Mar 122015
 

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

 

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

 

Except when it’s not.

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

Except when they aren’t.

 

 

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

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

And so it goes with parenting.

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 2:52 pm
Jun 242014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 2:46 pm
Jul 172013
 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here is an example of how it can look:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“YES!” he shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. We can wait.”

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

Success! His shoes were on and tied.

“I’m ready!”

We all jumped up and headed to the door.

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 Posted by at 10:01 pm
Apr 302013
 

I previously wrote a blog post, When Mama Has a Bad Day, that resonated with many of you. I received so many comments and notes and emails about that post, and I knew I had struck a chord. It’s true. We all have bad days. And sometimes, the bad days seem to outnumber the not-so-bad days by a staggering amount.

But bad days are not what I want to talk about today.

Actually, I want to talk about the opposite. Good days. Something that doesn’t get enough attention in my book.

Sometimes we have good days.

Yep. And it’s not a fluke.

 

Sometimes we have days that just feel like a walk through the tulips.

 

It’s true. Let me say it again. Some days we have good days. Let’s own it. Let’s talk about. No, let’s scream it from the mountain tops! Let’s take note of it! Because these good days can give us just as much, if not more, information about how we can become better parents than our bad days can.

Maybe this doesn’t quite make sense at first. In our culture of bad-news-is-the-only-news, put-a-diagnosis-on-it-and-find-a-cure approach to life, the good stuff just doesn’t seem as noteworthy. After all, if we want things to get better, we need to first figure out what is wrong. Right? Many of us have communication styles that highlight the negative. We commiserate with friends about how hard stuff is, and it feels like bragging to say otherwise. We connect through struggle. We tell ourselves that it’s got to hurt if it’s to heal. We vent. We judge. We compare. And it seems that all of this reinforces our belief that it is in our darkest moments that we can learn the most.

But, what if we are missing something? Like the light maybe? Is it possible we could actually learn something from our good days?

This past weekend, I had a great parenting day. I was connected, flowing, gentle, patient, loving. I was all the things I strive to be. Things were going so well, that it kind of caught me off guard. I started to blame the weather, developmental strides, the stars…. And then I had a thought.

A strange thought.

What if, just maybe, this good parenting day was happening because I was doing something right?

And what if, just maybe, I could figure out what I was doing right, so that I could create my very own, personalized-for-my-own-family “self-help-guide-to-good-parenting.” So I did what I talk about doing in the tough moments, but have never even considered doing in the great moments. I reflected on what I was thinking, feeling, doing. I became aware and I collected data. I meditated, without judgment, on what was happening.

And the results? Enlightening. I became acutely aware of things that I already innately knew about myself, my children and my family. Things like, my children do better with slow starts in the morning. Things like, days with fewer transitions work better for us, and everyone in my house needs some downtime to balance out the activity. Things like, centering activities like yoga and meditation create connection among all of us, and sugar works better if we get to play outside right afterward. Things like, setting up a quiet writing activity in a quiet space could help avoid an ominous meltdown, and getting my daily run is crucial to my feeling centered throughout the day…. I could go on and on.

The point is, the weekend didn’t feel like a good parenting weekend because it was a fluke or an astrological miracle. It felt like a good parenting weekend because I was making good parenting decisions.

And when I realized what I was doing well, I could then turn these things into helpful hints for the next day. My own, personalized, family-focused, guide to getting through the rough days.

And even better, I already knew (1) that it worked and (2) that I was quite capable of implementing it. So the next day, when I realized I was having one of the more common “bad days,” I could remind myself that I (not an expert or a friend or a book) already had tried and true interventions.

No matter how much we struggle as parents, we all have good moments. We all have good days. We all have times that we feel like parenting rock stars who should be the one writing the books. And the truth is, we should be writing our own books. We already have so much data to go on. We just have to bring it to the front of our minds.

So the next time you have a good parenting day, stop. Breathe. Look around and pay attention. Tell yourself, “This is me. I am doing this. This is my family. We are doing this together.” And then take it all in. How are you speaking? What are you doing? Did you do anything different? Did you do anything proactive? What decisions did you make? How did you respond to stress or challenges? Why did it work?

Make a list. Write it down. Put at the top something simple like “Things That Work for Our Family.” Having this list accessible may be the best gift you ever give yourself. Some of the things you discover will be things that you decide to make routine, some of the things you discover will help you in crisis mode. But all of what you discover will be proof that you are a good parent, and there is so much that you already know. You just have to remember to see, and learn from, the light. And then maybe, have a few more walk-through-the-tulip kind of days.

