Sep 252012
 

Beyond exhaustion, there is parenthood.

Time and time again, I hear from parents, other writers, friends, and my own heart about the depths of exhaustion that we feel as parents. Mothers-to-be talk about their well-intentioned plans for working right after giving birth, only to utter, “What was I thinking?” as they change timelines and work schedules.  Couples who previously enjoyed a rich and connected social life now trade in concert tickets and reservations at fancy restaurants for a few hours of sleep.  Peaceful and rejuvenating sleep becomes a foreign concept, a distant memory as blurry and vague as a fading dream.

Exhaustion becomes a constant companion to our emotional state. It easily becomes the backdrop to our days and nights, as consistent and predictable as the tides.  It becomes a state of being that defines us, bonds us to other parents, challenges our resolve and pushes us to the limits of what we thought we were capable of.

And somehow, even in the midst of blurry-eyed, body-aching, mind-numbing exhaustion, we pull through. Because we are parents. Because there is no other option. Because it is just what we do. And because that feeling we get when our child giggles softly, or hugs us tightly, or takes her first step, or tells a silly joke, or just exists in the world for that matter fills us with an emotion that is even bigger than exhaustion. That emotion doesn’t really have a name. That emotion is Love. Pride. Joy. Fear. Awe. Wonder. Glee. Vulnerability. Anxiety. Agony. Delight. All mixed into one. The Feeling of Parenthood.

That emotion feeds us, fills up our empty tanks and rejuvenates our weary souls so that sleep almost becomes optional. Something we can get back to later, tomorrow, next week, next year. But even as so many of us thrive on the wonders of parenthood, it is important to be aware of how exhaustion can impact our relationships with others, including our children.  It isn’t just the lack of sleep that can deplete our bodies, hearts and souls. Even parents with “good sleepers” complain of feeling exhausted.  So much is happening that can deplete us:

  • We suffer from poor sleep quality. Even if we get enough hours of sleep, the sleep we do get may be less solid. How many of us sleep with one ear open, listening for any small sound? Sometimes I am amazed (and dismayed) by how easily I wake up every time a child in my home talks in his sleep, rolls over or shuffles around in the night!
  • Children don’t have a pause button. Parenting is a never-ending marathon. Often, when we are engaging in a strenuous or exhausting task, we find motivation in the fact that it will soon come to an end. Not so with parenting. There is no end in sight. Our children’s need for us is never ending, our to-do list is ever growing, and the demands on our heart and soul are infinitely present. Until one has children, there is no way to understand or prepare for the feeling of constantly being needed. For most of us, it can be draining and for some of us it can be downright overwhelming. Adjusting to this is not always blissful.
  • When we have children, we routinely give up the other things that rejuvenate us. Time with friends, meditation, exercise, massages, books (other than children’s books). We all have things that fulfill us and bring a sense of peace or joy to our lives. When kids enter the picture, these things take a back seat. We don’t have the time, money, space, energy, or motivation to incorporate them into our lives anymore.
  • As we support our children through their own emotional processes, parenting brings up a never-ending flood of our own emotions, triggers, memories and issues. Our own stuff. This emotional roller coaster can be exhausting in and of itself.
  • While our kids may take precedence on our priority list, our other responsibilities don’t have pause buttons, either. Our partners need our attention. Our bills need to be paid. Our refrigerators need to be filled. Our laundry baskets need to be tended to.  Needs. Needs. Needs. Our world is full of them.  Everything wants a piece of us. All while our kids say, “Be here with me now.”

 

For most of us, it isn’t just the lack of sleep. Rather, it is a combination of all of these things that weigh on our hearts and bodies and minds and leave us dragging or snapping or reacting from a place of exhaustion rather than a place of present and peaceful parenting. If we become aware of the impact of these aspects of parenting on our emotional selves, maybe we can give ourselves a little space and support to do what we need to do to restore a bit of balance. We aren’t likely to achieve complete balance, not for a few years at least. But maybe we can tip the scales back just enough so that the Feeling of Parenthood can be enough fuel for a while.  How? Here are a few tips to try.

 

  • Become aware of your own issues. Being in tune with our own heart is crucial for avoiding “reactive” parenting and making space for peaceful and supportive interactions with our children.
  • Find one thing that is uniquely yours and brings you peace and joy. Reading, running, writing, it doesn’t matter what it is. Now find a way to make it happen on a regular basis. It may be for five minutes a day or once a month. Own it. Honor it. Enjoy it.
  • Focus on working toward being truly present with your children. Recognizing that our minds are usually pulled in a million directions at once and practicing being present in the moment can have an immediate and lasting impact on our state of mind.
  • Connect with your partner. Make space and time for your relationship. It’s difficult, but necessary.
  • Decrease screen time.  Realize how much impact the television, internet, phone, etc. has on your life. These thing take us away from the moment, create background noise and clutter in our world, and may be depleting us in ways we don’t even realize.
  • Connect with that Feeling of Parenthood.  Let it fill you. Breathe it in. Revel in it.  It is, after all, the source of the fire that fuels the flame. It is what lies beyond exhaustion.
So, the next time weariness strikes,  when you feel like you have had enough and your cup is almost empty, pause, breathe, and wait. In the space of the moment, sort through the various things that may be pulling on your thoughts and let them go. We can’t stop parenting when we are tired, but we can stop the emotional roller coaster and focus on what matters most in the moment: the Feeling of Parenthood.

 

 Posted by at 11:29 am
Jul 182012
 

Parents of multiple children often struggle with how to handle sibling conflict. Often times, our homes  can be filled with high-pitched cries of “Mom! He took my toy!” and “Dad! He hit me!” Parents find themselves in the role of arbitrator, judge, and referee. In an effort to restore quiet and sanity to the home, tired, overwhelmed and well-intentioned parents end up responding with “Share the toy” and “Don’t hit your sister.”  And while this may result in momentary peace, the lesson for the child is, “He who screams first (or loudest) gets Mom on his side.” The unfortunate result? More screaming and fighting.

But beyond momentary household peace, what do we really want our children to learn? We want them to be able to communicate their needs, negotiate, tolerate, plan, and maintain their own boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others. We want them to be flexible and kind and empathic. We want them to learn to interact with others in a pro-social and responsible way.  We want them to think about others without sacrificing themselves and we want them to explore and gain a solid understanding of themselves in relation to others.  These are difficult concepts that require practice. And what better place to learn and practice all these skills than in the safety of our own home with our siblings? Unfortunately, when we referee as parents, we take away these opportunities for growth and interpersonal exploration. What if we embrace sibling conflict as an opportunity to grow, rather than a hassle to eliminate?

So how do we encourage and allow our children to benefit from sibling conflict rather than suffer from it? Rather than solve the problem for them, set the stage for them to negotiate it themselves. Here are three go-to responses to use the next time you hear conflict arise.

1)    “I hear you’re upset with your brother.  What do you want to communicate to him?”

 

Healthy, thriving individuals are able to communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs with others in a way that is respectful to both themselves and others.  When a child hits, screams, pushes, takes a toy, cries, etc. she is communicating. Our job as parents is not to quiet the communication, but to help shape the child’s ability to communicate in an effective way. When we support our children in slowing down and trying different ways of communicating with each other, they learn not only how to do it, but also that it works. In the long run, kids learn that screaming for mom to intervene won’t solve the problem, but that communicating with their sibling will. Kids learn to identify their own thoughts and feelings about a situation, practice communication skills and build empathy.

