Sep 192011

I often write and talk about the value of “knowing your child” when deciding how to deal with a specific concern or problem that has arisen. But what does it mean to “know” your child, and how can that impact parenting? Ask a parent to talk about their child and they can instantly give you a detailed list of all their child’s attributes that would put any recommendation letter to shame. What they like, what they don’t like, what their latest developmental stride has been. We spend so much time watching our children in amazement that it’s hard to imagine NOT knowing our children inside and out.

But in the heat of the moment, when we are at our wits’ end, we rarely rely on this information to help us empathize with our child or create options and opportunities that can effectively help them negotiate a tricky situation. It is easy to get lost in the situation, and, in doing so, we can lose not only ourselves, but our kids as well. We get too focused on the intervention, what “should” work or what works for our friends. We get too focused on what we want or expect the outcome to be and become frustrated when we can’t seem to “make” that outcome happen.

We become solution focused. We turn to the books and the experts and our friends to tell us the “right” answer to make bedtime easier, to stop little brother from pulling hair or big sister from slamming doors. And when the books and experts and friendly advice fail, we assume something is wrong with our kids or us as parents.

But maybe it isn’t about the solution at all. Maybe, parenting is about the process. And the process is, in essence, the child’s experience with the world. That is what this little person is trying to negotiate and understand and master. That is what all their fuss is about. It’s a rough task, it’s a big task and they are a little person. Our task as parents is to help them through this process. When we focus only on the solution, we risk completely neglecting the child and their experience.

Hence the question, “who is your child?” What you already know about them can give you valuable insight into what they are experiencing and how you can help them. For example, distraction is often discussed as a method to help a child redirect themselves during a tantrum, offering them other things to think about or do. But if I know that my child is the type of child who has less stress tolerance if he is hungry, and I know he hasn’t eaten, then I may be able to help him identify hunger as a basic need in that moment and offer him food. If his emotional dysregulation is a result of low blood sugar, then no amount of distraction will help us negotiate the problem.

In doing this, I am challenging myself to be empathic with my child. To walk in his shoes. To try to understand where he is coming from. To do this, I have to put away my idea of the “solution” and be present with him. I have to draw on what I know about him, what I know about the circumstances and try to understand how he must be feeling. Easier said than done when I am frustrated, tired and at my wits’ end. But when I am empathic and connected with my child first, and when I decide what direction to help him move in based on that, I find that we are usually both more successful. Those interactions feel more meaningful, and often I find that the results seem to make sense not just to me, but to them as well. For example, when I figure out, based on my empathic understanding of my child, that hunger causes meltdowns, and I help him understand this about himself, he can then start to communicate his hunger and get his own needs met. It makes sense to him and he has learned something about his experience with the world. On the other hand, if I repeatedly try time out or distraction, because that is what works for another kid, the child feels frustrated because the core issue isn’t changing. His experience of the world doesn’t make sense and he probably feels like I just don’t understand. Maybe next time he will yell louder.

So how do we do this more consistently?

In quiet moments, think about all the things you already know about your child. Things like: How social are they? How much alone time do they need? What is their relationship with food? Who is their “go to” person? What makes them smile? What do they think is funny? What makes them angry? What situations are likely to make them nervous? What situations are likely to make them feel most secure? If they could choose to do anything, what would it be?

You get the picture.

Then, the next time you have a situation, take a moment to just observe them. Make an intentional effort to really see what is happening with them. Ask yourself: What might they be feeling right now? What are the circumstances at play? What is my child trying to tell me? What things have worked for them in the past?

Really try to walk in their shoes. Sit on the floor or get down at their level and see the world through their eyes for just a minute. Then see what you think. Sometimes, that is all it takes. You may be surprised at what you already know. You may be surprised when you let go of the solution and focus on the process. You may be surprised at the way the experience looks when you see it through their eyes. And you may be surprised at how effectively you might be able to help your little one through a tricky situation when you trust yourself, and your kiddo, as the real expert.