 Posted by at 3:51 pm
Mar 202013
 

Nine-year-old David comes home, throws his backpack on the floor and stomps off to his room. Several minutes later he is lurking around the kitchen while his mom cooks dinner, poking at his brother, whining to his mother. She tells him to go outside and play until dinner is ready. He goes to put on his shoes but can only find the red tennis shoes with the extra-long laces that are hard to tie, and the world comes crashing in. He screams that he hates these shoes, throws them down and then yells at his brother to “get out of his way.” 

So, what do we know about David? That he doesn’t follow the rule to put his backpack on the hook? That he is bored and has difficulty finding ways to engage himself in activities after school? That he is “needy” for his mom’s attention? That he hates red shoes and has trouble tolerating frustration? That he lacks empathy for his brother?

If we look at each of these behaviors as singular moments of time, completely unrelated to what may have happened in the previous moments, then these simplistic assessments make sense. But this may be one of the biggest parenting errors we make. We assume that we have all the information. We assume that our children’s reactions and behaviors are based solely on what we can see and hear and feel AT THAT MOMENT. We have a tendency to assume that our children’s worlds are only as big as the information we have.

So in that moment, David’s mom may redirect him from dropping the backpack in the middle of the floor. She may redirect him from poking at his brother. She may redirect him when he is in the way in the kitchen. And then she will redirect him when he explodes over the silly shoelaces. Her frustration grows. She throws up her hands and pretty soon, David isn’t the only one having a meltdown, everyone is.

But, what if we also had this information: Today at lunch, David’s best friend didn’t want to sit with him. At recess, a ball hit him in the head. The math equation he had to do on the board came out wrong and, even though the teacher helped him through it, he still felt like the whole class thought he was dumb.  At the end of the day, his teacher told him that parent conferences are happening next week. He remembers that his last conference didn’t go so well and he has to give the letter to his mom tonight. Then, some kids on the bus were teasing another kid and he wanted to tell them to stop, but he didn’t. It made him feel horrible. On top of it all, he is hungry because he gave part of his lunch away and didn’t eat enough. He walks in the door of his house and throws his backpack on the floor….

A kid’s life is complex. They are learning everything about the world. They are not only accumulating information, but social rules, codes, language, physical movement, coordination, body growth, relationships. It’s exhausting. And it isn’t easy.

Kids have stressors that we are unaware of. They move through their day, just like we do, accumulating stress and anxiety and ups and downs. And, just like us, it’s pretty common that when these stressors come along, they just have to pull it together and keep going. They may not have the opportunity, or luxury, of processing through them fully. So they move from moment to moment, doing what they have to do, until they get home and they can “let it all go” so to speak.

We, as parents, are sometimes pretty bad at remembering that kids have a life outside of us. They have peer interactions and expectations from teachers, disappointments, struggles and joys, surprises and fears that we will never know about. Even if they are little and are home all day with us, they have an inner dialogue, aches and pains, thoughts and perceptions that we simply cannot know. In short, they are their own people, from day one.

Being mindful of this can allow us to respond differently to our children’s needs. Rather than seeing each behavior as a singular and discreet moment, we can see our children as people with rich and complex lives. With moments that build on moments and emotions that build on emotions.

We are their safe spot. We are their anchor. We are the place where they can “let it all go” at the end of the day.

Which doesn’t mean that we ignore or tolerate behaviors that threaten others or cross family boundaries and rules. It doesn’t mean that David won’t have to pick up his backpack or check in with his brother or figure out his shoes. But it does mean that we respond differently to each of those situations.

When we are aware of the reality that our children come to each moment with a buildup of other moments, instead of saying, “How many times have I told you not to throw your backpack on the floor?!” we may say, “Wow, it looks like you had a hard day! If you want to hang up your bag, I can cuddle on the couch for a minute before I start dinner.” Or instead of saying, “You’re in the way, go outside and play,” we may say, “Seems like you really want to be close right now. We could talk while I cook or you could help with dinner.”

We don’t really have to know all the details. Sometimes we will, but often we won’t. Kids may not need to, or be able to, process all their experiences verbally. But when we recognize that there is more to this moment than just this moment, when we accept the fact that their lives are bigger than just what we can see, we can offer a wider variety of support to meet their needs and be the anchors they need us to be.  

