because he needs to hold the parent in his mind as something good and trustworthy, to see his parent as reliable, even if to do so causes the child harm. The idea that a parent might be untrustworthy, flawed, or even unkind is too discordant with what the child needs for his own equanimity. For little Jonny, it’s less problematic (paradoxically) if he is responsible for his dad’s inattention, as opposed to his dad himself choosing not to pay attention to him.
So often I meet clients who were not adequately listened to early in life, and the chronic suffering that accompanies such an absence is profound. As adults, such folks frequently continue struggling to be known, seeing every interaction through the lens of being adequately listened to or not, and never really achieving the feeling of being entirely known.
All that said, I offer parents the following advice: Listen to the details of your children’s lives, and don’t just listen, remember them… whether you’re interested or not. Furthermore, ask about those details, show them you know them. Parenting is a boots-on-the-ground endeavor. It’s not that hard to do really, and yet it’s one of the most powerful and generous things we can do for our children.
As a parent, I know how overwhelming it is these days to raise kids. Just the number of tasks we have to perform for our kids is staggering, without the rest of the caretaking. I also know that our children’s friends’ names change weekly, as do all the details. I also know what it’s like to work a full day and come home in the evening, cook dinner, and try to pay attention to the stories that kids tell.
As parents, our goal is not perfection; we’re works-in-progress, never completed. We’re going to mess up, confuse last week’s frenemy with today’s BFF. The point is that we try hard to show up, be present, listen well, and remember what we hear. So much of parenting is challenging and sometimes even impossible, but the act of listening and retaining the details, while it may take some effort, is not that hard. And particularly not when you know that the small details are portals to something infinitely larger.
If a child feels we’re present and experiences us as interested in and paying attention to their life, then even when we make mistakes, miss and forget things, it’s more likely the child will feel known and grow up to be an adult who feels sufficiently seen and heard, and thus not have to keep searching for it for a lifetime. It’s likely that child will also know that they’re important—they matter. There’s a saying: “God is in the details.” I believe love is in the details, and maybe it’s the same thing. Paying attention is love. Remembering that our child likes the crusts off the bread is a small way of saying I love you, I see you, I know you.