 

2)    “Wow, you both have different ideas of what should happen here! I wonder if you can make a plan that works for everybody.”

 

So often, a parent will respond to a scream of, “He took my truck!” with, “Give the truck back!” only to find the truck abandoned by everyone a moment later.  The conflict  between the children and the parent was pretty meaningless, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and agitated. That’s because it’s not about the truck. It’s about the process. Forcing the children to own the process allows the moment to become about the relationship rather than the object. When this happens, it is amazing what plans kids come up with. “I will be done in two minutes.” Or, “I can use this one and you can use that one.” They employ a variety of skills including creativity, problem-solving, empathy, and self-awareness. The children usually share a sense of satisfaction and pride in having come up with a solution and working together. Often the object-focused outcome is the same and the truck is soon forgotten by everyone. But this time, instead of a frustrating moment when a triangular power struggle led to a meaningless decision, the children feel connected, capable and satisfied. They practiced negotiation, empathy, listening, creativity, and teamwork. Success!

 

3)    “Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here while you guys work this out.”

 

Leaning social interactions is hard work. It can feel scary and overwhelming, not only for the people struggling (presumably the child), but also for those who are observing the struggle (presumably the parent). Sometimes, as parents, we create a sense of urgency when conflict arises. We need peace to be restored quickly!  Much of this has to do with our own lack of tolerance for distress. It’s hard to listen to our children fight. Our days are long and our patience runs short. But, over time, this sense of urgency can create anxiety for children around these types of conflicts. Sending the message to our children that we are willing to be patient while they work out their conflict (and that we will support them in the process) allows kids to learn to tolerate conflict as they work through it. It also sends the message that we are not going to step in and solve the conflict for them. This is especially important when we have adopted the pattern of stepping in to referee.

These three responses can be used effectively across ages. The difference may be in how closely involved the caregiver is in the interaction. For toddlers or pre-verbal children, the caregiver may need to do lots of interpreting: “You’re telling your brother you are so angry! You want the truck back!” For preschoolers, it may mean sitting closely to help ground the children in the moment or keep bodies safe. Reflecting back what each child says and modeling a rhythm for communication and dialogue may be necessary. For school-age children or adolescents, it may be simply making the statement and then getting out of the way.  But whatever the age of the children involved, we as parents definitely need to be able to tolerate distress and conflict. Rather than responding with the thought of, “Oh, no! The kids are fighting again!” we can practice thinking, “Oh, yes! Another opportunity to practice communication!” We need to give up the immediate and momentary goal of household peace in exchange for the long-term goal of empowering children to develop the skills needed for peaceful conflict resolution.  The results may just blow our mind.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Jul 162012
 

Let’s talk about sex. Again. Yes, I know I have written about it before, but I’m writing about it again. Why? Because just as in real life, we can’t talk about it just once and have it be a done deal. We have to keep talking about it. Talking until it becomes a topic that we are comfortable with. Until it becomes a topic our kids know we are comfortable with.  I know, this goes against the grain of everything we hold dear in our culture when it comes to sex. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Mantras we live by when it comes to sex. We don’t want to or can’t talk about it with our families, our mentors, or our advisers and our society has this weird belief that if we acknowledge sex with real and meaningful discussions, we will turn into sex-crazed zombies. However, we are perfectly comfortable bombarding ourselves with sex in the media and we often see children oversexualized by the media. See this article in the Washington Post, for example. But talk about it? No! Oh, but I digress.

So we know we need to talk to our kids about sex, and we know we need to do it differently than we have been doing it. And we need to do it now. But how? Why are we so resistant? The message isn’t new. For years, experts have been saying that the current way our culture deals with sexuality is failing our youth.  In October 1984, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote an article called “The Failure of Sex Education.”  In it, she talks about the fact that parents, culture and the education system fail children with regard to their sexuality. She points out how we miss the boat by believing that sexual development happens only during certain ages (6-12), or that it is limited to certain behaviors (masturbation and intercourse), or that information should come from only one source (parents). The article states:

First, children are “sexual from birth.” Like many sex educators, Wilson rejects the classic notion that a latency period occurs between the ages of about six and twelve, when children are sexually quiescent. “Ever since I’ve gotten into this field, the opponents have used that argument to frighten policymakers,” she says. “But there is a body of developmental knowledge that says this is not true.” And, according to Wilson, it is not simply that children are born sexual or that their sexuality is constantly unfolding. It is also that sexuality is much broader than most imagine: “You are not just being sexual by having intercourse. You are being sexual when you throw your arms around your grandpa and give him a hug.”

This is not a message that we are comfortable with. It is not a message that we embrace. When we tell the parents of a toddler that their child is sexually developing as we speak, the parents are likely to cringe and wave their hands in dismay. Often, even parents of teenagers will say, “Oh, not my child. He doesn’t think about it at all. He probably never will.” Right. We are fooling ourselves into not seeing what is right in front of us. And when we fool ourselves, we fail our children.  Unfortunately, failing our children in this arena has dramatic consequences. We make them more vulnerable to sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. And even if they escape all that, we fail them by leaving them alone to navigate scary, lonely and uncharted territory.

But we can’t put all the blame on the parents. Every time I see a new parenting book on the market, I quickly scan the table of contents. Nine times out of ten, the terms “sex,” “sexual development,” “masturbation,” “sexual health,” etc. do not even appear in the index. I get a surge of excitement when I find it and am often disappointed when the sum total of the discussion is a single sentence that equates to this: “Parents should be open to talking to their children about sex.”  It’s slowly changing, but in the meantime, what is a parent to do? Here are four simple things to get you started:

1)       We need to do a check-in with ourselves. Okay, maybe this one isn’t so easy, but it’s the most important. I talk about how our own issues interfere with our parenting here and sex is no different. Talking about sex is so difficult, because it brings up an overwhelming emotional response. Anxiety, fear, anger, shame.  These types of feelings are devastatingly common reactions to sex.  Very few of us come into parenthood without wounds from our past and, unfortunately, these wounds often revolve around sex. From sexual abuse to sexual stigma to sexually repression to painful messages regarding our sexuality, these experiences can make it difficult for us to respond in a healthy way when our children begin to explore their own sexuality.  And even if we haven’t had any particularly traumatic or negative experiences, few of us grew up in households, churches or schools systems that encouraged healthy dialogue about sex. We just don’t have the models or experience to guide us in what we know we should be doing now.  We are like deer in the headlights.

 

2)      Adopt a new mantra about sex. Andy Warhol said, “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time.”  Sex is and always will be a part of life. We need to get over it. If we can stop making it such a big deal, maybe we can deal with it!

 

3)      Realize that sexual development means more than simply learning about how to make babies. Thinking about a preschooler’s sexual development does not equate to teaching him about intercourse. Sexual development and sexual health include: learning to respect our own bodies, learning to respect other people’s bodies, and learning about bodily functions, hormonal changes, relationships, gender identity, social identity, boundaries….I could go on and on.

 

4)      Change your goal regarding sex education.  The purpose of talking to our kids about sex is to lay a foundation so that they will talk to us about sex!  Whitehead wrote:

In the beginning, before there is sex, there is sex literacy. Just as boys and girls learn their number facts in the first grade, they acquire the basic sex vocabulary, starting with the proper names for genitalia and progressing toward an understanding of masturbation, intercourse, and contraception. As they gain fluency and ease in talking about sexual matters, students become more comfortable with their own sexuality and more skillful in communicating their feelings and desires. Boys and girls can chat with one another about sex, and children can confide in adults without embarrassment.