And, just as importantly, we can give them a framework to start to better understand their own complex web of emotions. We often hear that children live in the moment, and it’s true that they do. They can commit more fully heart and body to whatever it is that is in front of them, like a shoe with extra long laces. But they also carry emotional and body stress around with them from moment to moment, just like adults do. Which means in the moment, it is harder for David to separate out school stress from his shoe, resulting in a blow out that seems blown out of proportion. But if we can help them recognize there is more going on, they can develop a deeper understanding of their reactions.  If we can empathize with the buildup of stress and emotions, even if we don’t know the whole story, we can help them figure out ways to process. And if we can connect with them as they are, another human being moving through this world, building up moments, we can strengthen our relationships with them in a profound way.

A kid’s life isn’t easy. It’s life.

 Posted by at 2:24 pm
Dec 042012
 

It’s one of those moments: The energy is high. The emotion is flowing. The scales are tipping. The fists are clenching. The conflict is rising. The mood is escalating.

It’s one of those days: We make it though one crisis only to turn around and face another. And another. You know this kind of day. I know them, too. We have all had them. We will have them again.

Even as I write about it, I can feel it welling up inside of me. A feeling of being out of control. Of being one step behind the next outburst, sibling conflict, injury, tantrum. Of just knowing everything is about to fall to pieces. A sense of urgency, a sense of doom, an exhaustion that knows no rest. I can feel my chest tightening, my breath quickening, the frustration building in my thoughts, the tension spreading through my body.

And we want to yell out (and maybe we do yell), “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why can’t you just listen?” “I can’t take this anymore!” “I need peace!” “I need a break.” “Stop it!!!”

Oh yes, the old adage: he who yells loudest… Only, it never works. Not really, not in the long run. Sure, we may temporarily stun them into silence, but the heart of the energy still beats hard and heavy in the environment; and, make no mistake, it will find its way out into the open again.

In order to really help our children be able to find calm, we need to embrace one fact.

No matter what, our children will learn what we do, not do what we say.

We only need to watch our children when they don’t know we are listening to know this is true. How many of us have seen our children play “phone” and copy our words and mannerisms to a tee? How many of us have been shocked by our children’s perfect use of our favorite saying? If we are open, and we watch carefully, we can see ourselves in everything they do. They are learning from us every moment of every day. And, if there is a time when they are not really taking things in, it is probably only those times when we are telling them what to do!

When the emotion runs high and the chaos runs deep, we cannot plead or logic or yell our way to quiet and calm. Rather, we must do it.

Be the calm you want to feel.

Sit down and breathe.

When the world is in chaos, move to the center of the storm, sit down and breathe. I am not talking about taking a “parenting time out” (although I am a full advocate of these as well). I am talking about moving close to the action and DOING the calm you want your children to experience.

 

 

Here is a scenario (and, one that occurs in our home frequently):

The boys are in conflict. This toy, that toy, rules are debated, voices rise, space is violated. I can feel the pulse quicken. Rather than intervene with words, I simply move as close to the epicenter of their conflict as I can, sit down, close my eyes and breathe. Loudly. Long, deep, slow breaths. I connect with my own body and feel it relax. I take my time before opening my eyes. Making sure to give myself time to really slow my breathing and clear my mind.

It’s contagious. The boys notice. Even if they stay engaged in their struggle, I notice that my breathing triggers their breathing to slow. One of them takes a deep breath. The other stops and copies us.

I continue to breathe and stay quiet, but open my arms. A silent invitation for them to join me. I keep breathing.

Almost always, one or both will join me. Sit close, breathe and calm. I can feel all of us melt a little into the moment. The energy dissipates. The urgency falls away.  The storm has passed. The toys lay on the ground between us, untouched.

When everyone is breathing and still, I open my eyes. I say simply, “I wonder what you guys are going to do now.” An invitation to talk about it or move on or make a plan, whatever they need. Usually at this point, they are now able to work it out on their own.

Everything feels different. For me and for them.

I didn’t tell them to calm down.

I didn’t tell them to solve their problem.

I didn’t even tell them why breathing worked.

I didn’t need to tell them anything.

They learned it, and so did I. Of course we need to practice again and again and again. But when the practice feels so good, that may not be such a bad thing.

