Mar 122015
 

The parenting fairy tale: When I have a child, I will finally know what love is. Having a child will complete our family. I will know joy so big it can fill the whole world. A child is a mirror into my own soul.  My new baby will fit so wonderfully into my world. When I finally have a child, I will know who I am and what I am all about. I will watch my child grow and thrive, and then I will watch them have their own children, and soon I will be the matriarch of this large and loving, growing and thriving family. And they will ride off into the distance on a beautiful horse….

 

Oh, the dreams we dream about what it will be like to be a parent. And sometimes it is those things.

 

Except when it’s not.

 

Despite the fact that most of us end up in therapy complaining about relationships with our own parents, we build sand castle dreams about what having a child means to us. Despite the fact that movies and literature and songs and poems are filled to the brim with painful experiences and stories of both parenting and being parented, we cling to epic fantasies about what it means to be a parent. Despite the number of parenting books that tell us how hard it really is, we build fairy tale myths about having a child that resonate so deeply with our subconscious that we hardly know they are there at all.

The child fairy tale: Family dreams of child. Family waits for child. Family gets child. And it is so good. Family goes skipping through daisies hand in hand.

 

Oh, the dreams we can dream about what our children will be like. And sometimes they are those things.

 

 

Except when they aren’t.

 

 

The fairy tale myths of happily-ever-after relationships depict a battle or struggle built around getting to the relationship or finding the right person or overcoming obstacles like dragons or evil villains that would prevent us from being with our true love. But once we prevail, and we have nailed down our mate, then our journey is over and all that is left to do is bask in love. The sweet-sweet, running through tulips kind of love. No more struggle, no more battle. It’s happily ever after.

Thankfully, we are starting to understand just how significant this myth is when it comes to romantic partnerships. We are coming to understand that the real quest, battle and struggle come once the dragon has been slayed and love is actually available to us. When we look our happily-ever-after straight in the eye and say “okay,  let’s do this tulip-skipping thing,” we go left and they go right and before we even take our first skip we have to figure out how to negotiate in which direction we are actually going. Yep, the actual work starts then. And, as it turns out, there is way more negotiating than skipping.

And so it goes with parenting.

We dream, we plan, we fret over wallpaper and sheets for the crib. We ponder names and wait for kissable toes and worry about every minute leading up to the birth. We slay the dangerous dragons with outlet covers and cabinet locks, and we await the moment when our baby will arrive and the happily-ever-after part will begin. When we can bask and glow and love and love and love and…..

Except that the reality is that parenting is more work than glow. When we give up the myth and really look at parenting, we realize that what we have is two (or three or four or more) human beings in relationship with each other. And at least one of those human beings is terrible at communicating in our language, has extreme difficulty with emotional regulation, is incredibly self-centered, needs an unimaginable amount of support to complete even the simplest of daily tasks, and is excessively preoccupied with their own body’s needs. (I am actually talking about our babies, but I am sure many of us may be tempted to raise an eyebrow in the direction of our partners as well, or if we are really honest, at ourselves.)

And that fairy tale myth? About how it will be all love and starry-eyed gazing upon our offspring as they grow and thrive? Well… not so much. In reality, there is all the love and joy and fun and awe and amazement. But, parenting is also messy and exhausting and boring and tedious and lonely and disgusting and humiliating and much scarier than the dragon. And frustrating. Oh so frustrating. And the worst thing is that when we believe and expect the myth, then feeling these feelings just feels wrong.

But on the other hand, we figured out that that the “happily-ever-after” with our partner isn’t the period at the end of the sentence, but rather the opening to a long road of struggle and growth and challenges and joy and connection and pain and love and that all that IS the path. It IS the relationship. It IS the quest. It IS the love. If only we could take every “and they lived happily ever after” from every fairy tale ever written and replace it with “And so began the adventure” then we would know that the real juicy stuff is always yet to come. The relationship. That’s what’s ahead. That’s what we are in for.

So it goes with parenting. Parenting is all those things because it is a relationship with another person. It is an ongoing, never-ending path that two people walk, and skip, together. And the gross, painful, boring, frustrating dragon-slaying moments are just as precious and important as the joyful ones. Maybe even more so. Because it is in those terrible moments that we have the opportunity to sit back and say to our kids, “Wow, you are a human. And I get to be in a relationship with you.” And so began the adventure.

Jul 282014
 

What happens when we don’t get the parenthood we expected?

Before we have children, we have very clear expectations about what it will be like to be a parent. What we will be like as parents, and what our children will be like. We look at other parents and know what we will do differently, and we know how it will work, and we know what we will love about it.

Before I had children, I was very clear that we would throw our kids in backpacks and travel around South America in the style I was accustomed to. Our kids would be flexible, would be able to eat in restaurants, would be able to sleep on busses. Our kids wouldn’t need rigid schedules because our parenting would support their ability to “go with the flow.”

Before I had children I knew I would love to snuggle up on rainy days and read chapter after chapter of Little House on the Prairie with my pre-teen. I knew I would love co-sleeping. I knew that part of the joy of parenting would be to throw birthday parties where my children would frolic, laughing and joyfully chasing balloons with all their close close childhood friends. Before I had children, I knew that I would never be the kind of parent that yelled in the grocery store, mostly because my children would of course know how to act in a grocery store. I knew that I would be patient and kind and set loving and solid boundaries. I knew that my favorite parenting moments would be breast-feeding and sitting around with other moms while we leisurely sipped our coffee while our dear little ones played nicely together. I knew that we would have lovely family photos that captured the sunlight dappling on our faces while we ran through fields of daisies.