Parents often ask what information they should give their kids and when.  I don’t think there is one specific answer to this. Rather, if our goal in early childhood is to create a culture in which kids acquire the language, ease and fluency in talking about sexual matters, the result will be that they are able to ask for information when they need it and we will feel comfortable and open enough to give it to them!

Let’s talk about it! I would love to hear from all of you on this topic. Post here or on our Facebook page to share your thoughts!

 Posted by at 10:24 am
Jul 092012
 

We all have issues. No matter how wonderful our parenting skills, no matter how peaceful and loving and gentle we strive to be in our interactions with our children, at the end of the day we all have issues.  Often, our issues are clear. We know about them and work on them on a daily basis to try to keep them in check. Other issues may be more subtle or buried deep in the depths of our psyche. Or maybe we feel like we have conquered them. So when our children, our sweet-faced, big-hearted, little bundles of love bust out with something like, “Mama! Your butt looks like a million monsters stuck together!” we may be surprised at our own reaction.

True story. I will give you the full picture.

There I was, getting out of the shower, my children running in and out of the bathroom (I am sure all of you can relate) when my preschooler says, “Mama, you have a very big butt!” Now, he didn’t say it in his maniacal, I-need-attention-so-I-am-going-to-squeal-at-the-top-of-my-lungs kind of voice. Nope, he said it in the way one would notice a lovely tree or flower or maybe an overripe tomato on the vine. A sing-songy, quiet and sweet voice. A just-noticing kind of voice.  I swallowed and held back all of the societal beliefs and pressures and unrealistic notions that were welling up inside me. “Really?” I tried to respond as neutrally as possible. “Oh yeah, it’s like a million monsters all stuck together.” And though I tried to hold onto my self esteem, I could feel it going down the drain with the water.

We can laugh. I laughed at the moment and I laugh now. But I am also aware of how it impacted me. I was acutely aware that he had, quite innocently, triggered an issue for me.  I am also well aware of the fact that he is four, has no idea about body image or ideals or the struggles women in general deal with in our culture surrounding their body. He has no idea that big butts are considered differently from small butts any more than he would think big rocks are different from small rocks. They are just that, different. There was no judgment in his voice, no motive, no devious plot to bring me down. It was just his observation, mashed together with what he was thinking about moments prior. My butt is bigger than his butt. Fact. He was thinking about monsters. Fact. They merged together. He spoke it out loud and went on his merry way. The drama happened inside of me.

So, back to the beginning. We all have issues. We have body issues and food issues and anger issues and love issues and relationship issues. We have guilt issues and mother issues and control issues.  We have deep issues and shallow issues, big issues and small issues. And the unavoidable truth is that our children will trigger these issues.  When our issues get triggered, the drama inside us unfolds. And when the drama unfolds, it tends to come out in ways that we don’t intend. When we react to our children based on our inner drama, a couple of things happen,

1)      We react to situations with misplaced anger, shame, guilt or control. We lose sight of what is actually going on with our children and steal the show, so to speak.

2)      When we let our inner drama lead the way, we have difficulty following through with our parenting intentions and find ourselves saying or doing things we don’t want to say or do.

3)      Maybe most importantly, when we let our inner drama lead the way, we make our children responsible for our issues. When we make them responsible for our issues, they lose their right to learn and explore the world in a safe and genuine way. They now have to learn to manage us as well as themselves.

So what do we do? Or, as a friend expressed it more eloquently,

“What to do when your preschooler rips out your soul, throws it on the ground, and goes number two on it?”

(the true and rightful title of this blog).

1)      Become aware of your issues. Use whatever method works. Journal, meditate, seek therapy, think, have wine with friends, whatever. Just be willing to take inventory and become aware of what your issues are. If you know that one of your buttons is being late, and you know that you become irritated and anxious and irate when people are late, it may explain why you hear your voice rising every time you have to get your family in the car. Dawdling children may trigger something in you that interferes with your ability to respond gently. But children are dawdlers. They just are. Feeling like they are doing it to spite you is your drama, not theirs. Can you identify your patterns and triggers? Can you notice how your responses to your children may be drama-led rather than child-focused?

2)      Once you have a grasp of your bigger-picture issues, practice becoming more aware in the moment.  Breathing and becoming aware of the thoughts and emotions that guide us can have a wondrous impact on our ability to respond gently in the moment. I strongly believe that the number-one, most under-appreciated parenting tool is simply breathing.  When we take a moment to become aware and connected with our breath, we have a chance to also become aware of the thoughts and triggers and emotions that are coloring our vision. This gives us an opportunity to assess the situation. I like to use the acronym CORE. I have written about it in other blog posts, but basically it is:

C- Connect and center. Breathe, take a moment, notice yourself, notice your child.

O- Observe the opportunity. What is actually happening? What do you need? What does your child need?

R- Realize the moment. What path do you want to take?

E- Engage. Sometimes this means doing something, sometimes this means doing nothing. But often, it means doing something different from your first impulse.

The whole process takes the space of a breath and can change a moment drastically.

3)      When you feel yourself triggered in the moment, take note of it and mentally file it away. Then respond to your child in the way that your child needs. Later (and this is the important part), process the issue in some way, shape or fashion. How is up to you. Use whatever you know works. You might try laughing about it with friends, journaling, getting help from a mentor, therapist, or coach, or just thinking it over.

So what’s the bottom line? The issues are our issues. Not their issues. And unless we want our issues to become their issues, we better make sure that we are fully aware of moments when the drama inside us is leading the way.  Because when we feel like our children are “ripping out our soul and throwing it on the ground and going number two on it,” they probably aren’t. They are probably just being kids.  And it’s our job to make sure our issues don’t get in the way of that.

 Posted by at 7:10 am
Jul 022012
 

Telling parents not to worry about their child is like telling a fish not to swim. Parents worry. It’s what we do. The problem is not with the fact that we worry; the problem arises when we try to eliminate our worry by limiting our children’s experience of the world. It is human to try to eliminate the things that make us anxious. But, in parenting, we are essentially expected to support and work towards the very thing that increases our worry the most: our children eventually being in the world without us! While it would be nice if we could teach our kids how to live while holding them snuggly in the safe cocoon of our arms forever, the truth is that we learn about life through living. Our children have to experience life, the good and the bad, in order to succeed. And in some way or another, they will do just that. And while they do it, we will worry.

I have come to the realization that much of parenthood is about tolerating worry. The balance is in knowing when to tolerate our worry and when it is a sign that we need to provide a mechanism of support. Sometimes we have to swallow our worry and let our kids fall. Sometimes our worry may signal that we need to put a pillow under them so their fall is a little softer. And sometimes it means we need to take them in our arms and move them to safety. Good parenting means providing a warm space, loving arms, an open heart and safe boundaries that children can rely on to support them through the trials and tribulations, successes and joys that make up life.

But how do we know when to take which approach? We can ask ourselves some basic questions.

1)      Is this worry about me or them?

2)      What will they lose if I take this experience from them?

3)      Is this a natural developmental experience they should be having?

4)      How big is their world now?