 Posted by at 3:02 pm
Nov 052012
 

A child zooms around the house, arms outstretched and head held high. “Mama, I can fly!” he yells with glee. “Be careful, you can’t really fly and I’m worried you will get hurt.” His smile fades. It’s true. He can’t fly.

Or….

A child zooms around the playground, arms outstretched and head held high. “Mama, I can fly!” he yells with glee. “I believe you can fly! You’re having so much fun!” He laughs and zooms a little louder, a little prouder, a little higher.  He finds glory in his imagination, feels the surge of joy in his heart and the wind rushing though his hair.  “Tell me more about it!” the mother asks and the boy has the opportunity to weave a story and share a moment with his mother. He takes it further, turns into a bird that flies higher than a mountain top.

I believe you can fly.

Be careful. Don’t climb too high. Don’t jump off of that. Don’t get to close. Don’t move too fast. Don’t go so slow. Don’t put that in your mouth. Don’t pick that up. Don’t put that down. Don’t swing on that. Don’t go too deep. Don’t slide down that. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Be Careful. You can’t really fly.

Yes, parents have a duty to provide a basic level of safety for our children. We keep them away from high ledges, broken glass and poisonous plants. We keep healthy food available and limit screen time and eliminate toxic substances from the air they breathe.

But parents also have a duty to believe our children can fly. It is our obligation to nurture not only their bodies, but their minds as well. To let their imaginations thrive, their dreams expand and their thoughts carry them to heights unseen.  And to do that, we must sacrifice. We must hold back a little bit of anxiety as we let them climb a little higher. We must quiet our own issues and insecurities as we let them run a little faster, dig a little deeper and jump a little further than our comfort level allows.

I believe you can fly. It’s not only good parenting, it’s maybe the most valuable gift we can give our children. When we believe they can fly we are telling them that we love their adventure. That we enjoy their dream. That we want to relish in their joy. We are telling them that we trust their bodies and their courage and that we will be here to share it with them every step of the way. And we are telling them that we are willing to look past our own short sighted view of the world long enough to allow them to have their own experience of things.

A three-year-old pretending to read yells out, “Mama! I’m reading.” A fifth grader struggling with school declares they want to go to Harvard. A young girl professes she is going to play professional football. A four-year-old boy states he wants to be a princess when he grows up. A toddler tells her mom she wants to marry her.

It would be easy to dash their dreams, tell them the truth. You’re not really reading. Harvard is hard to get in to.  The Dallas Cowboys don’t have girls on the team. Boys can’t be princesses. Moms can’t marry their daughter.  It’s true. They can’t. But why? Instead, let their dreams soar, their imaginations flourish and their inner sense of self develop. Ask, “Really? Tell me more!”

Photo Credit to Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House

Tell me more, a simple phrase that opens doors for kids to tell us what they are thinking.  A story unfolds, a goal develops, and a connection flourishes.  When we ask for more, we may get it. An understanding of where they are at. What they are thinking. The inner dialogue they are building becomes apparent as they voice their ideas and plans to us. A simple statement, a silly childish idea, when shared and supported becomes real, tangible, something to be relished and cherished and built upon. When their ideas and imagination are given space in the “real world,” they become more self-confident, more secure, more ready to take on the world.

Tell me more. You may be amazed at what is going on inside their minds and hearts. Something you may have never known if you just told them the truth.

Yes, I believe you can fly. Tell me more about it! 

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Oct 302012
 

Dear moms and dads and caregivers out there:

I have said this before, but I am feeling the need to say it again — This is a love letter to you.

Time and time again while talking to parents, I hear about the intense guilt and fear that we feel in our parenting. We worry that we are doing something wrong, that we don’t love our kids enough, or in the right way, or in the same way that our friends love their kids. We worry that we did the wrong thing or said the wrong thing or that we have somehow missed the boat with our children.

We worry that our kids are eating too much or not eating enough. We worry that our kids aren’t getting enough sleep or reading enough books or learning the right things. We worry that our instincts are wrong or that we chose the wrong parenting book to follow or that we are pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough.

Every day I talk to parents who are doing their best and striving to do better. Parents who are reading and thinking and changing and growing along with their children. Parents who are contemplating their own practices and interactions with their children and challenging themselves to go deeper into this world of parenting than ever before.

And I think it is amazing.

And I think you are amazing.

