I close my eyes and count to ten. There is no answer that I can give her besides yes. “Yes,” I say, “I like you so much! You are a great kid and I love you.”
I say it knowing that it doesn’t make a bit of difference. I say it knowing that her brain will cover that answer with fear and doubt in just a few minutes or the next time something feels off to her or the next time she misbehaves in even the slightest way. I say it knowing that she will ask me again in three minutes, or one, or ten seconds. I say it knowing that in this second she truly feels that I might not like her.
“Okay.” She says, though her eyes still hold doubt.
I search for a way of explaining to her that this doubt, this anxiety, it’s not real. It’s just her brain misfiring. It’s just anxiety, there’s nothing to fear here.
I pull her into my lap, “Fiona, have you asked me today if I like you?”
“Yeah.” I smile at her. “You asked me a bunch of times, right?”
“Yeah,” She says sadly.
“Did I tell you that I liked you?” I asked.
“Yeah?” She says, but her voice is more a question than anything else.
“I did.” I assure her, “I like you SO much. But your brain keeps telling you that I might not like you, right?”
“Yes.” She says, and her eyes fill up with tears.
I want to cry with her. It’s so hard. I want her to be happy. I want her to feel confident in my love and all she feels is doubt. It breaks my heart. I smile at her, even though my throat feels tight.
“Your brain is lying to you. See, sometimes you have thoughts that are scary, like ‘Mommy doesn’t like me’, and your brain says that they’re true thoughts, but they’re not. They’re like…” I search my mind for something that could be false currency to a three-year-old, “They’re like paper apples.”
She giggles, “Paper apples?”
“Yeah.” I grin. “Paper apples. They look like apples, but they aren’t apples. You can’t eat them. They’re not real.”
“Paper apples.” She repeats contemplatively.
“Yep.” I nod. “But when your brain makes paper apples it can be hard to tell them apart from real apples. So, I’m going to help you.”
She looks surprised, “You are?”
“Yep.” I say. “From now on, when you ask me a question the first time, I’ll answer it. But when you ask me over and over, I’m going to tell you that thought, that worry, is paper apples. That way you know that it’s a lie that your brain is telling you and you shouldn’t believe it.”
She shakes her head, “Because you can’t eat paper apples?”
“That’s right.” I smile.
She giggles and climbs down from my lap.
I glance at the clock. And wait. Because I know. I know what is going to happen. I’ve done this before. Hundreds of times today.
She tugs on my shirt, her face is clouded with doubt again, “Mommy, do you like me?”
“Fiona,” I smile, “That thought is paper apples.”
She looks at me seriously. “Paper apples.”
“Yes.” I nod, “That thought is paper apples. You know the answer.”
She smiles at me a little. “You like me, Mommy.”
“That’s right.” I smile and feel it fill my face and eyes with love.
I lean down and hug her and she head back to her Legos.
A few minutes later we repeat the whole process. And again a few minutes later. But over the course of the day the “a few minutes” get longer and longer and she stops asking.
Next time it will be a different question. A different worry. A new paper apple. But we have a word for them now. We have a way of talking about these irrational, overtaking fears. A way of labeling them for what they are and moving past them.
We don’t eat paper apples.