 

I imagine a bubble. When our children are infants we support them physically. The parent and child occupy a pretty tight bubble. They depend on us and we respond immediately to their needs. Their world is us and we are their bubble. When we are worried about their needs, our interventions are usually physical. We support their bodies, we move them to safety, we hold them tight. But as they grow, their naturally emerging process of becoming their own person pushes this bubble. It grows and starts to envelope other people, things, experiences outside of us. I imagine the parent standing on one side of the bubble and the child, slowing and fatefully pushing against the side of the bubble, expanding their world.

 

As this happens, our worry continues, but our responses change. The way we support our children, the type of safety nets we provide them and the way we encourage their interactions look different as our children grow. They don’t need us any less, they just need us differently. So, what does this look like?

  • A toddler is exploring her world through climbing. One parent worries about the child falling and moves in to ease their own anxiety. “Be careful, don’t climb so high.” Maybe the parent physically stops the child from moving in a way she would naturally. Instead, another parent tolerates some worry, assesses the situation and allows the child to climb, but moves a shelf out of the way or places a mattress on the floor to ease a fall. The child is allowed to climb, in a safe way, and experiences a new relationship with herself and the world. She figures out she can do something she couldn’t do the day before. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
  • A preschooler wants to help mama by returning the measuring cup to the neighbor next door. This would require her to go outside, walk next door and stay out of the street without adult supervision. The parent worries and says, “No, you can’t go to the neighbor’s house by yourself.” The parent prohibits the child from accomplishing a new developmental task and gaining a little more independence. Instead, another parent assesses the situation, tolerates some worry and allows the child to walk next door unattended. Maybe the parent watches through the window or calls the neighbor to make sure they know the child is coming. The child embraces their new responsibility and returns full of pride and accomplishment. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.
  • A school-age child wants to attend his first sleepover. The worried parent thinks the child isn’t emotionally ready for this and suggests that the child just go for dinner and then come home. The child feels anxious and insecure. Another parent tolerates their own worry and supports the child in the sleepover. The parent lets the child know he can call if he needs to, helps the child make a plan and processes some of the fears the child may be expressing. The parent also makes sure that the day after the sleepover is low-key and supportive for processing residual emotions. The child goes to the sleepover, experiences stress and anxiety AND has fun and success with his friends. The next day he struggles from being overtired and emotionally worn out from all the excitement, but the parent is there to support. The world, the bubble, just got a little bigger.

Parents worry about how kids will manage life at every stage, from wanting to protect toddlers from climbing to shielding middle schoolers from the harsh words of peers to minimizing the angst that comes from high school relationships. Parents are driven to eliminate not only their children’s pain, but also their own worry. But these “falls” are an important part of life. Without falling we can’t learn balance. Without anxiety we can’t learn calm. Without angst we can’t learn joy in relationships. The job of the parent is to tolerate worry and provide “just enough” protection so that our children can continue to push the bubble. We want their world, their bubble, to be as big as possible. We want it to be full of people and opportunity and experiences. We want it (the bubble, the world, our children) to never stop growing. And in order for that to happen, we have to tolerate the worry.

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Jun 252012
 

Determined not to be a “do as I say, not as I do” parent and wanting to honor my commitment to be connected and present with my children, I have recently had the surprisingly unpleasant opportunity to find out just how addicted to screens I really am. I must admit that, for many years now, I have hidden behind the fact that my family does not have “television,” meaning we do not subscribe to cable and the only TV in our house is unplugged and in the basement. True confession: we do have a laptop with Netflix and DVD player, smart phones and tablets. And while the kids have had limited access to carefully selected movies, they have almost no access to other screens. So when, one day as we were leaving the house, my son yelled out, “Did you remember your phone? You don’t want to leave home without it,” something inside me cringed a little. I wasn’t sure in the moment why it bothered me so much, but I knew I needed to do something about it.

There is ample information available to suggest that screen time negatively impacts children. For example:

  • A University of Bristol research study found a correlation between increased screen time and psychological difficulties pertaining to behavioral issues, emotional difficulties, social interaction, inattentiveness and hyperactivity in pre-teens.
  • Screen time in children under three is linked to irregular sleep patterns, delayed language acquisition, later childhood problems (such as lower math achievement, reduced physical activity, victimization by classmates) and leads to habit formation (more screen now means more screens later).
  • Screen time is associated with increased aggression. (And this is not limited to viewing aggressive media!)

While it used to be that the focus was just on television, we are slowly becoming aware that any screen time results in the same kinds of results. TV, smart phones, tablets, movies, computer, video games. Even when we try to make ourselves feel a little better by choosing “educational” options, the negatives may outweigh the positives. And here is the kicker, research shows that these negatives not only apply to screen time that kids are actively engaged in, but “incidental screen time as well.” Researcher Daniel Anderson of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that background TV (regardless of what was on) decreased the overall amount of time children spent in play, increased the number of times children moved from toy to toy and decreased the amount of time children spent in focused-attention activities. Why does this matter? Because play is where it is at. Play is how children learn. It’s crucial. Play is their life-work. If we interrupt their play, we interrupt their life.

Amazingly, I saw this firsthand at the park recently. I watched five children playing quietly in a sand pit. The children ranged in age from two to six. A man (notably not connected to any of the children in the sand pit) sat on a bench playing a game on his phone. The volume was high and the game alternated between annoyingly high-pitched music and something that sounded like a missile being launched. Occasionally, his actual phone ringer (playing some type of classical music) would interrupt the game and he would answer, chat and then return to the game. I watched as the children, all intently trying to dig up a dinosaur bone buried in the sand, repeatedly turned their attention to the man and his smart phone. On separate intervals, about every two or three minutes, each kid would stop what they were doing, consider the man and then turn back to their digging. None of them interacted with each other. I could see that they were pulled to the sound and were deciding whether to approach the man to see the game or continue their own work. It was obvious for some of the children that it was a hard choice, while for others it appeared to simply be annoying. What amazed me was how noticeable it was that regardless of how they felt about the noise, they each had to put effort into returning to their play. They would stop, assess the man for a moment, look around, find a new shovel, remember what they were doing, start a new task, focus for a few minutes and then get pulled toward the sound again. After some time, I asked the man if he would mind either silencing his phone or moving to another area. He grumbled but complied and I immediately noticed a difference. I could almost see the children relaxing into their play and the digging continued uninterrupted. Then a magical thing happened. The children began to interact with one another and a cooperative story emerged, four of the five children developed a plan of action to work together. I doubt this would have happened if the background screen time continued.

So could it be that my own screen time was impacting my children’s life-work in a similar way? Over the past few months I have been experimenting with my own screen-free time. I have tried eliminating my use of anything with a screen in different ways: for hour-blocks, after certain times in the evenings and for entire weekends. What I realized through this process is that I am (and, yes, I hate to admit this) intimately connected to my media. Not television or games per se, but email, chat, text message and Facebook. Social media. I realized that it is my primary source of connecting with the world. So while on one hand I tell my children, “No media for you,” I am connecting through a screen on much too regular intervals. Turning the screens off made me realize that I check in with a screen (or at least think about it) every few minutes. Oh, my!

So how does this impact my children? What does it mean to have a phone ring or beep or ding or sing every few minutes as background noise? While the background screens in my children’s lives may not be as loud or pervasive as a TV or video game, it is certainly creating a regular interruption that must be notable to them. After all, my son reminded me to get the phone when I forgot it.