And I think we are all human. Destined to be less than perfect much of the time. It is easy to find countless things to worry about and regret and struggle over. It is easy to find things that don’t make sense or that we did differently from others. It is easy to get lost in those things and lose sight of what is in our hearts. And when we do that, it is almost impossible to trust ourselves, our instincts and our own inner wisdom about what is right for our families. And that is when we get lost, feel alone and judged and scared and overwhelmed. It’s easy to go there.

But instead, let’s be gentle with ourselves and realize some simple truths:

1)      There is no perfect parent. Parenting is not about perfection. It is about supporting another human along this path called life, with all its twists and turns and bumps. There is no perfect path, only amazing journeys. When we stop judging ourselves on how imperfect we are according to others, we can start truly being present in the path we are on.

2)      We will mess up. If there is a parent out there that hasn’t lost their cool, said something they regret, done something they wished they hadn’t, I would like to meet them. Most of us will have moments, days, weeks that don’t look like we want them to look. The question is not whether or not that will happen, but what we do about it. How do we pull ourselves back together? How do we process it with our children? How do we get help when we need it?

3)      It is never too late to change course. So often I hear parents say, “It’s too late, I did X when I should have done Y and now my child will never….” It’s never too late; that’s the beauty of being mindful and aware of our parenting. If we are aware, we can be flexible. If we are gentle with ourselves, we can understand that something isn’t working and try something new. If we are open, we can become aware of changes in our children, ourselves and our environment that call for a change of course. That’s life. It doesn’t mean we did something wrong.

Parenting is a journey. The path is rocky. We will probably trip and fall sometimes, and it’s never too late to change direction. When we realize that we are walking this path with our children, rather than for them, the journey becomes so much more enjoyable. When we spend our time looking back at all the things we stumbled on, we miss the connection to our child in the moment, we miss the scenery we are currently passing by and, maybe most importantly, we miss the road signs that are up ahead. Our child, our families, our hearts may be trying to tell us something and we just can’t hear it because we are too busy feeling like bad parents.

So, this is my love letter to all of you, all the moms and dads and caregivers who are thinking about parenting so deeply. Instead of focusing on guilt, let’s focus on what we are doing right. If we are leading with our hearts and doing what we feel is best for our child, we can and should trust our own path. If we are listening to our families and exploring our own patterns and becoming aware of our own mistakes, then we are leaps and bounds ahead of the game. If we are guiding our children with love and respect, they will feel it. Even if we mess up. Which we will. And if we treat our children like people in their own right, they will live up to the task. Even if they mess up. Which they will. And together, our messiness becomes life. A life worth living.

Love, Darci

 Posted by at 7:47 am
Oct 222012
 

It’s no secret that I am a runner and that I run with my kids. Sometimes with both of them in a double jogging stroller. This weekend I headed out for a run with my boys and, as usual, I started out without really knowing where we would go. After a mile or two my oldest son said, “Mama, why do we always have to go the same way?” I thought about it. I didn’t realize that I always go the same way when I have them with me, but it was true. Every single time I run with the double stroller, I go the same way. It’s a challenging, but not super difficult, four-mile loop that has nice scenery, a moderately hard hill and some downhill fun, which turns almost dangerous when 100 pounds of stroller and kids builds momentum and pulls me faster than I can comfortably run. I complain about it every time. And yet, here we were, running it again. I told my son that I didn’t know why, but that it just felt good and it seemed like a good way to go. And then I pondered. And pondered. And pondered some more. My pondering brought to mind some similar scenarios.