 Posted by at 12:40 pm
Sep 122011

I love my mom. My mom is awesome. She was a stay-at-home mom until I was about 8 or 9 years old. She made clothes for my dolls, she hand-sewed pillows of the letters of my name, she even threw a sleepover St. Patrick’s Day party with green make-your-own pretzels just because we were moving and I would miss my friends.

She was a role model for keeping an orderly and clean house, she created nutritious family meals and always made our birthdays and holidays extra special and magical. I admired when she went back to school and established a career. I so valued the fairness she always aimed for between my brothers, my sister and me.

I learned so much from my mom that nourished my development and made me the person I am today—and yet, there was at least one important area that I had to learn on my own. This was highlighted for me when my son was first born and I was still nursing him. I was spending a week at the beach with my extended family. As many of you know, nursing along with sleep interruption can be very demanding physically. I was about 6-8 weeks into it, and let’s just say Jacob was not a great sleeper. One morning Jacob started to fuss and seemed to be hungry, so before getting “into position” to nurse him for what could be up to 30-45 minutes, I decided to first eat a quick breakfast. My mother didn’t control herself from chiming in with her vote on my decision. “Juuulie…,” said with that tone that conveys in an instant that I have done something that warrants disapproval. It became clear in that moment that I was not following my mother’s wisdom but instead my own. Just like on an airplane when the adult puts on her oxygen mask first and then assists the child—this was what I was doing with my son. I was grateful that my mom was able to hear my perspective and acknowledge that somehow both my sister and I were able to learn this valuable lesson on our own. I learned it the hard way. I learned it after a variety of “accumulated-stress/health crisis” type experiences where I realized that I must take care of myself (my heart, body and soul) because others won’t AND that I must do this to better serve my family.

This lesson is one that I think we all circle back to many times in our lives. It is frankly challenging to do and often requires a certain set of conditions to sustain. What works at 20 or 30 may not at 40. What was possible before kids may need to be revised after kids. Below are some specific aspects I have learned with regard to self-care:

  • Break the downward spiral. This can be the hardest part. When we find ourselves over-tired, anxious, craving sweets and it’s raining outside—what is it going to take to break the cycle enough to move us towards feeling better enough to want to keep doing what is best for our own care? Identify the support you need and get it.
  • Get the help you need. If you need to jump start out of a downward spiral, you might want to pay a professional (doctor, naturopath, therapist, acupuncturist, personal trainer, coach, etc.) to turn the tide. A little St. John’s Wort could go a long way.
  • Build a community of support. Once the momentum is headed in the right direction, your support could be your spouse, your friends, or relatives. How we eat and what we value is significantly influenced by those we are with daily. How often have we been drawn into having a chocolate éclair just because our sweetie bought it for us?
  • Find what works for you. For your body. (Do you need a run to get the serotonin going or is restorative yoga the type of relaxation your body craves?) Experiment, learn about physiology and nutrition and use your self-awareness to discern the right formula for you.

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Aug 282011

If there is one universal truth to parenting, it is that all parents will, at one time or another, do some night time parenting. Even those fortunate families who are blessed with “good sleepers” have their ups and downs. Such things as teething, fevers, developmental strides, stressful days and changes in family dynamics can have formerly great sleepers sitting up in bed at night crying for mama. And once we get through infancy, we look forward to potty training trips to the bathroom for our toddlers, and night terrors and school anxiety to keep up our elementary school kids. We are blessed with night time texting and hormones keeping up our adolescents. And then come the anxious nights waiting for teenagers to make it home by curfew. It seems that once we sign up for parenthood, we also sign up for years of disturbed sleep.

Unfortunately, sleep issues are compounded by the fact that no one is at their best at three am. Even the most patient, caring and mindful parents are put to the test when they are asked to be patient, caring and mindful for the 20th time in the middle of the night. What parent hasn’t resorted to begging, pleading, bribing or threatening as we chant the universal nighttime mantra of parents everywhere…”please, just go to sleep!”