But I also had another realization. And this one connected the dots for me. It made me realize why my own screen time really does matter to my children’s development. When the kids in the sand pit were struggling to work (play) and attend to the media that was around them, the relationship potential between them got put on the back burner. The true interaction occurred when the media was eliminated. It was as if tending to the logistics of managing the media and their work was all they had space for. Once the media was gone, they could go deeper into the moment and recognize what was around them, and relationships and more meaningful interactions occurred.

It reminded me of trying to work while being disrupted by phone calls. I have a flow, get on a roll, then the phone rings. I stop what I am doing, tend to the phone and then return to my work. I have to think about where I was, maybe reread what I already did and adjust my mental state to return to the work flow. If this happens repeatedly, I get less done, feel less connected with my work product, make more mistakes and generally feel less positive about my task.

So what if my “work product” at the moment is parenting? How does my media (answering a text, posting something super cute to Facebook, checking email) or even thinking about my media (wondering if anyone has commented on my super cute post or replied to my email) take me away from my kids? Maybe my son’s concern that I left my phone at home disturbed me so much because I realized he has accepted as truth that he has to share me with my media. And that realization cut me to the core. This is not something he should even consider, much less accept.

So I put away the phone and the tablet and the computer. I’m not going to lie. It hurts. It is an adjustment. I am still working out what specific boundaries work best for me since I can’t give up all forms of media professionally. It is a process. But what I have already realized is that, like the kids in the sand box, when the media is gone, I am less scattered, more aware, feel more centered, have more fun and feel more connected to the people in front of me. I also realized that, when the media is gone, my children don’t have to compete as much for my attention, which leads to less acting out. When the media is gone, we all connect with the moment in a truer sense of the world. When the media is gone, I can do my job in supporting my children in their job. Life-work. In short, we all live better.

So while media is certainly not the only thing that keeps me from being present and aware and centered as a parent, it is impossible to ignore the moment by moment disruption that it has on me, my kids and our relationship. I’m not yet sure what the balance is, and it may look different for every parent, but balance we must find. And not just so our kids can do their life-work, but so we can really be there when they do!

 Posted by at 11:36 am
Jun 072012
 

Parenting does crazy things to couples. So much attention goes to the part of parenting that is child-focused. Philosophies, advice columns and blogs focus on the child’s development and what we as parents can do to help them thrive. Our kid-focus is justified; thriving children turn into thriving adults. But what seems to be talked about less, and what I really love, is the family behind the child. The Parent. The Couple. The people who are so deeply and profoundly impacted by children. A profound impact that, while beautiful, can create challenges for us as individuals and, especially, us as couples. The reality is that having children brings out parts of us that we never really knew were there and changes us to the core. Going from single, to partnered, to pregnant, to being a parent and a family brings on identity shifts and challenges that often go ignored. The identity that we form as a couple gets shaped and challenged and reshaped as the landscape of our family changes. Just as our children are constantly going through developmental changes, so are we as individuals, as couples and as families. And, while we pore over books and blogs and talk endlessly with our friends about the developmental stages of our kids, we have little connection to what is happening to us as individuals or as a couple.

So often I hear couples say things like, “We used to…” “We don’t talk anymore…” “When the kids aren’t around we just stare blankly at each other until we eventually start talking about the kids….” Just when a couple thinks they know each other, you throw a kid into the mix and the whole world tips upside down. Suddenly they don’t care about (or have time for) many of the things they liked to do together. Suddenly they are too tired to give each other the attention each partner needs. Suddenly life is about focusing on the child (and finding a way to take care of the rest of life so that we can focus on the child) and everything else gets left for another day. It can feel like our relationship is overshadowed by our children.

We  talk about the struggles that children have as they take on new developmental challenges. Child/parental conflict is often really about a child learning to differentiate from the parent, express themselves in new ways or take on new responsibilities in the world. They are figuring out their role in the family and in the world and sometimes that is a frustrating, tricky and even painful endeavor. In the same way, couple conflict may often be viewed as a symptom of developmental changes. Parents suddenly have different agendas, different priorities, different needs and they are trying to figure out their roles with their children, their partner and in the world. They are figuring out who they are and how to get their needs met, and, just like for children, this is amazingly difficult. In the same way that the toddler can’t say, “Mother, today I want to get dressed on my own and this is going to be frustrating, but I just want you to sit by me and support me while I try,” but instead grabs clothes from our hands and screams, we have difficulty identifying and articulating what we really need, and rely on arguing, blaming, criticizing and isolating. Sounds a lot like a tantrum!

So often new parents come into therapy with a “parenting” problem focused on their child and, through their work, it becomes clear that their main conflict is with each other. They are negotiating their roles with each other and in the family and struggling with it. In fact, many of the same things that parents struggle with with their children, are actually being acted out in their relationship as well. Power struggles, neediness, not listening, responsibility, trust. These are common themes discussed in child development, but what about between couples? What if couples were able to consider their own developing relationship in the same way that they consider their child’s development? What would happen if we looked beyond the complaint and tried to connect with what each person was really trying to communicate? Here are some common themes. Let’s call them Developmental Triggers:

Power Struggles: “Every morning it’s a power struggle.” So often, couples end up in stalemates when it comes to every day conflict. Many times, when it comes down to it, neither partner really knows what it is they are power struggling over. Both people dig in their heels and refuse to back down. When toddlers power struggle, they are saying, “I have my own ideas, thoughts and opinions. I may have some control here. I think I will test out this boundary and see what happens!” When couples are power struggling, they may be saying to each other, “Everything feels so out of control right now, I have to find the limit somehow. I need to know where I stand.”

Independence/Autonomy: “He thinks he can just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.” Children need to slowly gain independence and autonomy and interact more and more with the world on their own. As parents, we recognize that in them. But we forget the importance of this for ourselves and our partners. Prior to having children, we likely enjoyed the freedom to make decisions, go places, do things that were spontaneous and unplanned. Couples develop a pattern or routine that involves interactions with each other and with friends and family as well as having time to themselves when they want it. Kids enter the picture and that all changes. It takes weeks of planning to go to dinner with friends. There are babysitters to secure, bags to pack, logistics to consider. Not to mention, many parents just feel too tired at the end of the day to go out afterward. Independence all but disappears for both parents. And while we may love the newfound responsibility of parenting, the loss of independence is huge. Finding a way to support each other’s autonomy is tricky. Hearing “I need space from you and from the family” often results in hurt feelings, even if we know that giving that space results in happier, healthier parents. When couples are fighting about this, what they may be actually saying is, “I need to find myself again.”

Neediness: “It seems that she always needs something.” Kids may act “needy” when they feel insecure or need adult support. They may come up with unending and creative ways to get your attention. What they are really saying is, “I need to feel connected with you. Be here with me now.” With never ending child care needs and demands added to the already long list of everyday living responsibilities, both partners may feel that their to-do lists are overwhelming and that their own needs fall to the wayside. Often in therapy both partners will equally profess that their own needs come last in the hierarchy. This can lead to two people who feel lonely, overwhelmed and isolated. Fighting about this may be more about trying to communicate, “Be here with me now. I need to know I am not alone.”

