Earlier this year, I took a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles to see my two college best friends — I was 28 weeks pregnant and it seemed like the perfect time for a last-minute trip out West. Bonus: I got to escape the terror of this New York winter for three days sans child and husband. It was exhilarating, exhausting and incredibly restorative.

When I got back from my trip I woke up early the next morning with my 21-month-old son, Archer, who had been sick while I was away. My poor husband was run ragged from being up a few nights in a row with a sick baby and no backup, so I gladly took the early shift and let him rest a bit before we started the morning routine of prepping for our commutes to work and day care.

As soon as I took him out of his crib, Archer became inconsolable and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. None of my usual tricks were working. He sat in the hallway bawling, ignoring my pleas to give me some hint as to what was amiss. I was frustrated, and felt awful that I couldn’t fix whatever seemed to be bothering him so intensely. Finally, I turned to Archer and asked him “are you angry at mommy for leaving?” Instantly, he stopped crying and shook his head yes. “Did you miss me while I was gone?” “Yes,” he said and his face brightened up. I gave him a huge hug and, holding back tears, I said “Mommy missed you so much too, I’m so sorry you’re upset that I left. Would you like to hear about all the things I did while I was away and see some pictures from the trip?” “YES!”

We went over to the couch and I sat him on my lap. I told him stories about my friends who I visited and what we did each day. I showed him my photos, and a little video I took of a seal that we had spied swimming in the ocean among the surfers, knowing how excited he gets about animals of any kind. Then I asked him a bunch of questions about what he and daddy had done while I was away and gave him a chance to tell me about his weekend. After a few minutes of catching up we were giggling and he was asking me for breakfast and puzzles – back to our normal morning routine. I couldn’t believe how simple this solution was, and honestly I’m not sure why it occurred to me in that moment, but I’m so glad it did.

I learned so much in that instant by tapping into my son’s needs and mental state. I could have gotten annoyed, could have continued to try to “fix” his mood. But once I acknowledged his feelings and let him feel them safely, with me, he was able to fix it himself. Giving a name to his feelings helped him own them and deal with them in a way that truly surprised me. And like a true toddler, Archer moved on quickly, with hardly a trace of the emotions he had been feeling so intensely just a few moments before.

Moving forward, I have applied this lesson on many occasions in the few months since I returned from LA, and Archer responds beautifully to it almost every time. I get the sense that he trusts me with his feelings and is able to recover more quickly from a bad mood or a disappointment. He is certain in the knowledge that I am at least trying to understand him, instead of just controlling him or quieting him, and he has become confident in his abilities to pinpoint his own feelings and find his own ways of coping and managing.

In his 21 months of life, Archer has already taught me so much about how to be a good mother, a more patient person, and even a better friend. I’m amazed by his empathy, his sweetness, his self-awareness, and his fierce independence, which is coupled with an unselfconscious and unbridled need and love for me and my husband. I have learned to slow down and keep my eyes open to different possibilities, which can oftentimes go against my first instinct, particularly when I am feeling the most out of “parenting fuel.” This doesn’t add up to parenting perfection (as if!), but it has been useful more times than I can count in the toddler battles of wills, and the ebb and flow of emotions during this precious and often frustrating period in our lives. I’m thankful that my son has been patient enough with me to allow me time to learn this lesson.