Recreating the wheel

  • At the park I watched as a two-year-old child struggled to make her way up the climbing structure. The first time, it took her several minutes. She struggled and whined, and I was pleased to see that her father supported her but didn’t help her up. She made it to the top, turned around and yelled, “I did it!” Then she slid down the slide and ran straight for the bottom of the structure again. Again, she made her way up, still slow but with notably less whining and grunting, got to the top yelled “I did it!” again, slid down and ran back to the beginning. She went up no less than 10 times. Every time faster, more sure of herself. And every time feeling accomplishment at the end.
  • A parent of an eight-year-old girl worries in my office about her daughter, “I see her struggle over and over again with this one friend of hers. I really think she just needs to get a different group of friends. I tell her that, but she won’t listen to me. She just keeps having the same fight with this girl, every night.” Over and over again.
  • A one-year-old boy chooses a book for story-time. A caterpillar is hungry, eats so much food, gets fat and turns into a beautiful butterfly. “Read it again, Mama!” The tired mother thinks she would rather read just about anything other than this same book. Instead, she turns to the beginning and reads… “In the light of the moon…” Pretty soon, the boy is saying the words with her. “Read it again!”
  • A parent tells me that she is worried about her adult son. “It’s like he has to recreate the wheel. Why can’t he just listen to us? Why does he have to make every mistake that his father made?”
  • A five-year-old begins to recognize words. “Look!!!! There is the word STOP!” she yells out at every corner on the long drive home. Her excitement is clear; she is sure that she is the first person to ever make this discovery and she has to share the news! It’s monumental.
  • A preschool boy turns a stick into a weapon. A rock becomes a car. A ball with a board on top becomes a mode of transportation. Invention. Discovery. He is, in all actuality, reinventing the wheel. And oh, it feels so good. “Look! I made a work truck!”
  • My two-year-old stands on a chair to reach a high object, the chair falls and he crashes to the ground. He cries out, yells at the chair and, still crying, stands the chair up and tries again. The chair falls again. I am tempted to get it for him, or tell him he can’t have it. Instead I tolerate my fear and sit close. He cries louder, pushes me aside and stands the chair up. Still crying, he climbs up, this time with the chair against the wall and his hand on the wall to hold himself steady, he wobbles as he reaches up and grasps the object. Tears still on his face, his smile lights up and he holds it out to me. I take a deep breath and congratulate him on accomplishing his task. I walk out of the room and later see him doing the same thing in another location. He figured it out and is trying out his new skill. Over and over again.

Reinventing the wheel. It is, in my opinion, the very essence of life. Figuring something out for oneself. Experiencing the joy of discovery, the challenge of improvement, the satisfaction of mastery. This is what life is all about. Sure, someone can physically lift us to the top of the play structure, or tell us how to negotiate friendships or buy us a toy that has pre-fabricated components, but the reality is that those things will not be our experiences. They will be someone else’s experiences, someone else’s discovery. They will be slightly foreign and, in the end, we will set them aside or ignore them and find our own way to learn our own lesson.

Reinventing the wheelWe recreate the wheel because we want to feel the pain, we need to whine and be uncomfortable. We want the challenge of the jungle gym, the difficulty of relationships, the complication of figuring out how to transport heavy objects. We want the pain because without it we cannot feel the joy and pride and accomplishment on the other side. We will not get to stand at the top with our hands reaching high and scream at the top of our lungs, “Look at me!!! I did it!!!” And we don’t just want to do it once, we want to master it.

I realized that even now, as an adult, I run the same loop because I know I can do it, but I haven’t mastered it. I have reached a level of comfort with my loop that allows me to think about things like form, or speed or upping the ante by pushing two kids and a stroller up the hill. I know how my body feels at different places along the loop, I know where the sidewalk is cracked and where I have to step to the right or turn to the left. My knowledge of how my body feels gives me comfort, while I can still push myself to make it harder, more challenging. And it feels good. I can compare my current performance with my past and I know I am getting better. Without anyone telling me. I am learning about my body,  my limits, what I am capable of and what I can still work on. So over and over again, I recreate the wheel and run the same loop. Someday, I will master it. Then it will be time to find a harder hill.

It’s just like the little girl on the playground structure. Next time you’re at the park, pick a kid and watch them. Chances are, they will be doing the same thing. Finding something that challenges them, and then doing it over and over again. Each time, getting more and more secure. When I watched the little girl, I noticed that she was extremely mindful about her body. She was paying attention to where she put her hands and her feet. She made small adjustments each time until it felt right. She was learning about herself. Learning about her world. Without anyone telling her.

Sometimes it’s amazing to watch someone reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it’s painful. The eight-year-old girl figuring out her friendships is hard to watch. It nearly killed me to watch my son fall a second time from his chair. We want to shield them from the pain. We want them to learn from what we already know, take our wheels and make their lives easier. But whether it’s a jungle gym, a favorite book, a friendship or a running loop, we are destined to recreate it. Each of us. In our own time, in our own way, we need to shape our own wheels. Hopefully there is someone there cheering us on. Ready with tissue or band aids or blow horns or confetti. Recreating the wheel is hard work. And it’s what life is all about. Let’s get to it. And let’s get out of our kids’ way. Their wheels are waiting!

 

*Amazing photo credit to Tumbleweed Infant House.

 Posted by at 12:49 am
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