Recognition, Responsibility, Respect: “I am tired of picking up after them. Why can’t they do their share?” Most parents will profess that they do more than their partner. More cleaning, more parenting, more shopping, more cooking. Feeling like the division of labor is unequal can often result in feelings of anger and resentment. But when couples are asked to empathically think about what the other person actually does, most can make long lists of the things that their partner does as well. It seems that usually this fight is less about division of labor and more a cry for recognition. Parenthood is about doing a million things every day that go unnoticed, undocumented and unappreciated. It can feel lonely and tiring and endless. The rewards are often subtle and long-term. On a day-to-day basis, we want to know that our partner gets how hard we are working for the children, for the family, for each other. Even if that means fighting about who did the laundry and who took out the garbage. The real message is, “I want you to recognize what I bring to the family. I want you to see me.”

Listening: “It’s like I’m talking to a wall. They never listen to me.” Communication is hard when you’re stressed, tired and overwhelmed. Listening is hard as well. It’s easy for partners to blame the other one for not listening, but the truth is oftentimes there is more to it than that. We aren’t identifying our real needs, we are fighting instead of talking, we are lecturing instead of communicating. Couples may choose times to try to talk that are so full of barriers to effective communication that it’s a lost cause (when one person is exhausted, while the kids are running frantic, while the family is trying to get out the door in the morning). And then we say, “Once again, you didn’t listen to me.” What’s really happening is that paths aren’t crossing. The real message is, “I feel like we aren’t connecting. We aren’t on the same page.”

Trust: “They question everything I do.” There is so much discussion about trust in parenting and its impact on child development. Trusting a child encourages them to develop naturally and with confidence. In the same way, we often fail to give our partners that same trust in their own development. Parents are each developing their own relationships with each child, their own nuanced communication patterns and identities as parents and often this can look and feel different from our own. (Moms are often the worst offenders here, not letting dads explore and define their own relationships with the kids, being quick to jump in and parent when things are tricky.) Partners need to trust each other so that each person can feel free to explore and optimize their role in the family. The real message here is, “Trust me, support me, learn with me.”

So what can we do to start to experience things differently? Many parents of older children (at least those whose relationships don’t end in divorce) will confirm that they eventually found each other again and things got easier. That’s good news for sure, and it’s important to remember that these struggles are transitory and will likely pass. Kind of like the “terrible twos.” But what if, like with our parenting, rather than just grinning and bearing it, we tried to engage with each other in a way that would encourage each other’s developmental growth, deepen our relationship with each other and strengthen our family during this amazingly challenging time? Here are some things to try:

1)      Make a sacred time and space to talk about these issues. This is not a date night where you talk about the kids. Nor is it 15 minutes after the kids fall asleep when you are both struggling to stay awake. I’m talking about a regularly allotted time, both people fully alert and present, fully dedicated to talking about what’s going on. Maybe even take the list of Developmental Triggers that are listed above as conversation starters.

2)      View each other with compassion. Remember that relationship stressors are normal at this time and that you and your partner are both experiencing amazing personal challenges. Letting go of frustration, breathing and looking at the situation through your partner’s eyes can allow you to see things differently.

3)      It is human to resist change and try to hold on to what we think we know. Parenthood brings on such drastic changes to our family and to ourselves that we sometimes don’t know which way is up. Realizing that our relationships and our own identity may look very different and being open to that allows us to let go, relax and enjoy the new roles and relationships that are in front of us.

4)      Talk about parenting! Embrace your new roles, encourage each other to explore parenting ideas and theories. Debate and discuss and read together. Rather than trying to hold on to your pre-kid relationship while each of you individually tries to figure out what your post-kid relationship is all about, dive in, let go of the past and relish in this stage of life. Soon enough, the kids will need you less and less and you will find yourselves sitting in a quiet house, staring at each other saying, “What do we do without the kids around?”

5)      Find ways to support each partner’s development both as a parent and as a person. Make time in the family for individual interests and find ways that the family can honor and support them. How can the family, including the children, support the parent in developing their own thing? Does someone love to cook? Maybe they get a kid-free night to take a cooking class, then cook a new meal once a week that everyone enjoys together.

6)      Rather than just missing the things you used to do as a couple, build new traditions, routines and shared experiences that fit into your new and changing life.

It’s all about embracing the change, the ups and downs, the challenges and struggles. It’s all about growing as individuals, as a couple, as a family. When we do this, when we really connect to ourselves and our partners, we will thrive in our own development and in our relationships. And when we thrive as individuals and as a couple, we can thrive as parents. And thriving families lead to thriving children, which as we know, lead to thriving adults. And that’s a cycle we should absolutely perpetuate.

 Posted by at 3:19 pm
Jan 312012
 

True LoveI have spent much of my career working with both sexual abusers and victims of sexual abuse, so it is not surprising that this topic is in the forefront of my mind both as a psychologist and as a parent of young children.  While my mind used to be filled with statistics and numbers and facts, it has now boiled down to one undeniable truth. During their lifetime, too many of our children will be victims of sexual abuse and too many of our children will become abusers. So many times I hear, “How does this happen?” “Why does this happen?” and “How can I keep it from happening in my family?”

We are all searching for the easy fix. The perfect “talk,” the best “class,” the most effective “prevention program.” We wonder if and when schools should offer sex education and we debate the effectiveness of “stranger danger” versus “just say no” types of interventions. I hear my friends and clients and family members wonder when we should have “the talk” with our children, and then we agonize over what we will say and how we will say it. Even my husband and I have discussed when we would start talking to our boys about sex.

But I can’t help but think that all this is missing the boat. What we don’t realize is that we are already teaching our children powerful messages about sex, their bodies, their ability to have boundaries and their ability to make healthy sexual decisions. When did we start giving these messages? Oh…about the time they were born. What we don’t realize is that the things we teach our children about sex without actually talking about sex is way more important than the five- or ten-minute conversation that we agonize over. The messages we give and reinforce about their bodies and other people’s bodies and how those bodies interact are way more salient than any sex education class.

I Hear You, Im ListeningOf course I am not minimizing the importance of formal sexual education. I just don’t think that it does much in terms of our goal of raising sexually resilient children. Sexually resilient children are children who have the ability to know and verbalize their boundaries. They feel comfortable talking about their body and concerns they have with at least one person. They trust that their parent (or other caretaker) will support them in saying no to unwanted sexual advances. They respect the bodies of other people, as much as they expect other people to respect their bodies. As parents, we think, “Of course I am teaching my children all these things.” But it is the unstated messages that we give without realizing it that begin to chip away at a child’s personal power. Consider the following:

Accidental message #1: Certain parts of your body are shameful and we give them special names. Using nicknames, no matter how common, gives subtle messages about our bodies. Knowledge is power. Body parts and functions are important, crucial parts of our lives and there is no reason to dumb it down or in any way infantilize them. We don’t make up silly nicknames for our nose, or our ears or our fingers. Why do we do it for our penises and vaginas? The message is that talking about these body parts is embarrassing or somehow wrong.

Healthy message #1: All body parts are created equal. All body parts deserve respect. Use accurate names for body parts. Talk about children’s bodies in an open, respectful and honest manner. Simple, but there isn’t much more to say about this.

Accidental message #2You don’t really have the right to say no to your elders, especially family members. No parent would ever actively try to give this message, especially with regard to sex. But when families set up the expectation that we do what our elders tell us to do, it makes it pretty hard for children to raise their voice in scary or threatening situations. It is important to remember that most children are abused by someone they know. A family member, close friend, coach, teacher, etc. Saying no should always be an option.

