Jul 282014
 

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

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

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

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

I just knew it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 12:05 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
Sep 162013
 

My child is….

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

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

My child is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, in this moment: My child just is.

Period.

 

 Posted by at 7:39 am
Aug 032013
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 Posted by at 9:17 pm
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
Nov 122012
 

Sometimes an essay or poem or story speaks to your heart in such a way that your spine tingles and tears well up and you can’t help but smile or laugh or cry. Sometimes you stumble across something written that is so true that it speaks to the very essence of your life as you know it and you want to read it again and again, the words proof that your experience is real. And sometimes, you find something that is just so poetically beautiful it must be shared.

Stealing Time, a literary magazine for parents, is all of those things.

When my first issue of Stealing Time arrived in my mailbox I held it in my hands. The glossy cover beckoned me to find a quiet corner, a cup of tea, a cozy blanket. I had no idea what kind of stories would emerge, but I had the sense that they would speak to me. And speak to me they did.

I opened it up and the pages exhaled the nourishing parental connection I was longing for. I knew immediately that I would not be able to stop reading until I had inhaled every page. And that is exactly what happened.

“In the beginning is the mother.” (Into it All by Sarah Gilbert)

I felt a connection with parents everywhere.

“Like many parents in this age of indulgence, I continue to fret over my kids excessively. And they continue to reward this excess by reflecting a good many of my worst traits.” (In my Image by Steve Almond)

I laughed at the truth of my own parenting shortcomings.

“There is magic juice in breakfast. It’s grape. If you drink it you aren’t dead anymore.” (Calling in Dead by Vaughn Teegarden)

I relished in the sweet simplicity children bring to our world.

“I held him for hours, savoring his breath, in love with his sweet sleeping sounds, his suckling mouth.” (Cutting the Cord by Melinda Conway)

I melted into those indescribable moments that define parenting.

And when I was done, I wanted to read it again and again. If you don’t yet have a subscription to Stealing Time, you should. Click over and get one now. In this day and age, when we inundate ourselves with parenting books and advice and expert opinions, when we focus more on what we are doing wrong as parents than on what we are doing right, when we compare and contrast and pit ourselves against an unreachable standard of parenting that always seems to be moving outside our reach, Stealing Time magazine is one place we can go to simply share the journey. The good, the bad, the funny, the messy, the joy, the pain, the truth of parenting.

Thank you to Sarah Gilbert and all the others at Stealing Time for this gift. I can’t wait for the next issue.

 Posted by at 8:09 am
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
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
Sep 182012
 

Today I heard a story from a man about the moment he first knew he loved his wife. He saw her across the room. She was in the kitchen, making tea, unaware of his presence. He paused and observed her. The color of her hair and how it fell just so across her forehead. The way she held her shoulders, the way she stirred her tea while staring out the window. They were dating at the time and he was suddenly filled with an unexplainable emotion. Strong and pure and deep and true. He was swept away and drawn to her and could essentially feel the essence of her being in every cell of his body. He loved her.

And in that moment, she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to return the love or be grateful for his love or even know about his love. He loved her just for the sake of loving her. He smiled quietly at the memory. I could tell he could actually feel it in that moment.

As I listened to the story, it resonated profoundly with me.

It immediately brought to mind the feeling that I get when I see my child asleep, or when I watch them from afar. That huge ball of emotion that fills you to the brim, that brings tears to your eyes and raises goose-bumps on your arms. The wave of joy and awe that sucks the breath out of your lungs. For a moment, you can’t breathe, but it’s okay, because you don’t need air when you have pure, life-sustaining, true love. In that moment, you don’t love them because they make you smile, or because they say the funniest things, or because they gave you a hug, or because they need you or don’t need you. You simply love them because you do. Because they exist. They don’t have to earn it or return it or even know about it. You just love them, pure and simple. As I sit here right now, I can feel it. Welling up within me. My kids aren’t even in the room, but I know that the love I have for them is profound and deep and untouchable.

And then the man went on. He talked about how he sometimes wonders whether he is still in love with his wife. About how she doesn’t give him what he needs. About how she frustrates him and doesn’t listen to him and doesn’t appreciate all the things he does for her.  And the anger wells up and the frustration grows and the disappointment lingers until he wonders whether or not he really loves her after all. His smile fades.

