Then I had children.
And I began to realize that communication may include words, but more often it entails hugs and tears and sometimes screeches and yawns and holding hands.
As a part of the current Patheos Book Club, featuring the book Mother Teresa, CEO, I was asked to comment upon one of the leadership principles the book discusses, “communicate in a language people understand.” My children have been my teachers.
Penny and William can tell you something we all learned in the first few months of Marilee’s life: “Babies cry to tell us something.” They repeat this mantra whenever their little sister begins to fuss, and then they ask me, “What is she telling us, Mom?” And I have to figure it out. If she’s yawning or rubbing her eyes, we all know a nap is in order. If I pick her up and she buts her head against my shoulder, she wants food. And if she’s “just fussing,” she usually needs one of us to pay more attention to her, whether that’s Penny singing songs or William giving “zerberts” on her belly or simply sitting in my lap. She has no words. She has no signs. And most of the time we know what she’s saying to us.
We talk back to her in words, of course. I often hear my own voice inside a five-year-old body when Penny says, “Marilee-lee-lee, what’s the matter, sweetheart?” And yet words don’t calm Marilee down or address her needs. To bring her peace, she needs my fingers stroking the side of her cheek. To evoke a smile, she needs one of her siblings to get right up close and giggle. Kisses. Hugs. The warmth of a lap and the comfort of grasping my finger with hers.
I trust that Mother Teresa used words as necessary to communicate care. And yet I suspect that the reason her communication was effective had far less to do with her words and far more to do with eye contact and body language, with moving towards a person who was sick and hurting rather than recoiling with self-protection… offering the gift of physical touch to an “untouchable”… demonstrating the love of Christ through the language of bathing and embracing, through laughter and tears.
Marilee is growing up, and before long she’ll be able to say, “Mom, may I have a cup of milk, please?” (though if she’s anything like her siblings, I’ll have to remind her to say please). But I hope she will have learned that I communicate with her not only by saying, “Sure you can,” but also by pouring the milk and bringing it over. I hope I will teach her not only the rudimentary elements of spoken words, of grammar and punctuation and enunciation and the like, but also the language of touch and attentiveness, the language of love.
This post first appeared at Amy Julia Becker’s blog, Thin Places.