Healthy message #2: “No” is a powerful and useful word! This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite passages from a book:

“To hold the word no in my mouth like a gold coin, something valued, something possible. To teach the no to our daughters [and sons]. To value their no more than their compliant yes. To celebrate no. To grasp the word no in your fist and refuse to give it up. To support the boy who says no to violence, the girl who will not be violated, the woman who says no, no, no, I will not. To love the no, to cherish the no, which is so often our first word. No—the means to transformation.” –Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance.

Allowing our children to say no, even to us as parents, is not a sign of defeat, but a sign of a healthy, resilient child. Supporting them in using “no” in a respectful and healthy manner allows our children to be powerful and strong.

Accidental message #3: You can make me (your parent) happy by allowing your personal space to be invaded. How many times do we catch ourselves encouraging our children to give a hug or a kiss or even a smile or a wave as they hide behind our legs? Why is it so important for us that our children kiss Aunt Mildred goodbye? Why is it so important for us that they wave and say hi to the stranger in the grocery store? When we say things like, “Why don’t you want to kiss your grandpa? Go on, give your grandpa a hug. There you go! Good job! That was so nice,” we are sending a direct message that this pleases us.

Healthy message #3: Hugging and kissing and saying hello should be something you do with people because it feels good for you at the time. Not something that you do to make me (your parent) or Aunt Mildred or the grocery store clerk happy. Instead of pressuring them to conform and perform, we should be helping them figure out what they are comfortable with. “Well, Grandpa, Sammy doesn’t feel like giving kisses today. Sammy, is there another way you would like to say goodbye to Grandpa?”

Accidental message #4: I (your parent) will not support you when you try to communicate that you’re uncomfortable. Similar to  Message #3, when our child is communicating with us that they do not want their cheeks pinched or their forehead kissed or their body hugged, and we say, “Oh, it’s just your Aunt Mildred, you’re okay,” we are sending them a direct message that we will not support them when they come to us with what they feel are body violations.

Healthy message #4: I (your parent) validate and support what you are telling me, and I will help you if you need help. When they are hiding behind our legs, looking at us with pleading eyes to protect them from the pinching fingers of Aunt Mildred, we need to support them. It’s our job as parents to listen and support and validate. “Oops, Aunt Mildred, I can tell that Janie doesn’t want you to pinch her cheeks today!” We need to model boundary setting for our children if we are going to expect that they will someday be able to do it for themselves.

Accidental message #5: Your instincts about your body space are not valid. From an early age, children are experimenting with their bodies and how those bodies interact in space and time with the bodies of other people. They are learning what feels good, what doesn’t feel good, what kinds of physical connections with others they like and don’t like. As they do this, they are checking in with us to help them define this very complicated pattern. Things like knowing when you have to pee, feeling scared or safe in social interactions, or knowing when a game is no longer fun (tickling is a big one here) are all body space and sensation issues that children have to figure out. Parents often find themselves saying things like, “I know you have to pee.” Or, “Don’t be afraid, just go down the slide.” Or continuing to tickle despite a child’s cry to stop! While each of these may be a small drop in the bucket, those drops add up. When we give message after message that negates a child’s experience of their body, it is harder for them to trust themselves and their instincts.

Healthy message #5: I support you in learning about your body and space and trust your instincts. This is a hard one for parents, and I can already hear the “yeah, buts” in my own head. (What if they are about to fall? What if they don’t go pee and they have an accident….) Ensuring safety is important, but, in essence, children have to fall to learn balance, they have to have accidents to learn bowel control, they have to learn to identify the line between fun and uncomfortable and figure out how to make their voice heard to make uncomfortable things stop. And we have to patiently support them in figuring this out. You may be asking what this has to do with sexual abuse prevention. Everything!  Quite often, sexual abuse happens over a long period of time, with the offender blurring the boundaries between fun and uncomfortable. Resilient kids can listen to their inner instincts about their bodies and know when something isn’t right. They don’t have to depend on someone to tell them.

Accidental message #6:  I (your parent) get uncomfortable or embarrassed about your sexuality. We get embarrassed when we find our toddler exploring their body in the bathtub. We blush and stutter and hem and haw when they start asking us questions. We start sending the message, “That is private and you only do that in your bedroom by yourself.” While this message isn’t necessarily wrong with respect to certain sexual behaviors, it is powerful when the message extends to all things related to body parts, sex or even talking about body parts or sex. It isn’t enough to tell them that they should come to us if someone touches them. They won’t believe that we can handle it if it came to that.

Healthy Message #6: We can handle your questions and concerns and our heads won’t explode. We have to be able to answer questions about penises without blushing or coughing or choking on our coffee. We have to be able to say the word masturbation without making a face that looks like someone just vomited in our Cheerios.

Raising sexually resilient kids means that our children will feel empowered to respect their own bodies, make their own choices, communicate their own boundaries and feel comfortable to come to us when those boundaries have been violated. In order to get there, we have to build a foundation for our kids to stand on. It isn’t about “the talk” or “the class” or the “prevention program.” It’s about what we communicate to our children every day without realizing it. It’s about cultivating their own power and changing the way our families and our culture value children’s boundaries. The “sex talk” will happen anyway, but maybe, if we have given them this foundation, it will actually mean something.

Want to have further discussion about raising sexually resilient children? Want a workshop or discussion group or lecture for a group of parents? Contact Darci to set it up!

 Posted by at 11:47 am
Oct 172011
 

With the holidays approaching, I find myself thinking a lot about traditions. I wonder what traditions my children will remember when they are older. What will they think back on? What will they say when asked the question… “How did your family…?” What will they look forward to every year or recreate for their own children someday? For some reason I spend a lot of time thinking about this every year at about this time. I even feel a sense of pressure to start to create something that is uniquely our family, our tradition, and I wonder if I am missing the mark.

The dictionary defines tradition as:

1: the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc, from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice;

2. something that is handed down;

3. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting;

4. a continuing pattern of cultural beliefs or practices;

5. a customary or characteristic method or manner.

When I reflect on this I realize that traditions that are attached to holidays are only a small piece of the puzzle. Tradition helps us define who we are, who our family is and where we came from. But it also helps us define our current place in the world. When someone asks us “Who are you?” much of our information comes from the traditions handed down to us by our parents, and that is much bigger than an annual trip to the pumpkin patch.

Of course traditions can be about unique and meaningful things that families do together, marked by a time of year or holiday. One of my favorite holiday traditions, eating hotdogs after finding the perfect Christmas tree every year, can be traced back to a car breaking down. Who knew that my parents’ random decision to stop for hotdogs while waiting for a ride that day would start a tradition that their grandchildren would still love. Those types of yearly traditions can’t be forced or contrived or planned. They just happen, maybe even accidentally, because it’s our family.

But maybe most traditions aren’t as grand as that. Maybe it’s the smaller, less notable traditions that actually mean more in the long run. Maybe it is the traditions that happen on a weekly or daily basis that actually define family life, and maybe these traditions are just as important. I often find myself longing for the camping trips we always took when I was kid, while my husband mentions regularly that he misses the Italian dinner his mom made every Sunday night. Ask me what stands out about my childhood, and I will immediately reminisce about my family reading together every night (well into my adolescence when I was much too cool to admit to enjoying it). These types of things were not necessarily meant to be traditions, yet they came to define our childhoods. They created a feeling of safety, of love, a pattern of expectation that helped define what it meant to be in our family. They are what we look back on fondly and they are what makes each family unique and special.