Compounding issues even more is the fact that nighttime troubles are not easily diagnosed. Our children may not be able to verbalize what is wrong with them. Is it teeth? Is it a bad dream? Stomach ache? Anxiety? Is it just a case of growing pains? Practicing their new skills? Are they hungry? Or is it just that they haven’t mastered the skill of putting themselves back to sleep when they wake during the night? Doubtless, if we knew exactly why our kids were up, and we had our full wits about us, we would respond to our baby night owls with compassion, tenderness and a remedy that fit the situation.

But the reality is that we don’t know, and most of the time (if we are really honest with ourselves at three in the morning) we don’t really care. Let’s face it, at three in the morning, it is really hard to think to ourselves “Yes! She is on the brink of a developmental milestone! I just cant wait for another opportunity to support my child!”  or “Oh boy!  Another moment to cuddle and and bond!” Nope, We just want everyone to go to sleep. And we don’t just want everyone to go to sleep in this moment – we want the sleep problem to be cured. We want our pre-parenthood sleep rights restored in full.

Unfortunately, trying to convince our children that we will be better day time parents if they leave us alone at night just doesn’t work. Children live in the moment and for some reason, this moment…this three a.m. moment…is the one they want us to help them with. So how do we do that?

Google the words “baby sleep” and one finds 11,600,000 results; A smorgasbord of experts offering a litany of advice, rules, programs and solutions. A quick review of them finds so many contradictory “facts” that it can bring a new parent to tears. Some tout crying it out as the end all be all. Others claim that co-sleeping is the only way to go.  Friends, parents and pediatricians add to the mix. Everyone has a story, everyone has “the perfect solution.” How can they all be right?

Maybe they are all right.

For some babies.

And maybe they are all wrong

For other babies.

Or maybe, they work for this baby this week, but not the next week.

And maybe the solution a particular parent is trying this week, just happens to coincide with a natural change in the child’s sleep pattern development. Anyone who has kids knows that kids change constantly. Just when we think we have their number, they pull the old switch-a-roo and we have to figure them out again. Wait long enough and almost every kid will start sleeping differently on their own.

So what is a parent to do? I fear that the quest for the perfect sleep solution is the holy grail of infancy. Like an anti-wrinkle cream or perfect diet, everyone is searching for the one solution that always works for everyone. That doesn’t mean that the advice out there is bad, or that it should go to waste.  But it does mean that it should be considered and used with perspective. Here are some things to ponder:

  • Remember that even if it’s three in the morning, it’s still parenting. What is your goal? What may be going on with them? As hard as it is to try to think about these things, it deserves your attention.  Offering the right kind of support to your child can help them, and you, get back to sleep quicker.
  • What is the least amount of intervention you can give to help your child sleep on their own? The ultimate goal is that when your child comes out of a sleep cycle, they roll over and go back to sleep, rather than call for you to help them. It is easy to pull out the big guns (e.g. breastfeeding, no pun intended) when something simple like hearing your voice would suffice.
  • Remember that whatever support you offer your child, you are teaching them to go back to sleep using that intervention. (E.g. needing to be picked up or rocked or nursed every time they wake up.) If we want them to eventually do it on their own, we have to guide them towards that. “Cry it out” methods take the jumping off the deep end approach, “co-sleeping” is the other end of the spectrum.
  • What works for your family? No matter how sound the advice, if it doesn’t work for your family and your child, it’s not the right advice.
  • What feels right in this situation? Listen to your inner mama (or papa). She (or he) may just know something.
  • Remember that this will pass. All stages, are just that. Stages. The good ones pass too quickly, the difficult ones too slowly, but they all pass.
  • Give yourself permission to try different things. If it doesn’t work, try something else. It’s okay.
  • Talk it over with your partner during the light of day. Have a specific plan and try to stick with it.
  • Remember, when you are up in the middle of the night, you are not alone. Mama’s and papa’s everywhere are right there with you. Chanting the mantra…”just go to sleep…please.”

Most importantly, be gentle with yourself, your baby and your partner.  Families have been dealing with sleep issues for generations and somehow we all get through it. Whether you find something that works for your baby or just white knuckle it until they grow out of it, you will get to sleep again. Funny thing is, that seems to be about the time parents start thinking about having another baby.