I just knew it.

And then I had kids. And they taught me how little I knew about being a mom.

We have gone backpacking across South America exactly zero times. Co-sleeping worked for our family about as well as trying to sleep in a blender. I have lost my shit in the grocery store. My kids have never wanted a birthday party with friends and we almost had to leave one the other day because the balloons getting popped were sending my son over his limits. And sitting around sipping coffee with other moms? Well, we all know how that really goes.

So the fantasy was great, it was lovely. But it wasn’t real life. My kids, these little balls of human need and emotion are real life. And the reality of them knocked me down a peg…or 10.

The truth is that our kids are born with a path, a life, of their own to live. They come from us, they depend on us, they our legally bound to us, but their life…their LIFE is their own. And our job is to embrace, support, guide and nurture that path. Their path.

Sometimes their path is so far from what we expected that we get the wind knocked out of us. Sometimes their path, and being their parent, changes our path so drastically that life becomes almost unrecognizable. It is easy, in these times, to become disappointed, resentful, angry. We can hear ourselves wondering why this is happening to us. Why can’t we have the happy kids, the happy family, the easy-lovely-normal kid? Why can’t parenting look like what we expected? Why? Why?

We can get stuck in the fantasy and what we are missing. We can mistakenly start to believe that joy in parenting can only occur when our kids become the kids that we had thought we were going to have.

But the truth is, joy is not dependent on the path looking a certain way. Joy is not saved for the healthy, the capable, the kids who love balloons and birthday parties and peacefully co-sleeping and snuggling on the couch. Joy is not reserved for times when the path is paved with flowers and dappled sunlight.

Joy in parenting can be there when the path is muddy and hard and even painful. Joy is possible when we embrace our children’s path. Their struggles, their light, their process. Joy happens when we realize that parenting this child, in this moment, is the task I signed up for. Joy is taking a hand or standing close by or supporting from afar. It means holding them tightly or watching them as they run off in the distance. Joy is the privilege of walking alongside our children’s path. As rocky and muddy and tricky as it might be.

No one gets the parenthood they expect. No one. Joy is loving, cherishing, embracing the parenthood we have.

Jun 242014
 

The other day I came across a post touting the virtues of complaining about our children. Bonding, commiserating, empathic connection with other parents over the trials and tribulations of parenthood. It doesn’t really matter what post it was: there are a number, probably countless posts, blogs, memes and status updates, suggesting that this is in fact a wonderful and important part of the parenting path. I don’t want to discount this totally. There is no arguing against the fact that it can feel amazing to know that other parents are in the same boat as us. It can deepen the bonds of friendship, minimize loneliness and remind us that the trickier side of parenting is tricky for everyone. And, in order for us to get that benefit, we do indeed need to be willing and open to sharing those struggles with others. But while I don’t want to discount the positives that may result from venting, laughing or even crying over our spilt milk moments, I do want to take a moment to relish in the other side.

The post that I saw the other day not only touted the benefits of complaining about our children, but it also decried the act of bragging about them. As if, somehow, the very act of voicing our pride, love and amazement of our children is somehow wrong. As if saying to another parent that our kid is great is somehow equivalent to saying that the other parent’s kid is not. And we should not do this. And so we should say bad things about our kids to make the other parent feel better about their not-so-great kid.

But here is the thing. Pride, love, amazement, joy, intrigue, warm fuzzies, curiosity, awe, excitement: these things feel good. And when we feel them about a person, we feel good about that person. And when we feel good about that person, we love being around them. And when we love being around them, we are kinder and gentler. And when we feel these things about a person, we have a different perspective about their downside. And that kinder gentler perspective can help us make better, kinder, gentler decisions about how to interact with (or parent) that downside.

Have you ever been around a new couple? They are so gushy and mushy and, well, in love with each other. Not only do new couples love to talk about each other to others, but they also say overwhelmingly positive things about each other. And they are biologically rewarded for this. This kind of thinking produces oxytocin and dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters, which leave us feeling flushed and excited and generally lovely. Research in marital therapy shows that the difference between couples that “work” and couples that fail in the long run may in part come down to this same concept. Couples that “work” say and think nice things about each other at a rate of 5 to 1. Sure, they still fight and complain and get annoyed with each other. But they maintain a positive narrative about their relationship and each other. They have easy access to the things that they love about each other, and they talk about it. A lot. In short, they keep the gushy mushy side of things going, and that makes the trickier parts of the relationship more manageable. They work hard to stay In Love with each other, even when life gets complicated.

So what does this have to do with parenting? The same pattern applies. Loving our kids may be easy, but being In Love with them takes work. Especially when their developmental needs and behaviors interfere with our vision of what life should be like. I have noticed a consistent pattern that parents, at least many of us, fall into. When our kids get tricky, we focus more on the negatives and less on the positives. We talk about the negatives, vent about them, cry about them. We start to see our kids less as whole human beings and more as just a compilation of those particular problems. The tantrums. The rudeness. The sneaking out at night.

And, when we get lost in the negative, our interactions with our child suffers. We may be less empathic, less tolerant, more reactive. We may feel more resentful, more short-tempered. We may feel more exhausted, depleted, hopeless, frustrated. And when we feel overwhelmed, we are more likely to take their behaviors personally.