Countless poets and thinkers and philosophers have long debated the difference between loving and being in love. For me, this man’s story captured the essence of it all. Loving someone is about what you bring to the picture. It is about embracing someone with empathy and awe and a full-hearted connection, simply because. Loving someone requires nothing from the other person. Nothing. No acknowledgement or reward or returned affection. Loving someone simply is.

On the other hand, being “in love” with someone is about what they give you back. It is the mirror they hold up to us that reflects our good and bad. It is about the twinges of excitement we get when we know we are loved. It is about the feeling of security. It is about the things they give us that make us feel amazing, fulfilled, connected. Being in love is tremendous when things are good. But, in the end, no one can give us all these things all the time, so we are destined to also feel disappointed, hurt, frustrated and resentful.

What does this have to do with parenting?

When you think about it, the true-love versus in-love conflict represents one of our deepest struggles—and maybe also one of the simplest solutions to our parenting challenges.  An amazing mother I know gave the most beautiful example of this when, in the angst of one of those nights we have all had, said to her child, “Can’t you think about me for once in your life?”

Her painful statement resonated with me, not only because I have surely thought those exact words before, but also because she is speaking to the heart of this issue. We love to love our children, but let’s face it: our children are horrible at giving us what we need. They don’t care about our agenda. They live in the moment and they always put their own needs ahead of everyone else’s. We find ourselves feeling disappointed, hurt, frustrated, and resentful.  “Why are you doing this to me? Just get in the car!” “Another meal you refused to eat.” “Don’t you know how exhausted I am?” These thoughts and feelings are hints that we are operating in the what-does-this-relationship-give-to-me mode rather than the pure-true-love mode.

I don’t think it is crazy, unusual or even unhealthy to enjoy the conditional type of love. Our kids give us lots of things that make us feel amazing. The challenge lies in our awareness. Realizing that our feelings of disappointment are impacting our parenting. Understanding when our feelings of resentment get in the way of our ability to be present. Accepting when our feelings of hurt stop us from seeing our children with empathy and awareness.

Mindfulness in parenting means that we become aware of and stop reacting to the internal struggle that wages war on us. We have to work at detaching from our “in-love” reactions, which are based on what our child gives to us, and instead approach and interact with our children from a “true-love” place where our empathy, compassion, love and support of them requires nothing in return.

I find it incredibly difficult to hold two conflicting feelings about someone at the same time. In that moment of complete awe I feel while my children are sleeping, it is almost impossible for me to invoke the feelings of frustration and anger I felt only hours earlier as we struggled through their bedtime routine. In the same way, the feelings of anger and frustration interfere with my ability to feel that no-strings-attached, pure love that I know is somewhere inside of me.

So, this week, I am challenging myself to be aware of which love I am driven by. Is it the one that my children have to live up to? The one that fuels the inner voice that screams, “Why can’t you just think of me for once in your life?” And if it is that one, can I quiet that emotion, acknowledge it and gently put it aside, and invoke the deeper true love I have? Because it is from this space that I will be able to engage with empathy rather than blame, understanding rather than frustration, and patience rather than resentment.

Maybe it isn’t as hard as it seems. Here is the practice.

1)      In quiet moments, find the image of your child that you hold in your heart, the one that brings up that “true-love” reaction. Let it fill you. Pay attention to it. What is it that really hits home? Is it the way she smells, the sound of her breath, her laugh, the way she scrunches up her nose while reading? Allow it to resonate in your awareness.

2)      The next time you notice your frustration, short temper, and anger creeping up, invoke the image. Tell yourself, “This is the same person.”

3)      Breathe out, letting go of the frustration.

4)      Breathe in, embracing the memory of your true love.

5)      Repeat. Remember, usually there is no need for immediate reaction and you have time.

Like the man with the lovely story of his wife, a smile may creep across your face as you connect to your own gentle, compassionate, true love for this little person and are reminded of what is real.  The moment, and your child, will undoubtedly look different to you.

Want to take the challenge with me? Give it a try.  Please share your experience!

 Posted by at 10:59 pm
Jul 092012
 

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

True story. I will give you the full picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(the true and rightful title of this blog).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 7:10 am