 Posted by at 10:06 pm
Aug 232011

“It takes a village.” A war cry for decreasing juvenile delinquency and improving educational success. The saying has become almost cliché amidst the myriad talk show topics and political references. But what does it really mean? How can “the village” really improve the lives of struggling youth and how can it impact the average family?

To us “the village” is really an intentional community. It used to be that individuals and families gathered together in close proximity to share the responsibilities of daily life. From child care to collective meals to protection from predators, people found support and relied on each other to get their basic needs met. Today in our society, families live farther and farther from their loved ones. They can get their basic needs met through one trip to the local “Super Store” and spend a majority of their time in isolation. It seems that our reliance on others has shifted and that depending on others is not only inconvenient, it is frowned upon. A sign of weakness.

But what we gain in independence, we lose in connection. And while some of us are fortunate enough to be a part of a great network of friends or religious groups or parent groups, we often find that people are reluctant to ask these groups for help when it counts. While we will show up for playgroups or nights out on the town, we hold back from asking our networks to help with childcare when we are in a bind, or to help make a meal when we just can’t get it on the table. For these things, our individual families “tough it out” and “find a way to manage”. While we may be successful at managing, we may also be missing out on an amazing opportunity to be a part of a bigger community.

Intentional community building means that groups of families design ways for the collective group to help meet the needs of all the individuals. In doing this, existing groups go from “good” to “great”. From “friends” to “family”. From “managing” to “thriving.” How does this happen? The possibilities are endless. With our facilitation we will help existing groups to build out ideas, establish methods, and create the framework for things like babysitting co-ops, pot-luck dinners or rotating meal sharing systems, garden or house project teams, and more.

Parenting suddenly multiplies time and financial demands in ways that no one expects. Maybe families were not meant to negotiate these challenges in isolation. Supporting each other in more meaningful ways can elicit positive impact on our core basic needs; like sleep, nutrition and social connection. It can give us amazing opportunity to experience our connection to each other in a more profound way. It can help us to be better friends, better people and maybe most importantly, better parents.  Not to mention, some values are best taught through community: Shared responsibility, giving and receiving, unity.

If you have an existing group that would like to come together for intentional conversation contact us. Our professional facilitation will provide a process for full participation in building consensus on a clear vision and action plan. Let’s move toward making the village more than just a cliché.

 Posted by at 1:58 pm
Aug 222011

As soon as new parents find out they are pregnant, the wonder, curiosity and obsession with their child’s development begins. From day one we are constantly thinking about how the little ones are growing and changing. This week they develop fingernails, this week they start moving around, this week they can start to hear voices around them.  We think about their mental development, their physical development, their emotional development. We gush as they start to build networks of friends. We get excited when parallel play turns to cooperative play. We email everyone we know when they make the swim team or discover that they are amazing rock collectors. We are intimately aware of the fact that they are developing into adults and we want to make sure that they have support, opportunity and resources to make the most of each exciting new step.

But where does this development end? When they go off to college? When they get married? When they have their own kids? The fact of the matter is that human development never stops. We are constantly moving from one developmental milestone to the next. What we see in our children is nothing short of miraculous, and it is amazing to watch but in reality we as parents are still developing ourselves.  I wonder why this never makes the radar.

The transition into and through adulthood can be just as challenging, exciting and rewarding as what our little ones experience. We are struggling to find out who we are away from our families of origin. We are redefining ourselves in terms of partnerships, careers, marriages and friendships. We are learning to negotiate life without having a parent tell us what to do and when to do it. We are learning to look at ourselves outside of the predefined context of school or education. We are starting to develop more mature tastes and preferences. We are starting to become financially stable. Our bodies are changing (yes, still). Our politics are changing. Our minds are changing. Finally, the world is our oyster, we have it together.

It’s all about us.

And then we have kids.

And the world shifts.

It’s all about them.

Oh man, is it all about them! Their wants. Their needs. Their development. Their friends. Their activities. Their growth.

