Parenting with the head and the heart.
Before my daughter was born I recall thinking about the kind of parent I intended to be. I wanted to be a lighthouse for my daughter. The sort of parent that let my kid cast her ship to the sea, but set a light on the rocky shore so she could steer her way clear. I wanted my kid to have her independence, but also guidance to safety.
It’s a good thing I intended this before she was born, because my daughter would have it no other way. In the first few days after she was born the number of nurses and doctors that lovingly declared her “strong willed” or “spirited” was too many to count. She is fiercely independent and does things on her own time and in her own way. She is curious, grounded, and intent.
When she was just over a year old, we went to the beach where she independently explored the high tide line while the ocean was at low tide. I watched her from our beach towel, the watchful lighthouse parent, while she slowly navigated the wealth of pebbles, shells, and seaweed. She spent most of her time in a squat, running her hands and eyes over the treasures of the shoreline. When something caught her eye she’d pick it up, feel it, look closely at it, maybe carry it for a while. I kept expecting her to look around to see where I was or get bored with what she was doing. No particle of her was distracted or uncertain. She was fully immersed in investigating the world before her fingertips that she paid no mind to me and certainly didn’t get bored. After over an hour of uninterrupted focus, she meandered her way back to me.
At times like these I have this flash of her in fifteen or twenty years asking me permission to spend a summer abroad. She’ll be so excited to spread her wings. She isn’t going to need me for long. I admire that she is so independent, but I do miss her sometimes.
A while ago she was having a rough day. Sickness and teething all caught up with her and she just wasn’t going down for a nap. She screamed and cried until I held her close. Even while I held her, she whimpered. We snuggled up on the couch and she finally settled down resting on my chest. I felt her body getting heavier and heavier. Her breath quieted. Finally, she fell asleep. She was 19 months old and it had probably been over a year since she last fell asleep on me like that. I held her close to me. No part of me had to be the distant, watchful lighthouse. I was the harbor, hugging her close to home.
Most days, I’m the lonely lighthouse watching from afar. Turning circles with a beacon of light, hoping the light can be enough. It’s the part of my parenting I do with my head. As a lighthouse, I express my love by offering space and freedom. It is as hard and lonesome as the rocky landscapes most lighthouses claim for their foundations. It is a philosophy and like any philosophy it can get lonely and immobile. Without openness to change, it will be cold. Without bend, it will break. It is an intention, an outlook, and an act of faith.
I relish the rare moments when I get to be a safe harbor. When I get to wrap my arms around my child and hold her close. It is the part of my parenting I do with my heart. As a safe harbor, I express my love by holding on and holding close. Feelings from the heart seem so powerful and insurmountable when given full expression. But, I must remember that holding on offers no protection. Holding close can smother and create the distance I most wish to avoid. I have to believe that feeling this sort of love in my heart creates an an intangible yet real sense, an energy. It permeates our physical realm with poignancy and power. It is a spirit and a messenger that does not always require a voice to speak.
Being a harbor or a lighthouse seem so different to me, yet when caught in a storm at sea both are sought. The lighthouse lights the way. The harbor brings home and safety. Neither can stop the storm from coming. It can feel like there is a tension between the head and the heart. The holding on and letting go. But both are qualities my daughter will look for to feel strong, secure, and loved. I parent in both worlds: lighthouse and harbor; head and heart.