It is easy to feel warm and fuzzy when our kid is on stage singing and dressed up like a carrot in the school play, or taking their first step or posing for pictures with their prom date. Less so when they are rolling their eyes at us, or bending the truth, or hiding their homework or having the tenth tantrum of the day. When their behaviors are trying, we take it personally. And it is hard to feel In Love with someone who we believe is intentionally trying to ruin our lives.

But the truth is, they aren’t doing this TO us. They are doing this because they are on a path to adulthood that is paved with rocky, tricky, desperately painful attempts at balancing autonomy and dependence. The work ahead of them is hard and it isn’t always pretty. They are humans with light and dark, good and bad. And it is our role, as parents, to guide, protect, support, help and love. And we can do this so much better when we don’t just love, but are In Love with the little human that is just trying to figure his way out in this world. So whether we are faced with the recurrent and strong-willed tantrums of a three-year-old, or the eye rolling, window-escaping, grunting of a teenager, it is our job to stay in love with them. It is our job to find the thing about them that makes us smile, connect with that quiet sparkle in their eye, access the funny story about that silly thing they did, see the small and often hidden goodness, rejoice in their developmental strides, cherish the way that curl falls over their eye just so, be in awe of the wonder of them, just like we did when we first brought them home. And we need to do this not only in the silence of our own mind, but out loud. With our partners. With our friends. With our children.

When we find ourselves In Love with our children, we find the good in them and in ourselves. And it feels amazing. And when we do this, we make it possible to love parenting. Even when it’s tricky. So I say, vent a little, but gush a lot. I want to hear how great your kid is. I want to hear how much you love them, and how funny they are and how you honestly believe they are going to be President some day. I want to hear you say it because it is good for you, and it is good for me and it is great for our kids.

Don’t know how to start? Write a love letter. However old your kid is, regardless of how tricky their behavior is, or what challenges your family is having, sit down and literally write them a love letter. If they are old enough, go ahead and leave it on their pillow. Put it up on the fridge so you see it as often as you eat. Remind yourself every day that this is the same kid that is throwing those tantrums and that this side deserves just as much, if not, more attention than the dark side. Try it and see what happens. You may just be surprised at how much you have to say.

Oct 152013
 

 

The other day as we sat down to have snack I mentioned to my kids that our new friend would be coming over the next day. I told them that we would need  prepare food thoughtfully for him because he has a peanut allergy.

 

My five-year-old put his hands over his head and groaned, “Can’t we just ever enjoy our snack without talking about nutrients and allergies?”

 

I was taken aback. First, by the adult-like sentiment he was expressing, second, by his seeming lack of empathy for his friend and, third, by his utter exacerbation.

 

I paused, took a breath and then reflected, “You’re feeling overwhelmed by the way we talk about food?”

 

And what he said next really resonated:

 

“Yes! Sometimes I just want to eat my snack in peace. Sometimes I just want to enjoy my food and think about how good it tastes. Not about what it does for my body or what it does to someone else’s body. Why can’t snack just be snack sometimes?”

 

Touché .

 

I thought for a moment. Well, actually, it left me thinking for weeks.

 

Why can’t snack just be snack?

 

On one hand, I am proud of the fact that my children, at the ages of 3 and 5, know more about food than I did when I was 20.  They know about protein and vitamins and food coloring and fruits and vegetables. They know about how their body feels when they have too much sugar and how they feel when they don’t drink enough water. They know the difference between organic and non-organic and the difference between artificial and natural colorings. They know about farms and buying local. They know about gluten- and dairy-free diets and can tell you what foods are gluten free. Sheesh.  And I don’t think it’s just my kids. Walk into any preschool and these conversations are present. When I was five, I knew that the cheese slices were in the drawer in the fridge, that the popsicles were in the freezer and not much more.

 

More and more families are raising their children to be involved and thoughtful and educated about the food that they put in their bodies. And that is amazing.

 

And more and more families are impacted by food allergies, and our kids are having discussions about those allergies. And that awareness is amazing.

 

But maybe, just maybe, the joy of food is getting lost.

 

So where is the balance?

 

I am not willing to give up having my kids be aware and educated about what food does for their bodies.

 

I am not willing to give up raising my kids to be empathic and respectful of what some foods do to other people’s bodies.

 

But I do need to realize that it’s a lot for a kid.

 

Sometimes, snack needs to just be snack.

 

So from now on I will be more thoughtful about

 

1)   letting my kids just enjoy food without the pressure of “learning about it” or even talking about it;

2)   taking the pressure off of every meal having to be meaningful. We can enjoy popcorn and pizza night without any commentary on nutritional value;

3)   making sure that I am enjoying food more myself; and

4)   within reason, letting them have more flexibility, choice and control about food. Sometimes it can just be fun and delicious!

 

The pendulum is always swinging, and it’s usually somewhere in the middle where we find the most peace, balance and good health. Some of us need to move more towards the side of food awareness and some of us need to move more towards the understanding that, sometimes, snack is just snack.

 

How do you find balance?

Sep 162013
 

My child is….

Early. Late. Tall. Short. Energetic. Tired. Hyper. Aggressive. Withdrawn. Active. Behind. Ahead. Loud. Shy. Social. Bright. Whiney. Emotional.

The labels that we use have a powerful influence over how we feel about our child.

