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Picture the scene. I arrive home from work, unlock the front door, and step inside. Immediately I hear the frustrated cry of my 2-1/2 year old son as I see him running toward me with sadness on his face and tears in his eyes. Mom isn’t home and Grandpa looks on, despairingly, from a distance. “He just woke up from a nap and started crying, not sure what’s wrong,” he says.

It’s clear that all the usual remedies have failed, and I know Grandpa has tried his hardest. My son isn’t crying hard, but certainly crying enough for us to not understand what he’s trying to say. I pick him up and offer the usuals: Snack? Water? Toys? How’s the diaper doing? It needs to be changed but I know he’ll have none of it right now. The last thing we both need is a dirty diaper battle on top of this.

We retreat upstairs to his room, one of his comfort spaces. I still can’t understand what he’s saying but I see that look of desperation and in his eyes. “Help me,” his eyes tell me, fighting back panic. “Please figure out what’s wrong and fix it.” I’ve seen this look before, and briefly my mind flashes back to the times when he was just an infant and all I could do was meet his eyes with panic of my own. I certainly had no idea what to do back then so we both learned together the hard way.

But this time is different. I’ve learned and grown as a parent. “Do you want a hug?” I ask softly. I hear a murmur through the sniffling that sounds like a yes. So standing there in the center of his room, with him still in my arms, I hold him close, his cheek to my chest. With one frail arm wrapped around my neck and one around my side, I start slowly rocking back and forth, just like bedtime when he was younger. No words, no songs, just the gentle rocking he’s known his entire life.

Slowly, I feel him relax, his breathing calmer, tears no more. He woke up with some pretty big and scary emotions for his little self. Being a toddler is hard enough when things are going well, let alone when these giant invisible forces take over your mind and body. Did he want his usual snack and water after waking up from a nap? Absolutely. But his mood jammed him up with a vengeance, and he didn’t know how to navigate those dark waters.

He knows now that I can be his boat, gently rocking in the waves, soft warm blanket around him, guiding him to shore with a calm yet bright light showing the way.

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