But what about us? What about the parents? Our development has not come to an end. On the contrary, quite the opposite is true. Not only are we continuing in our path of developmental milestones, but now instead of having all the energy focused on ourselves, we have to do it blind, while taking care of someone else, with no sleep, and probably with one hand tied behind our back (or holding a baby so to speak.)

And not only that, but now our developmental changes are compounded by this new person. Now who we are, who we want to be, how we define ourselves, how we interact with others is all impacted by parenthood.  It is all too easy to lose ourselves in all of the wonder and joy and chaos and fear of parenting. It is all too easy to forget our own spiritual, emotional, mental and physical development. It is all too easy to ignore our own developmental needs at the expense of giving everything to our child.

So, often parents find themselves feeling overwhelmed, depressed, scared and lonely as children seem to require a never ending need of energy. New couples feel estranged from each other as a new family member shifts the dynamics of the entire family system.  New roles are defined as old ones are abandoned.  And to top it all off, just when we think we have it all figured out and have settled into our new roles with a working rhythm, the children’s needs change, our needs changes, our family members’ needs changes. And it’s back to the drawing board. Each family member’s personal developmental path creates new demands on the family’s resources and everyone has to shift again.

Despite this amazingly complicated and intertwined system of developmental challenges that impacts all family members, it seems that parenting books focus only on the child and their development needs. But what about the parent? Maybe it is time to put PARENT back in parenting. We need to define resources and places where parental development is paramount to healthy child development.  And not just parents learning how to be better parents, but parents focusing on and embracing their own personal growth, acknowledging and understanding their own developmental milestones, and thriving in (rather than surviving) each developmental stage. THEN we can help our children do the same.

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Aug 022011

Motherhood Bliss. I heard about it, read about, talked about it and expected it. It is in part, why I was so excited to get pregnant. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to coo over tiny fingers and get lost in the first smile of a newborn? And then there is the other side. Post partum depression. As a psychologist I knew all about that too. I understood the diagnosis and was ready to look for symptoms. My midwife and pediatricians were great about checking in with me to make sure I wasn’t suffering from a serious depression that may interfere with my ability to care for my child, or myself. They would run down the list of symptoms.  Mood swings? Well, my hormones were pretty wacky, does that count? Anxiety? I was terrified of doing something wrong as a parent, worried about my baby’s every breath, does that count? Disrupted sleep? Come on, really? Is there a new mom who sleeps peacefully? Irritability?  I was sleep deprived and my boobs hurt. You could say I was irritable.  Uncontrolled crying? I find myself welling up from time to time, usually overcome with an overwhelming love and awe for the little person in front of me, does that count?  Sadness? Well, let’s talk about that one. Between you and me, there was something there, way in the back of my mind. I didn’t dare acknowledge it out loud, because that might have meant that I was not experiencing motherhood bliss.  And I must have been blissful, because I couldn’t say I was depressed and those were my only two options right? So I pushed it away. Never mind, no sadness here!

Somehow my midwife and I came to the conclusion that I was not experiencing post partum depression.  Excellent, I was in the midst of motherhood bliss.  Good to know.  My friends and family told me I looked great. I was glowing. Excellent. Good to know.

Most of the time I believed them. Most of the time it was true. Most of the time, I was in utter love and complete awe of the magic that was transforming my life into something that I never imagined was possible. Some of the time I even felt like the moms in movies and on the cover of magazines, vibrant and alive with a lusty obsession with my baby. For the most part I was content to stare at him sleeping, and when I was not staring at him, I was probably staring at pictures of him, afraid of missing one tiny miniscule moment of his life.

And then, the sadness would pop up. Just a glimmer of it. A nudge really, elbowing me in the inner recesses of my mind. A thought formed….”who am I now?” I was quick to answer, I am a mom. And mostly I loved the answer. And then another thought…”what did I use to do, what did I use to like?” I was not sure. How did I ever think any of those things were important? I wondered if I was previously just an incredibly shallow and unenlightened person or did the things I use to like to do really matter in another world, in another time, to another person. The old me. The childless me.