My child is…

Transitioning. Challenging. Developing. Delayed. Not developing. Growing too fast. Developing too slowly. Oppositional. Compliant. Defiant. Assertive.

The labels that we use have a powerful influence over how children feel about themselves.

Labels are important. Language is the system that we use to understand the world and ourselves in comparison to everything around us. It is how we organize things and ideas and people. It is almost impossible to consider a world without labels.

Big/Small. Happy/Sad. Good/Bad.

But we also need to be aware that labels, all labels, come with built-in emotional biases and judgments. As we label, we are also judging. And as we are labeled, we are feeling judged. It’s just a fact we can’t get around.

But we can be aware. We can realize that as we move quickly to label our kids—picky, bossy, ADHD, reserved, smart, pretty, handsome, athletic—we are burdening them with the underlying assumptions, judgments and emotions that come with each label. Even if the labels seem to fit in the moment. And while these labels may be things that our children need to figure out how to negotiate the world, they also need a safe space to shed the labels and just be.

Think about it. At work an executive may be capable, well-dressed, articulate, bossy, organized and demanding. But at home they just want to curl up in their pjs and eat ice cream from the container while watching a mindless movie. Sure they are all those traits that make them successful at work, but at home it feels good to melt away and not have to live up to any labels.

I wonder if we could give our kids the same space. What if we remembered that it is possible for our child to exist in their own space and just be? If we let go of the labels that our kids use to negotiate the outside world and just met them where they are. In the moment and for that moment, our interactions with our child could be pure, present and connected. If we weren’t thinking about what they should be doing and what they should need, and rather were focusing on what they are doing and what they do need, then we could engage fully. And that feels very different.

Try it. Just for a moment, let go of the labels and really see your child.

Today, in this moment: My child just is.

Period.

 

Sep 092013
 

What message do you give your child about sex?

How do kids learn about sex? More importantly, how do they learn how to learn about sex? Do they feel comfortable coming to you about sex? Really?

Are you sure?

Most of us say, or will say, “You can talk to me about anything.” And we expect our kids to believe us. But, in reality, we give about a million messages that this isn’t true without even realizing it. Especially about sex. Our body language, tone of voice, rhythm of speech, mannerisms and emotional state give a child a strong indication of whether or not a subject matter is safe.

And, right from the start, many of us are giving messages that sex is not a safe topic.

Here are some problematic messages we give and strategies for doing things differently.

 

Problem 1 : Gag Order

We can’t or won’t say the names of a body part without laughing, giggling, blushing or stuttering. Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Scrotum. Yep, they exist and that is what they are called. End of story.

Strategy: If you feel anxious saying (or even reading) these words, your homework is to go home and say them out loud in front of a mirror until you can do it without flinching. If you want your kids to talk about those parts with you, you absolutely must show them that you can tolerate those words and body parts.

 

Problem 2: Nervous Reactions

We get anxious when we see our children touch their own bodies. We get uncomfortable and worried. We gasp and flutter and stumble around and tell them to stop immediately or say something like, “Put that away!” Our discomfort with this is clear. Visions of angry school marms with rulers or hairy palms or crazy sex starved maniacs in back alleys come to mind, and we just can’t deal. So we tell them to stop. The truth is that none of those things have anything to do with what they are doing, which is simply self-exploration. Kids touch their bodies. Every part of their body. When they are toddlers or preschoolers, they will do it in front of you. When they are older, they will do it behind closed doors. But rest assured. They will do it. And it is normal. No wait… It’s healthy for them to do so. Their bodies are their bodies and those bodies are important and healthy and beautiful. They are figuring them out and, in order to do that, they have to connect with them. And that means touching them. Breathe. Just because your preschooler talks about how his penis is magic doesn’t mean he will be a chronic masturbator. He is just figuring things out.

Strategy: If your child is engaging in self-exploration in an acceptable place (bathroom, bedroom, etc.), let them be. Walk away. You don’t even have to comment. Just let them be. If you are concerned about the location say something like, “You are thinking a lot about your penis right now. We are at the dinner table. So, you can either excuse yourself to the bathroom or wait until after dinner. Which one works for you?” If the child wants to talk about it, for example they say, “But my penis is really interesting/hurting/magic,” you can be open to the communication, even though the behavior isn’t okay at the table. You can say, “We can definitely talk about how your penis is interesting/hurting/magic right now, but if you need to look at it you will need to go to the bathroom.” It is okay to set limits and boundaries for where and when a child can self explore and at the same time encourage them to share their thoughts. Penises are okay dinner table topics of conversation, but penises have to stay inside underwear while we eat. Reasonable.

 

Problem 3: Role Modeling Self Loathing

We say negative things about our own bodies. I’m too fat. I’m not pretty enough. My body is unacceptable. Kids are struggling with so many challenging, exciting and sometimes painful changes to their own bodies. When we spend time and energy criticizing our own bodies, it is hard for them to believe that they can trust us to give non-judgmental feedback on theirs. If we want to teach our children to love, respect and cherish their own bodies, and to come to us when that is hard to do, we first have to model that we are capable of this for ourselves.

Strategy: Deal with your own body issues. Get a therapist, a coach, a self-help book. Whatever helps you come to terms with your own body. It’s really important. Not just because it will make your life better to stop waging war against your body, but it will help your kids develop a healthy relationship with their own body. Short of that, never, ever say anything other than loving things about your body, or anyone else’s body, in front of your children.

