Letters from a Learning Mother

Pizza Dough Therapy

I found out pretty quickly how naive it was to think that the moment Lucy and I returned from our unexpected trip to the hospital, all would be well again. Don’t get me wrong — my sweet baby girl is in great health and none of the symptoms that landed us within those sterile, white walls have reappeared. However, our family of four felt the afterpains of Lucy’s surgery for just as long as the week us girls were away.

It wasn’t until the morning we all woke under the same roof again that we started to sense the tension that had been building up in all of us. It was easiest to see in our toddler’s testing behavior that he was feeling out of sorts, but also in the way Lucy cried in her sleep every time she dreamed. Feeling blindsided by the aftermath and overwhelmed by the sheer volume that my children could attain when simultaneously screaming out all the breath in their lungs, I found myself at all of my ends when I realized that our first week back home was proving to be equally intense and perhaps more challenging than the heart-wrenching days I spent with my six-week-old tangled up in tubes and cords as she was repeatedly poked and prodded.

As the days passed after our return and Lucy protested anything but being wrapped up in my arms while Ellis denied my every suggestion and request, I was forced to let down my sails and navigate the waters that had provided us with smooth sailing for so long. However, knowing deep down that my son simply needed some form of release in order to recover from the emotional stress he had endured, I made it a point not to take his passionate and resounding resistance personally and did my best to be there for him during his meltdowns and keep calm while he threw tantrums. It seemed obviously apparent that my son was searching for any and every reason to scream and wail and somehow express, “This is not okay! I am not okay!”

Finally, the shift came, but in a way I never would have expected it to.

I’ve made a continuous effort over the past few months to let my son in on what’s going on in my inner world and give names to my big emotions in hopes he might recognize when he’s feeling the same. I attempt to model ways to handle inner storms and conflicts by telling Ellis what I’m going to do as mine arise. I also try to make sure he catches the end of whatever wave I feel has swept me away as it eventually fades and the peaceful calm returns. 

Six days after Lucy and I came home, my husband was gone for the weekend and Ellis requested that we eat pizza when we walked past a nearby Italian restaurant. I told him we could make our own at home, and after we had poured all of the ingredients into a large bowl, Ellis was thrilled to hear me say, “Time to knead the dough!”

Once the sticky mass had begun to take form, I washed my hands while allowing Ellis to continue digging his fingers into what would soon become our dinner. Deciding not to interrupt him, I let him continue to knead until, after quite some time, he looked up at me and — with absolutely no context — stated, “Feel very better.”

Using words similar to ones he’s heard from me before, I knew he was telling me that somehow, kneading our pizza dough had been a way for him to release some of the built-up tension inside.

And that moment was our turning point.

Later that night, while I was putting him to bed, my just-turned-two-year-old brought up the hospital for the first time. I asked him how he felt while Lucy and I were there and we reminisced fondly on the yellow lollipop he got from the cafeteria after he responded with, “Happy!” 

When I asked him if he had felt anything else, he decided on “afraid” after I listed a few uncomfortable feelings. We had a really sweet conversation about how we feel more than one way at once sometimes, and that’s okay. I could almost hear him let out a deep breath that it seemed he had been holding in.

It became so clear to me that night that there isn’t a cookie-cutter way to process the ups and down of life. The true release that came after days of my choosing to brave the discomfort and hold the space until my toddler stumbled upon a unique way to let go of some tension has proven to be long-lasting and well worth the price paid we paid as parents in strain and exhaustion.

Though we are all still healing, I can already see the open wounds turning into scars with a story just like the one that will forever mark my daughter’s belly. And as we’re settling into a new normal and the rhythms of our everyday, I’m so grateful for the true processing we’ve each been able to do — each at our own pace, all in our own ways.

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