Dec 122012
 

Baby, You Rock My World!

Oh, I know what your thinking. But no, I mean it literally. Children ROCK our world. They take what we think is true and right and normal and they squish it up in their chubby little fists and throw it into the toy box to be lost among a myriad of other forgotten treasures. Nothing looks the same, nothing feels the same, nothing is the same. And there is no way to explain it. The only way to get it, is to live it. And even then, sometimes it isn’t clear.

I remember distinctly having the belief that children would be a wonderful addition to my life. I talk to people every day that echo this same sentiment. It was clear to me that the world my husband and I had designed and planned would continue on, simply with the addition of a small person sitting in the back seat. Our plus-one. Our course was charted. Our understanding of the world was clear. Our plans were laid. Our baby-to-be would easily and naturally fit into our scheme, and we would continue on. As you were, soldier.

Yeah. Right.

And along comes baby. Sweet and innocent and amazing. And a vicious destroyer of previous lives.

And we emerge from a sleep-deprived baby fog to find a world that bears little resemblance to the way we thought things would be.

Friends change. Priorities change. Finances change. Energies change. Jobs change. We are suddenly regretfully aware that the words “Yo gabba gabba” have a meaning. We are suddenly regretfully unaware that weeks have gone by and we haven’t returned a phone call to a once-close friend.

Time and time again I hear parents ask the same questions: Who am I? Where did I go? I used to have thoughts, opinions. I used to know things and think about politics and like music. I used to love to travel and I had such dreams and plans. And now?

Well, this baby, who is the love of my life, rocked my world.

And maybe, a part of me is a little bit bitter about that. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

I was recently reading a post by Authentic Parenting that talks about a paradox between parenting strategies that seem to hurry kids towards autonomy versus parenting strategies that seem to keep kids dependent. It rang true. In our culture we want kids to potty train early, but make pull ups for kids well into elementary school. We want kids to wean early, but encourage pacifiers. We want them to speak up for themselves (in theory), but not question their elders. We want them to eat solids early, but still have them using a sippy cup in their preschool years. The list goes on and on.

At first glance, it does seem paradoxical. But then I realized, all these things are the same. They are, in essence, attempts to have the child fit into our adult world with as little impact on us as possible. When we want our newborns to sleep through the night, it is not because this has any developmental relevance for them, but rather because we are tired and are used to sleeping through the night. When we want our children to potty train early and wear pull ups longer, it is because it makes it easier for us.

And what’s wrong with that? We have needs too right? What happened to the idea that my baby would fit into my world? What parenting strategies can I employ that will help them fit into my world? I want to sleep through the night. I want to travel and go to restaurants and relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine and a bubble bath. Show me the book that tells me how to do that and that is the parenting strategy that must work.

And maybe, that is what is inherently wrong with all those parenting strategies. Those strategies are aimed to meet parent needs rather than kid needs.  Maybe, rather than trying to figure out how to make our plus one play by our rules, we need to figure out new rules that work for everyone. Parent needs, kid needs, family needs. There is no such thing as “us plus a baby”. There is only a new us.

Our kids enter our world and change it. Completely rock it to the core.

And we hang on for dear life to the idea that we can get our old selves back. If only our kid would (fill in the blank)…. We hang on to the idea that it is possible to have a quiet, well behaved, go to sleep early and wake up late, potty train by themselves, happy to stay with a babysitter, self soothing, I-don’t-really-need-you-because-that-parenting-strategy-nipped-my-developmental-needs-in-the-bud kind of kid, because that is the kind of kid that would allow my world to turn the way I thought it would.

Only it never works that way. Because their needs are constant and changing and ever evolving, and we are their parents. And our needs are constant and changing and evolving. And that is that. It’s not that there is something wrong with them. There was something wrong with the idea that they would be our plus-one to the party.

 

Nope. They are the party.

 

And the party is pretty amazing. As long as we can stop fighting it.

 

 Posted by at 6:55 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
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