 

Problem 4: Not Now, Not Ever. 

We set up times to have “the talk” and give the message that we won’t or can’t tolerate talking about these things at any other time. We say things like, “Come here, sit down, we are going to have a talk.” Cue doom music and you can pretty much feel everyone’s heart rate increase. Exact opposite of comfortable. Have this happen every time sex is the topic of conversation and then expect kids to want to talk to us? Not gonna happen. And if they do venture to bring up something sex-related, and we say something like, “Now is not the time to talk about that” or “You’re too young to be in love” or “Don’t worry about that yet” or “Someday I will explain it to you” or “Go ask your father,” we are putting them off from asking again. Saying “Not Now” repeatedly equates to telling a kid “Not ever”.

And it is important to realize that “sex-related” questions don’t actually have to be specifically about sex. It may be a three-year-old asking if the lady at the grocery store has a penis. It may be a four-year-old saying they want to marry the neighbor lady.  It may be a 6-year-old asking what “French kissing” is after hearing the word on TV. It may be a quiet comment from a 9-year-old about having a girlfriend. It may be an 11-year-old asking for deodorant for the first time. Each of these questions is, in fact, about sex. And how we respond tells our child whether they can in fact come to us. If we dismiss the question or freak out about french kissing, how will we respond if they ask about condoms?

Strategy: Throw the idea of “the talk” out the window. Rather than working on “the talk,” work on “talking.” Respond seriously and genuinely any time your kid asks any question about bodies, relationships or sex. Make talking about bodies as normal around the house as talking about milk or laundry or sports. It’s a part of life. It’s something we talk about. A lot. Whenever. Where ever.

Telling our kids they can come talk to us about sex is pretty irrelevant. They know whether they can or not. We show them whether they can or not thousands of times. It is not our ability to say we are available to talk that counts. We must actually be available, all the time. From day one. So, come on. Say it out loud with me… Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Scrotum. Now, let’s talk.

Aug 272013
 

You know those moments in parenting when your body and mouth take over and move through the motions of parenting without your more thoughtful, intentional self being involved? Moments when you suddenly realize, “hey, who is driving this car anyway?”

Sometimes these moments are life-saving. Like when you have to get up for the tenth time in the middle of the night and your conscious self refuses to come to the party. Somehow, your body gets up, walks down the hallway, feeds and comforts a child and gets back into bed.

Or when a child is about to run into the street, and you somehow move faster than an Olympic sprinter to catch a kiddo with one hand, while kicking the ball back into the yard with a move that should only be seen on a soccer field? I once moved across a room and stopped a dresser from falling on top of my child. It wasn’t until after it was over that I realized that (1) I wasn’t capable of moving that fast and (2) I wasn’t strong enough to stop the dresser by myself. Yet somehow I had done both.

Yes,  these autopilot moments can be amazing and life-saving.

Except when they aren’t.

Sometimes they are embarrassing.

Last month, while camping, my fear of snakes kicked in while hiking with my family. Yep. I have a huge fear of snakes, which I had thought I was mostly over. But there, curled up against a tree by the trail was a tiny, insignificant garter snake. Auto-pilot took over and I literally pushed my children out of the way to get away from the snake. It was wasn’t until I was 50 yards up the path that I quit running and realized I had left them to fend for themselves. (Of course my husband was there and the snake wasn’t deadly, it was more of an oversized worm… but still.I Left My Children.) Auto-pilot had disengaged my brain and my body reacted on its own.  When my brain caught up, I was fully aware of all the other choices I had in the moment, but the truth is, it took my brain a while to catch up.

So sometimes auto-pilot is helpful, sometimes it’s embarrassing and sometimes it really gets in the way.

Sometimes, auto-pilot kicks in when we are tired, stressed, overwhelmed or triggered in some other way. Sometimes auto-pilot looks like running away from a snake and sometimes it looks like yelling, screaming or worse.

It’s those moments when we are interacting with our children and somewhere along the line our brain says “stop,” and we just keep going. Do you know those moments? Where you can feel your body and mouth moving through space and time, but your mind is elsewhere?

Maybe we suddenly realize we are screaming at our kids to quit screaming. Or we are in “lecture” mode and, even though our brain is telling us that our kids have checked out minutes ago, our mouths just keep moving and words keep pouring out. Or maybe we feel so angry and out of control that our bodies are frantic and tense and moving with aggression and force.

Each of these moments has something in common. For some reason, the situation creates a kind of flight or fight response. Our emergency response system kicks into gear and our body just reacts with one goal. Get Control Now. We are not interacting with the moment, or with the people around us. We are simply reacting as if the situation is an emergency.  And at some point, our brain catches up, our body slows and we can make some judgments and decisions about what to do next.

So this works when it really is an emergency (the dresser falling), but not so much when it really isn’t (almost all other parenting moments).

The truth is, very few moments in parenting are emergencies. And while we tend to go on auto-pilot pretty frequently, it usually isn’t helpful. Most of the time, our thoughtful, conscious, aware selves would make some pretty different decisions if we just invited them to the moment.

The question is how. How do we (1) recognize that we are in auto-pilot and (2) learn to listen to that voice inside our head telling us to stop when we are in the moment.  And, even better, (3) how do we recover when we do pull ourselves out of it and (4) learn to turn off auto-pilot all together?

