Planning is our way of fooling ourselves into believing we actually have the last say over how our lives will play out. I definitely had a plan of how I wanted to experience motherhood and marriage. I held in my mind a sweet image of living in a beautiful home with my loving husband and three babies, all born exactly a year apart. That’s not how it worked out; my husband, [Kasseem Dean, the rapper known as Swizz Beatz], and I separated in 2010, a year after my son was born. [Dean married singer Alicia Keys later that year.]
As newly separated parents, we sometimes get lost in the pain; we forget the mission and lose sight of our purpose. I was so fixated on what I thought my life would be, that it took a long time for me to accept what had actually happened. And in the meanwhile, my life turned upside down. I started acting out and doing things I had no business doing in an attempt to numb the pain. I moved out of my marital residence in upstate New York and into a luxury one bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan. I was going out multiple times a week to clubs, lounges, and expensive dinners with women who also needed to heal. It was the blind leading the blind.
One particular night, my girlfriend and I planned a big evening out. We got dressed up in one of those outfits that bring out your alter ego. I made sure to put my three-year-old son in bed (a poor attempt to relieve some of my guilt), and left him with the nanny. When I stepped into the bright city lights, my only mission was to escape my hurt and find myself. But with every cocktail, I felt as though I was losing more and more of myself. No matter how many artsy mixology drinks I consumed, I was still Kasseem’s mother and my husband’s estranged wife. The second part of that truth hurt the most and so I kept drinking, drinking until I was completely drunk. When the night finally came to an end, my girlfriend pulled up to the front of my building and I projectile vomited all over her white leather interior. My doorman walked me upstairs. My nanny helped me in bed. My soul was absent.
A few hours later, the sun came blasting through the floor to ceiling windows. I heard the soft patter of two little feet. It was my heart that walks outside of my body.
“Mommy, Momma.” A little hand knocked on the door.
Kasseem needed me. He wanted to connect with me. He was yearning for my attention. And I couldn’t move, head throbbing, body weak. I couldn’t respond. How could I let him see me so discombobulated, so unable to function? I felt like a failure. If I couldn’t show up for my son then, why was I even alive? At that moment it hit me—those knocks were more than what they appeared to be. A sign was being sent my way, one I just could not ignore any longer. The universe was knocking on my door, telling me to fix myself. Kasseem’s knocks not only woke me up to a new day, but to my truth. I had to heal. I had to reconnect with my child.
I had to create a new paradigm for mothering in the midst of my pain. I had to develop a system that would enable me to deeply connect to my son and his specific needs.
In my book, Blend: The Secret to Co-parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, I describe the "Parent Buttons:" four imaginary pressing points that our children use to communicate with us: Attention, Connection, Power, or Reset.
When Kasseem needs Attention, he’s always very open about it. This means that he wants me to get actively involved. A board game, dialogue about something that happened in school, or maybe just some eye to eye energy. He wants to know that I’m in the present moment with him.
Connection usually calls for deeper involvement. I notice that when my son needs connection it’s usually a long hug or back rub that he’s longing for. A whisper of “I love you” goes a long way in these moments.
Power is a tricky thing. Sometimes because it’s hard to grasp the fact that our children are smarter than us in many ways and if we give them the power to express this, we’d be letting them win. Well, letting them win sometimes is ok. Allowing them to win the debate is a way of empowering them. I give Kasseem the stage to voice his opinion and walk his own path. I never want him to feel small. Children can teach us so much if we just let them lead once in a while.
Then there’s the Reset. There are moments when we, as adults just want to be left alone. This doesn’t mean we are upset or being indifferent. It just means we need to reset our energy. When Kasseem is really overwhelmed or having a hard time communicating what is wrong, he goes into a place I call “the shut down.’ My ego would make me think his withdrawal was about me, that it was disrespectful that he wasn't expressing what was wrong. But I soon realized I was wrong. This was simply Kasseem’s way of powering down and resetting. It was not a negative thing. As parents, we must remember that children also need a moment to unwind.
It’s vital that we deeply connect with our children and pay attention to all the signs they present. It took a hardcore wakeup call for me to see this but it doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t let those little knocks on the door go unnoticed. Be present, show up and help restore the security that both you and your child need to get through the next steps of redesigning your family.
Mashonda Tifrere is the author of Blend: The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, out now. Alicia Keys wrote the foreword for her book.