I Can Comfort Your Emotional Pain, Not Your Physical Pain

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I am not the most nurturing of mothers. I do much better with emotional feelings of pain and discomfort than physical aches and pains. This can make being a parent (and a spouse) tricky.

My dad and I are both known for having a high tolerance to physical pain. Case in point, my dad refused to take any more painkillers three days after having open-heart surgery. I completely declined painkillers after having a tooth pulled. Despite our tolerance for physical pain, my dad and I both cry at the drop of a hat—during weddings, funerals, sad movies, sometimes Sunday dinner when we’re reminiscing about family.

Talk to me about emotional pain and I am all in. I will listen to a friend’s problems for hours; hold their hand as they cry about lost friendships, ruined relationships, and broken hearts. But stub your toe, hit your elbow or skin your knee and I’m at a loss for words. As a kid, I was always taught to power through stomachaches and to shake off skinned knees.

My tween, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Try to talk with her about emotions or feelings and she runs the other way. But any time she falls, trips, bangs a toe or has a headache, she will start to cry and demand an ice pack. Yet, she is her lacrosse team’s goalie and never flinches when a lacrosse ball comes flying at her. Given her goalie status, I expect her not to look to me for comfort for minor ailments like skinned knees and wacked elbows.

My daughter recently stubbed her toe on her bedroom door and dramatically screamed out and dropped to the floor. When I went to investigate what happened, I found her writhing in pain, holding her foot and I had the worst reaction ever. I giggled. I tried to hide it but she knew.

“Mom, how can you laugh? This hurts. I need an ice pack,” she says through clinched teeth.

“I am sorry,” I said, as I walked to the freezer and pulled out a tiny pink ice pack in the shape of a bear, which we bought for her before she was even born because a friend, who helped us navigate registering at Babies R Us when I was pregnant, suggested we buy it so that when our toddler had a boo-boo we would be ready. Thank goodness she suggested it because that is all I have to give.

I have the same issue with our puppy. She gets under my feet and sometimes I accidentally step on her paw. The few times this has happened, her reaction has been the same as my daughter’s. Our puppy will hold out her paw, and whimper as if she, too, is asking me for a pink, bear-shaped ice pack to make it all feel better.

My daughter also whines when she is cold. The other morning she told me she was cold all night and blamed me. I tried to explain that even though I am her mother, I couldn’t possibly telepathically know she is cold in the middle of night. “Besides,” I said, “you are old enough to get out of bed and get a blanket if you feel cold.”

Perhaps other mothers can intuit when their kids are cold, have a stomachache or feel sick. I am definitely missing that sensory gene. In fact, I am the kind of mom, who unless you have a temperature or are throwing up, you are going to school. Sniffles, a stomachache or “my throat feels kind of scratchy,” are not reasons enough to miss school in my book.

Years before our daughter was born, my husband would accuse me of not being empathetic and I never understood what he meant. My response would be, “What do you want to talk about,” not understanding that what my husband was looking for was sympathy about his head cold or his indigestion, not an hour-long discussion about our marriage.

I am trying to be a more empathic mother. Just the other day my daughter told me that she had a headache. Instead of scoffing at her, I offered her an ibuprofen and the pink bear ice pack without her even having to ask for them. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.

(Photo: iStock)