Try this:

1)   Recognition is half the battle. In order to recognize that we are in auto-pilot, it is helpful to learn our own tell-tale signs. Physical cues are sometimes easier to become aware of. Start collecting data. When you are stressed or yelling or in a parenting moment you want to change, notice how your body feels. Are your teeth clenched or your arms heavy? Is your voice loud, does your head hurt or are you moving fast? Once you become aware of these cues, you can use them to trigger awareness. It is often easier to recognize body states than it is to recognize emotional processes.

2)   Learn to listen and stop auto-pilot midstream. This is probably the most difficult part. Most of us have the experience of knowing we are doing something we don’t want to do, but we just keep doing it. Our bodies are physiologically tense and engaged in “fight or flight,” a train moving full-steam ahead, while our brain is trying its best to get control of the situation. We can help our brains out by essentially letting the steam out of the engine. If we change the physical state of our body, it is easier for our brains to take over. Think about it, if a boxer goes into a ring to fight, they don’t want to be relaxed, they want to be as tense and hyped up as possible. If we relax our jaw, release the tension in our fists, expand our chest, drop our shoulders, breathe deep into our diaphragm, it will be almost impossible to fight the good fight. Our body immediately feels different and our brain has a chance to catch up and take over the decision-making process. In the moment of auto-pilot, rather than trying to force ourselves to feel differently, we simply change the structure of our body and give ourselves a minute. Breathing. It really is the cure all.

3)   When we do catch ourselves, and we change the moment, it is an amazing opportunity to model coping skills. We can narrate and process with our children. Saying something like, “Wow, I just realized how loudly I am yelling. It feels really bad to me and I bet it feels really bad to you. I am going to take some breaths and try interacting differently.” We can show our kids that it is possible to change directions when we feel out of control, be accountable for the impact we are having on the moment and people around us, use coping skills to change the way we feel, problem solve with others, get support, etc. What an opportunity!

4)   Learning to turn it off all together means taking pre-emptive measures. It’s about knowing what our triggers are. It’s about knowing when we are operating on fewer resources. Are we tired, stressed at work, particularly triggered by the new high-pitched squeal our child is trying out, feeling disrespected,… afraid of snakes? What we do with this information BEFORE the parenting moment arises makes all the difference. Self-care, support, practicing awareness and breathing are just a few steps we can take on an ongoing basis. Aware and gentle parenting requires us to recognize that we are human, with human reactions and auto-pilot responses, AND be accountable for these patterns in our parenting.

We will practice steps one through three over and over and over again. Some of us will get better at step four, but even then, auto-pilot is destined to pop up from time to time. Remember, there are times when it is actually helpful. Most of the time though, turning off the auto-pilot will let us find a little balance in the rocky path of parenting.

 

 

 

 Posted by at 10:04 am
Aug 032013
 

It is my belief that one of the biggest challenges in parenting is remembering that our child is an individual, separate and unique from us. They are on their own path and developing their own self that is outside of their relationship with us, their parent.  When we hold this truth, our interactions with our children change drastically. We can see their own struggles as steps to their own successes. We can see their own emotions as valid and important. And we can step out of the way so that we can support them in their growth, rather than getting entangled and stonewalling them based on our own struggles and emotions.

But, maybe the second biggest challenge, next to honoring our child’s separate identity, is honoring our own.

We have to ask ourselves, who am I as a mom? What does it mean to be a parent? Where did the person I was go and where will the person I turn into come from? Who am I? What drives me, defines me, what makes me have a good day versus a bad day?

Having kids changes everything. We are probably all in agreement with that. We are forced to rethink how we operate in the world, what our expectations are and how we thrive. For some people this seems to happen flawlessly. Some new parents seem to naturally embrace a whole new identity, and others seem to have some superhero ability to balance parts of their previous lives with their new worlds. For many of us, however, it isn’t so easy.

Why is it that some of us cling tightly to our old selves, even if they don’t seem to fit anymore? It’s like those old jeans in the back of the closet that remind of us the way life used to be. You know the ones. The ones that made you feel sexy and young and vibrant. Because you were sexy and young and vibrant. But they will never, and I mean never, fit right again. Not that we are not sexy and vibrant. And maybe we are still young. But we are different. Our bodies are different, our sleep schedules are different, our responsibilities are different, our finances are different. Everything is, well, different. And those jeans? Well… They. Just. Don’t. Fit.

Some of us hold tightly to the idea that those jeans, and all the things we used to hold to be true in the past, are the only things that define what it means to be vibrant. While some of us see a completely new world of vibrant. And herein lies the difference. When we try to hold on to our old ways, we are prone to feeling alone, resentful, hopeless. When we fail to fully embrace the current path we are on, the old path becomes more and more enticing. We stay acutely aware of the path we are NOT on, and, while our attention is locked in on what we are missing, we miss what we have in front of us. We become blind to the beauty of this path.

So, how do they do it? How do those parents who slip gracefully and fully into the role of parent actually do it? There are some common threads that help these parents hold their new lives to be as vibrant as their old lives. Here are four that I think are particularly important:

1)   These parents build a support group of other parents who are at the same stage as they are. This is not to say that they lose all connection with other friends and family. They may keep those too. But, almost across the board, those who are thriving in parenthood spend lots of time with other parents. Daddy groups, mama groups, play dates. It’s less for the kids and more for the parents. New parenthood is a tricky developmental stage for us and we need our peers to help us negotiate through it.