As my children get older I already notice them start to find comfort in some of our family routines. Reading in bed every night, the silly song we sing after every bath, the weekly dinner with the grandparents. These things don’t necessarily spell out tradition to my adult mind, but to them, they are the things that define our family. Of course some of these will slowly extinguish themselves (I hope we are not still singing that bath-time song when my kids are 15 and 17…), but on the other hand some of them might just stick and form the building blocks of what my children someday reminisce about.

In big and little ways, our children ask for tradition from us. When our children say, “Mama, tell me about when you were a little girl.” They are asking for tradition. When they say, “Why don’t we sing the bath-time song anymore?” they are asking for tradition. These things happen when we aren’t looking, and the meaningful ones last whether we mean them to or not.

Rather than trying to invent traditions that are amazing and meaningful and noteworthy, perhaps I need to spend more time honoring the uniqueness of our family and following the family rituals as they arise on their own. Making the effort to keep Sunday night Italian night, reading in bed even when we are all tired, singing the silly bath-time song as long as it still makes us all giggle, camping every chance we get and, of course, eating hot dogs after finding the perfect Christmas tree should remain top priorities. Other than that, maybe I should just wait and see what develops in our family.

 Posted by at 10:42 am
Oct 172011
 

I have been thinking a lot about fatherhood lately. As a woman and a mother I have been hesitant to write about it, but I repeatedly come back to the importance of fatherhood. Not only on the development of the child, but also on the development of the man and, subsequently, on the development of the partner and the couple. Families are intricately woven patterns of feedback loops with each person having a direct impact on all the other members. Our foundation as individuals and as a couple sets the parenting stage and can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving as a family. And while this may be a work in progress for all of us, I can’t help but think that in this day and age, with all the changing rules and expectations, it may be especially tricky for fathers.

So what does it mean to thrive as a mother, as a father and as a couple? Is there a formula for success?

Studies have found that fathers who feel more self-confident about their parenting skills when their infant is three-months-old are more involved with their children later on. Interestingly enough, a father’s self-view of his ability to parent is directly related to how much autonomy and support the mother gives him to parent. Additionally, mothers may experience less depression and stress the more involved the fathers are. What does this mean? Mothers feel more supported and happier when fathers are more involved and fathers feel more secure in their relationships with their children the more they are involved. This results in happier mamas, happier papas, happier couples.

And, we recognize the value and importance of a father’s relationship with his children as they grow up. Fathers’ roles in childcare have been changing over the generations. Fathers today do more than they ever have in terms of childcare. Our culture is slowly changing our values. We encourage and reward men for being involved. We even expect it. Long gone are the days of Ozzie and Harriet when the dad came home from work, patted the kids on the head and went to his chair to smoke a cigar. Now, working dads are expected to come home, help with dinner, play with the kids, help with bath and bedtime. They are responsible for childcare, they are involved with decisions about feeding and schools and activities. Mothers want more of this. We know the intrinsic value in it.

So, how do we set up fathers to be involved with their children over the long haul? The take-home message seems to be that fathers should be more involved in early childcare. Easy, right?

For some reason, it doesn’t seem to always work this way.

Often, couples describe the following: During the early months of parenthood, mothers seem to do most of the childcare, and they feel resentful that the fathers don’t do more than they do. While some fathers may feel confident jumping right in, some want to do more, but don’t know how. Others may feel resentful that the mother seems to be devoting so much of her time to the children. Maybe fathers (just like mothers) feel scared to death that they are going to do something wrong. When childcare is needed, the mother steps in quickly and does it, “because it is just easier.” The father steps back and lets her. Mothers feel lonely. Fathers feel lonely and less needed or important in the parenting dynamic. And we wonder why having kids is hard on our relationships.

A couple of important factors seem to be at play. First, men are becoming equal partners in parenting without having a shared experience of what this means. For most adult men today, their role models growing up weren’t as involved with childcare as they are now expected to be. While our culture is moving towards this change, we haven’t really fully made the switch. In general, men seem to get the message that they should be full-time providers (pay the bills and fix the roof and mow the grass) and be equal partners in childcare, and they seem to be figuring this all out as they go.

Another interesting factor at play is biology. There is plenty of research that shows that women get hormonally reinforced with a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. Oxytocin creates feelings of pleasure, warmth and connection. It makes us feel good. Women have increases in ocytocin levels when they respond to an infant (even if that baby isn’t their own). They get more oxytocin from helping and responding empathically. They get more oxytocin from picking up a crying baby. This means that women are biologically reinforced when they take care of their children. There is some evidence that men get this same response, but the jury is still out. It may be that they don’t get the same amount, or that they don’t get the same “good feelings” from oxytocin that women do or that they just don’t get oxytocin from childcare activities. What this may suggest is that men and women get different types of rewards for childcare. Women may do it because we are internally rewarded and driven, men may do it because they are socially rewarded and driven.

And, while fathers have been socialized towards “work” and “providing,” mothers have been socialized over generations towards being the primary caretakers. So, it can be difficult for women to move past both their internal and external reinforcements for caregiving in order to give men the social reinforcement they need. Even as women’s roles have changed with more women in the workplace, the shift towards sharing childcare with the father has seemed to lag behind. The choices for women seemed to go from childcare only to working only to doing both. But, where in that process did we start to encourage mothers to let go of the idea that they have to be the primary caretaker? As men are expected to take a more active role in childcare, women have to relinquish their role as the single childcare expert in the house.

Uh oh. Catch 22.

Moms say, “Help more.” And we also say, “I can do it easier or better.” And fathers say, “I want to help,” but they also say, “I don’t really feel comfortable and I know she will do it.” And then moms say, “I knew you wouldn’t help, I have to do everything.” Even the language of “help” implies that that is all the father is doing—helping the mother, rather than parenting in his own right.

And, hence, the study that found that fathers’ view of themselves as being capable caregivers in early infancy—which is directly related to the mothers’ trust in them—led to more involved and interested fathers down the road.

So what can we do?

We can change the rules. Mothers need to trust fathers to know what to do on their own. We can trust them to love and care for the babies and we can LET THEM DO IT! Fathers and mothers need to realize that they may do things differently. They may interact with children differently. They may comfort them differently. They may guide them differently. The idea is not for the father to learn how to do what the mother does. The goal is for him to realize and embrace his own inner parenting wisdom. Find his own inner papa. The goal is for him to become comfortable and confident in parenting in his own way, so that he will love it. And he can only do this if mothers get out of the way.

We can open up our dialogue about it. We talk so much about what our children are doing, how much they are sleeping and eating and pooping. Especially in the early stages of infancy. But we don’t talk much about what it is like for us to parent, and we might not listen to each other talk about our stresses, our fears, our triggers. The more the couple talks about these transitions together, the more they each develop into thriving parents. But more importantly, they can strengthen as a couple.

Today’s fathers are forging the way for future generations of men, and women, to embrace the role of fatherhood. We have to realize that this road is relatively unpaved and that the men in our lives are amazing for taking on the challenge.

We can be more active in bringing this change of balance to our individual family. Just because society doesn’t have a good template yet, and just because most of us don’t have a framework for a family that really shares childcare, doesn’t mean that we can’t work to create it. But that’s just it, we have to work to create it. And it is more than moms telling their friends that they wish their husbands would do more (because, let’s face it ladies, at the end of the day, that doesn’t really help). We have to work together as equal parents to make this happen. After all, isn’t that what we are looking for?

 Posted by at 7:12 am