Where is that me? I would try to remember. I used to really love my career. I used to love to travel, to eat out in great restaurants with friends, a good bottle of wine, a good book. I used to love hot baths and long phone conversations and movies. Do I still like these things? Absolutely! And I would do any of them in a heartbeat….any chance I get. But they are secondary. They have ceased to be my first priority. Now, my career is a means to provide for my children. Travel consists of packing up to go the park or the zoo and eating out is limited to restaurants that have a train table. Last time I picked out a bottle of wine I grabbed the first one I saw with one hand as I reached for my toddler who was running down the aisle with the other.  I still read, but a book takes me months to finish and while I used to bask in the profoundly beautiful writing of Marquez and Hemmingway, I now am obsessed with Eric Carle, Richard Scary, and Dr. Seuss.  Hot baths? Well, I’m lucky to get a quick shower and that doesn’t happen without someone poking a head in or throwing a plastic dinosaur in with me. And as for long phone conversations, well, find someone who will tolerate talking for long when my part of the conversation is splattered with “please take the dinosaur out of your nose”  and “please don’t lick your brother’s head”.  When I do manage to squeeze in a conversation I am hard pressed to have something interesting to say that doesn’t concern poop.

I have become the person I always said I would never be.  I have become the typical mom. I am dying for a minivan and instead of surfing the internet to find  a great band to see with friends tonight I am surfing to find out what time story time at the library is. I am a parent to toddlers.  The things that used to define me are mere memories, whispers of a life that seems too far removed from my reality now to be obtainable. I am sure, that some day I will get back there. I will read something that has more than 10 words per page and have interesting thoughts about the state of the union.  I know this is true but somehow, right now I can’t imagine it.

And thus, the sadness. A bit of grieving for the person I was. Not an overwhelming sadness. Not an uncontrollable, diagnosable, depressed kind of sadness. It is a quiet feeling. An afterthought really. But it is real and true and undeniable.  And for some reason we don’t talk about it. At least I didn’t.

Maybe I am afraid of admitting that the “motherhood bliss” isn’t really all blissful all the time. Maybe I am afraid that admitting to a certain level of sadness may diminish my love for my children. Maybe I am afraid that people won’t think I am supermom.  Maybe I am afraid they will diagnosis me or label me with post partum depression and that will somehow make me less successful as a mother.

The reality is that both are true.  We can be in motherhood bliss. We can thrive on being with our kids and at any given moment we would probably rather be with them than doing anything else. We can be supermoms. We can breast feed and baby-wear and make homemade baby food from our organic garden and do art projects and trips to the Children’s Museum. We may love it all.

And we may just be  a little bit sad.

When ever I talk about this with other moms the same thing happens.  A collective sigh comes from all the supermoms in the room. The usual banter about diapers and nap routines is suddenly punctuated by a heartfelt commonality that we all seemed to understand but rarely speak about.  We were all in the midst of a drastic identity change and while we all embraced the profound meaning of motherhood, we were all a tiny bit sad about the profound loss of the things that use to be important to us.  Most importantly I think we all felt closer having taken the risk to admit to the sadness.

Just knowing that other supermoms feel the same way was an emotional elixir that soothed my worried soul. It seemed as if the worrying about the sadness was more troublesome than the sadness itself.  Like I said, the sadness itself was an afterthought. A fleeting feeling of loss that emerged from time to time.  The lingering result was the fear that experiencing this sadness somehow meant I loved parenthood less. That I was less than the supermom I wanted to be. Knowing that all the moms I look up to, all the moms that seem to have it all together, experience the same thing as me changed my outlook. Maybe the loss wouldn’t feel so lonely. Maybe the change wouldn’t  be so scary. I wish my friends who foraged the road to parenthood ahead of me had been able to talk about the downside a little bit more. I wish I had been in a place to listen to them if they had. I hope I can talk a little more honestly to my friends who will enter parenthood after me. Maybe together we can learn to celebrate the change, rather than ignore it.

 Posted by at 7:06 am