 

2)   If asked to list out who they are, these parents put “Parent” in the number one spot. However, it is not the only spot. Parent, wife/husband, professional, friend, rock climber, poet, shopper, runner, jokester, whatever, the list remains long. But parent comes first. These parents seem to be able to make time and space to support and embrace their passions and identities outside of their children, but don’t get burdened down with resentment when the kids have to come first. Which they do. A lot.

 

3)   These parents spend time talking about the good stuff that parenting brings. Venting, complaining and talking about the hard parts of parenting are tempting. But negative narrative begets negative feelings. The more we talk about how hard it is, the harder it feels. The truth is that no matter how hard things feel, there is always something good that we could be focusing on. Happy people tell happy stories. Sad people tell sad stories. Parents who embrace their lives as parents talk more about how great their kids are.

 

4)   These parents build new family rituals and traditions. Pre-kid life is full of rituals that parenthood interrupts. Whether it was Wednesday night wine with the girls or Sunday golf or morning coffee at the shop before work, these rituals often get interrupted, put on hold or just plain forgotten. But, just because kids change the structure of our lives, doesn’t mean that we can’t find new rhythms and create new rituals. Rather than pining away over interrupted routines, these parents find what works with the new family system, kids included.

 

So, what do these four things have in common? Identity. They all anchor our identity as a parent. I often read lists of things that parents should do to take care of themselves. Find time alone, get a hobby, take a bubble bath, get sleep, ask for help. Absolutely. We should be doing all these things no matter who we are. But if we want to really thrive in parenting, if we really want to LOVE parenting, we need to find out who we are as parents. We need to embrace our identity as parents just as much as we need to embrace our children’s identity as individuals. We may not be able to fit into our old jeans anymore, but we certainly can rock the new ones!

 Posted by at 9:17 pm
Jul 172013
 

Emotion begets emotion. When our friends are happy or sad, we feel happy or sad. Maybe we feel twinges of tears during tissue commercials, or serious anxiety while watching contentious political debates. Being in the room with an angry individual, especially a loud angry person with big aggressive movements, can (and should) cause anxiety or mirrored anger. And parenting is no different. We come face to face with our children’s mostly raw, unhinged, loud and pure emotion once, twice or a hundred times a day.

 

Knowing what your go-to response is when you are faced with emotion is crucial to mindful parenting. Emotion is contagious and while empathy is a crucial and important part of interacting with the world, we also need to be aware of how our response pattern to emotions may be impacting our relationships and, most importantly, our parenting.

When we feel an emotion, our automatic response is to do something about it. If I feel angry, I want to get rid of the conflict. If I feel anxious, I want to get rid of the threat. If I feel frustrated, I want to change whatever is blocking my way. It mostly boils down to, “I don’t want to feel bad. Stop the emotion.” See the problem here? We may be saying, “tell me how you feel!” to our little ones, but if we react negatively when they do tell us, then our message is lost.

In parenting we are given the opportunity to see this unfold over and over again. Our kiddo has an emotion, it causes an emotion in us, we are driven to get rid of our own emotion, which means getting rid of our kid’s emotion. When they stop crying, I will feel better. When they stop being angry, I won’t feel bad. Our parenting choices are driven largely by our inability to tolerate our own and, consequently, our children’s emotions.

Mindful parenting asks us to stop this pattern. It asks us to tolerate everyone’s emotions. To be aware of our own emotions and to allow our children the space to feel and express and sort through their own stuff, without us blocking them. Supporting the emotional growth of our children demands that we allow them to practice emotional expression. Once, twice, maybe a hundred times a day.

It also means that we help them go a little deeper into their emotion. And in order to do that, we have to be able to keep our own emotions out of it. Let me be clear, I don’t mean escape out of the house or send them to another room to cry. I don’t mean ignore or take on an “I don’t care” attitude. I do mean that we need to realize that we are not always the center of the universe. I do mean that we need to realize that this emotion that they are having is not about us, and it is not ours to squash. Imagine if you went to your best friend to cry about something and she said, “Oh, stop crying, I hate it when you cry. Don’t you know we are late for the movie? Why do you always do this to me?” What you wanted was support and love while you processed some heavy emotion. It was not about her, it was not her emotion to squash.

It’s true. We squash our kids’ emotions. All. The. Time. But we don’t have to. And doing it differently can feel so good. In order to do it differently we need to Connect, Observe, Reflect and Engage (CORE). And say to yourself, “This emotion is not about me. This is not my emotion to squash.” Once, twice or a hundred times a day.

 

Here is an example of how it can look:

My five-year-old sat close by while my three-year-old lay on the floor and cried. I sat down on the floor and waited.

To say he was crying doesn’t really give justice to the moment. He howled and spat, “Bad mommy! Bad mommy!” He kicked his feet on the floor. He yelled, “NO!” every time one of us tried to comfort him.

“He is really mad at you,” my five-year-old observed.

I nodded. “That’s what I hear him saying. And that’s okay. He is very angry right now. But I don’t think he is really mad at me. I wonder what he is really feeling?” I pondered out loud.

My three-year-old would not let such a question go unanswered. “I AM mad at you! But also at these shoes. They won’t go on and now you’re going to leave me!”

My five-year-old piped up hopefully, “Oh maybe he isn’t really mad at you, maybe he is worried about if we are going to leave him.” He moved closer to his brother. “Are you worried we are going to leave you?”

