“Mommy, I’m fee-wing jea-wis.”
The words are whispered so softly I almost miss them. He is hugging my knees while I attempt to empty the dishwasher, spoon peas into his sister’s mouth, and make his peanut butter & jelly at the same time. In my distracted state it takes a moment to register what he said. I crouch down to look him in the eyes, and my knee tingles on the floor’s cool tile.
“What are you feeling jealous of buddy?” I ask, matching his whisper with my own. I didn’t know he knew what jealous meant. I didn’t know he was mature enough to name that feeling. His fingers pinch at my shirt and I grab his hand in mine.
“I’m feeling jealous of you and sissy …” his voice trails off, and he looks down at our clasped hands.
I stare at the familiar curl of his mile-long lashes; at the ever-present dimple he inherited from my mom. Hearing the words out of his mouth simultaneously breaks my heart and fills it to bursting with pride. Sad that his little world was turned upside down with the arrival of his sister, but impressed with his ability to name and communicate this complicated emotion.
I pull him in for a hug and notice how soft his cheek is against mine, how he lays his head on my shoulder and turns his face into my neck, the way he does when he really, truly needs the comfort of my hug. His breath tickles me, and I inhale sharply in an effort to remain still and steady for him.
Before I’m ready, he pulls away, his busy little body incapable of standing still for long; his mind always on to the next idea.
His eyes are bright and excited again as he asks “Is it rea-wy now?” pointing at the un-cut peanut butter & jelly on the counter.
I nod, and he clambers up the side of his booster-laden bar stool.
As he eats his lunch and I resume feeding his sister, I marvel at his ability to move on so quickly, his jealousy forgotten after a quick hug and a bite to eat.
Use your words. Tell me how you feel. I must say those words at least 20 times a day, asking him to name his emotions. Are you feeling frustrated? Angry? Sad? Mad? Jealous? Mostly, it seems like my words fall on deaf ears. But now, I realize he hears me.
The fire crackles behind me, and the warm light of the lamp beside me illuminates my lap. My unopened book sits on the arm of my chair, and my phone sits in its place on my blanket-covered legs. I scroll mindlessly through the highlight reel, as the soundtrack of a John Wayne movie plays on the TV.
“Oh my word, did you see they’re on vacation again?” I mutter with annoyance to my husband.
He sits on the couch next to me, sleep-watching the Western he’s seen a thousand times.
“Mm-hmm.” He murmurs by way of response.
“I mean, how do they afford it? He can’t make that much more money than you do, and we can’t even afford one vacation a year.”
Gunshots blare from the TV, and one of the kids murmurs down the hallway.
My husband, anticipating my words before they leave my mouth, reaches for the remote and turns down the volume.
“Yep. Must be nice.”
I’m annoyed at his reluctance to engage in the conversation, so I stop talking and keep scrolling through photos of aqua-colored water and exotic island food.
Well, I guess there’s no way to know how they pay for their vacations. Maybe they have massive credit card debt. Maybe one of their parents paid for it. But you know one thing I bet they don’t have? Hospital Bills. I bet we could afford a vacation if we didn’t have so many of those.
I think of the checks I wrote this morning, and what they did to our bank balance. I think of the space those bills take up in our monthly budget, and the space they take up in my mind.
The feeling rises in my throat like bile, and I swallow hard, desperate to shove it back inside, where it belongs.
My phone clicks as I lock it, and the side table shakes as I set it down with more force than necessary. I pick up my book, and stare at the page for a while before giving up entirely to go to bed.
Later, I lay in the dark, my own hard words stuck on repeat like a skipping record. And like a DJ mixing a new dance mix, I lay my own self criticisms over the track of my speech. I was unkind. I was judging. I was critical, and mean, and ungracious of the gifts I have been given. I let comparison get the best of me. Again.
I remember my son’s quiet admission in the kitchen; the way his jealousy transformed his entire body. His sparkling eyes and exuberance replaced by slumped shoulders and down-turned lashes.
Is that what happens to me? When I slump over my phone and lust after the houses, wardrobes, and happiness of others, do my eyes turn dull as the darkness eats me from the inside out?
My face grows hot with shame, and I roll onto my side. My husband shifts next to me, and places his hand on the curve of my hip before his breathing slows again to its restful rhythm.
Unable to shake the scene in the kitchen, I replay it over and over; fixated on the moment his still-a-toddler-but-almost-a-boy body pulled away from me. How, in a 30 second embrace, had he released his jealousy and found his joy? At three, he knows something I don’t: that a hug from his mom and a peanut butter sandwich is enough. And as he shifted his attention from what he was missing to what he had instead, his gratitude rescued him from the gnawing monster inside.
When was the last time I moved on so quickly from an emotion as intense as jealousy? When was the last time I admitted to even being jealous at all?
Instead, I keep a dark box in my heart, stuffed with all of the “unfeelable” emotions I have. The jealousy, the anger, the disappointment, the resentment. And when it squeaks open, even momentarily, the flood of those combined feelings escaping is unbearable. They grab hold of my heart, and pull me away from the life I’ve worked so hard to build. In those moments, I see my husband and kids as weights on my feet; forgetting how I longed for my blue-eyed babies and the emptiness of my heart before my husband—instead focusing on where I might be without them.
What if, instead of stuffing negative emotions in my little black box, I acknowledged the emotion, received a quick hug, and focused on what I do have instead?
“I’m jealous.” I whisper almost inaudibly into the dark, copying my son’s freeing admission. I feel my heart unclench a little, and I reach for my husband’s hand, curling my cold fingers around his work-worn ones. My bed is warm, our bills are paid (for now), and my two sleeping babies across the hall are healthy and happy. My heart swells with gratitude for the life I take for granted sometimes. Then I take a deep breath and drift into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.
Guest post written by Cara Stolen. Cara is a ranch wife and work-at-home mama of two living in rural Washington state. She loves exceptionally early mornings, strong black coffee, and listening to her children giggle. You can find her hiding in her pantry sneaking chocolate chips by the handful, or on Instagram. She also blogs occasionally.
This essay was written in one of our Exhale creative workshops. For more information about our Exhale creative community, visit www.exhalecreativity.com.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.