“YES!” he screamed. “I can’t do this and you will leave me behind. I want to go to the park.” His agony and tears were intense.

“I can ask Mama for you. Do you want me to ask her?”

“YES!” he shrieked.

“Okay, Mama, are we going to leave him behind?”

“No. We will not leave him behind. Right now we are all sitting in the hallway together, trying to figure this out.”

My three-year-old, still crying, calmed a little bit.

I offered my support. “Seems like you are frustrated that your shoes are tricky and you’re worried about keeping up. What can I do to help you?”

“Can you wait for me?” He needed to hear it one more time.

“Yes. We can wait.”

He took a breath, wiped his nose, sat up and got to work putting on his shoes. It took a while. The laces were tied and the tongue was pushed down. His brother and I sat in the hallway with him while he worked. We started talking quietly about the wood grain in the floor. He worked and worked, his breathing settled.

Success! His shoes were on and tied.

“I’m ready!”

We all jumped up and headed to the door.

 

It took a lot of breaths. It took of lot of saying to myself, “this emotion isn’t about me,” which is hard to do when your little one is screaming that it is your fault. It took a lot of checking in with my own emotions and keeping them separate. But what happened was bigger and better and deeper. It was about exploring emotions, showing my boys that emotions don’t have to be squashed, that they can be worked through, together. It was about showing them that what feels like anger may really be fear, or frustration, or worry.

 

And that is big work for a little person. Or even a big one.

And doing that big work makes parenting feel a whole lot better.

 

 

 Posted by at 10:01 pm
Jun 132013
 

Look closer, stuff is happening.

A preschooler comes home from school; he is edgy and vulnerable. Maybe something happened at school. Maybe a friend made him sad. Maybe the work was hard. We may never know. But we do know that he is poking and prodding and pushing and pulling. We can feel it rise. We are on guard. If we only look at the surface, we may try to shut down behaviors: “Don’t do that.” “Be nice to your brother.” “Find something to do.” We engage in reactive parenting with the goal of avoiding a meltdown, of avoiding our own discomfort. We are focused only on the immediate behaviors we can see on the surface.

But look closer, stuff is happening. When we observe more closely, we may see sadness or tenderness. Our preschooler doesn’t have the words to express deep complicated emotion. So he moves his body around, waiting to crash into something or someone, emotionally or physically, that can help him “get it out.”

Inevitably, if we don’t look closer, if we can’t make space for the bigger, deeper issues, it will happen. And sometimes, even if we see that there is more there, it will happen anyway. Explosion. Sometimes a kid just needs to blow up.

If we react to the surface behaviors, we may miss the real action.

Look closer, stuff is happening. Children’s behavior is not random. It is the physical representation of what they are feeling and thinking. Just like adult behavior. Just like you and just like me.

It’s our job to use the child’s behavior as clues. Use their actions to remind us to look deeper. What is happening? What are they telling us? What do they need?

Our preschooler starts throwing stuff around the room. Our instinct tells us to stop him. But instead we look closer. We see that he is actually choosing objects carefully. Things that won’t break. He is making a mess, but not doing damage. He looks angry. He looks lonely. He looks sad. He is, also, very much in control.

We choose not to stop him. Instead we say, “You look angry, you look lonely, you look sad. I am here if you need me.” We step back and give him space, watching closely and prepared to intervene if the behavior becomes more out of control or unsafe.

He continues to throw things, clearly choosing carefully. The mess is pretty big. We control our own instinct to intervene. Messes make us uncomfortable, but that’s our process, not his.

We wait, keeping the house quiet and still, keeping ourselves available from a distance.

Eventually, he comes to us, saying, “I need a hug.” “I can see that,” we say and wrap him in our arms. The living room is a mess. He melts into our arms and cries and cries. We can feel his sadness. Life is hard. It really is. Sometimes, we just need to explode. His body changes, but he isn’t done yet.

Look closely, stuff is happening.

“That’s a pretty big mess you made in there. You were really angry. What happens next?” we ask.

His crying escalates. “I have to clean it up!!!” he wails.

“Seems like the right thing to do. When I break stuff or make a mess, I like to leave things better than I found them. It helps me feel better,” we say.

“No one will help me! I have to do it alone!” he sobs.

“Seems like it, I know you can do it. I have faith. I will be right here if you need me.”

His sobbing continues as he slowly moves to the living room. Bit by bit. Block by block. Game piece by game piece. He struggles to put everything back in order. He is crying loudly. Sobbing. But we look closer, stuff is happening. He is taking meticulous pride in putting things in order. He is organizing things that he didn’t mess up.

He works. And works. And cries and cries. Every few minutes, he comes back to where we are sitting and asks for a hug. We give them freely. There is no time limit. This is his process. There is no need for him to be calm or be quiet or do things our way.

The mess is cleaned up and he is breathing deeply and slowly. He sits down in the middle of the room and looks around. “I think I will clean the windows.” We smile. “That would feel good I bet. Leaving things better makes me feel good, too.” He cleans them and then pushes a candle into the center of the table. He stands back and smiles.

Look closer, things are happening. It is his living room. It was his mess. He went from angry and furious to sad to calm and proud.

We may never have any idea about what he worked through in that time. But he worked through some feelings that were pretty big. A closer look allowed us to interact rather than react. It allowed us to give him space, to stay close and supportive without interfering.

Look closer, things are happening. All the time.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm