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
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
Mar 122013
 

Join any group of parents and you will hear one universal question being asked over and over again. From the time our kids are born, until they move out of our daily sight, we are constantly looking for something to tell us that our kids are “normal.”

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House
http://tumbleweedinfanthouse.blogspot.com/

Is it normal that my preschooler…cries, hits, bites, sleeps, doesn’t sleep, eats, doesn’t eat, yells, stomps, ignores, stutters, doesn’t like what other kids like…and on and on.

Is it normal that my middle schooler….cries, won’t do homework, sleeps, doesn’t sleep, won’t shower, doesn’t have friends, talks back, stomps, slams, whines, picks on his brother, doesn’t like what other kids like….and on and on.

Is it normal that my teenager….cries, sleeps too much, won’t get up, won’t go to bed, won’t talk to me, talks too much, used alcohol, talks back, stomps, slams, whines, doesn’t like what other kids like…and on and on.

 

 

Is it normal? Probably. Okay, so now what? And if it’s not normal? What then? Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean that it makes it any easier to face in the moment. And even if a behavior is not typical, it doesn’t mean that the same parenting response will have the same result for every kid. That’s because in order to really address any behavior, we have to meet our kids, exactly where they are. And exactly where they are is never the same as exactly where any other kid is.

But still, finding normalcy in a developmental struggle is powerful. Maybe not so much for our children, but for us. When we ask, “is it normal?” what we really want to know is that we are not alone. That every other house on the block is just as crazy. That every other living room has toys strewn about. That somewhere close by other teenagers are slamming doors. That other families are struggling to help their pre-teen with the overwhelming awkwardness of the first school dance or feeling the frustration of hearing a child “talk back”.  When we say is it normal, what we really want to know is “do you feel my pain? Are you as lost as I feel?”

In essence, we want to know that WE are normal, and that this feeling of not having the answer is okay. We want to know that other parents grasp for the same straws that we do.  And for the most part, we can relax. Because it’s true.  If there is a parent out there that isn’t befuddled by sleep or food or poop or emotions or language or whatever at least some times, then they are…well, not normal.

And for the most part, we know that our kids are normal too.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to address the issue. And there in lies the tricky part. Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about it. Experimenting with alcohol or sex as a teenager may be normal, but it doesn’t mean that we just get to shrug it off. Hitting a peer with a truck may be normal for a toddler, but it doesn’t mean we ignore the behavior and walk away.

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House
http://tumbleweedinfanthouse.blogspot.com/

Nope, just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it’s any easier to handle. And when it’s just us, in our homes, face to face with the preteen whose homework woes send them into a toddler-like meltdown, the fact that it’s normal doesn’t help us figure out what to do in that specific moment, with this specific child.

Really, in the moment, for the child, “normal” doesn’t mean much. What works for one child may not work at all for another. Supporting our children through these “normal” developmental struggles requires us to consider our child, our family culture, our expectations, our boundaries. I have written several posts on why this is so important, including Know Thy Child and 7 Criteria for Good Parenting. In the end, knowing what to do in any parenting situation requires us to look deeply at our children and ourselves to find what works, rather than looking towards normal. The good news is that when we let go of trying to find comfort in “normalizing” our child we can do just that. We will listen more intently to what our child is saying, look closer at what our child is doing and trust more in the individual that they are and what their behaviors are telling us. And when we do that, we will be able to move towards what they need, regardless of what the statistics say. Sure it’s hard, but hey, that’s normal.

 Posted by at 4:45 pm
Feb 052013
 

Why don’t we ask for help?

Raise your hand if you are good at asking for help when you need it. Through our virtual connection, I envision a room full of crickets chirping as the vast majority of us sit on our hands and look around to catch a glimpse of the parents who have perfected the art of accepting help. A few hands go up in the air, but most of us can’t claim to be good at this vital skill.

Of course, we tell our children to ask for help when they need it.

And, we tell our friends to ask us for help when they need it.

We philosophically believe that it takes a village to raise a child. We extol the virtues of said village and work hard (or at least wish hard) to have a village around us.

We definitely need help.

We definitely want help.

But, many of us are definitely are not good at asking for help. Oh sure, we can pay for help. We can hire a babysitter from time to time. We can schedule an hour here or there in a preplanned, everything is arranged and pulled together, dinner-is-ready-in-the-crock-pot kind of help. But I am talking about the middle of the night, emergency, take-my-kids-right-now-because-I’m-gonna-lose-it kind of help. The kind of asking for help that finds us at our worst and leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed. That’s the kind of help we just don’t like to ask for. It’s the hardest kind of help to admit to needing. But think about it, this is exactly the kind of help that we want our kids to be able to embrace.

A three-year-old runs around the house, his nerves are raw and he laughs wildly, on the brink of a meltdown. He crashes into a wall and dissolves into a puddle of tears, howls and throws a toy across the room. A mom says, “You were really feeling out of control. I wonder if you could have asked for help?”

A teenage boy stomps through the house. He is failing math and his girlfriend broke up with him and his blood is boiling and his emotions are raging. He slams his bedroom door and blares the music. His father says, “Why won’t you just ask us for help? We are here!”

A mother is at the end of her rope. Her three-year-old is sick and she hasn’t had a full night of sleep in what seems like years and her teenager is slamming doors and the house is a mess and the bills need to be paid and her head hurts and dinner needs to be fixed. Her nerves are frayed and the sound of her child’s voice fills her with fear. Her friend says, “Let me know if I can help.”

Photo by Tumbleweed Infant and Preschool House

Life, from childhood on, is wrought with big emotions that leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Last week I wrote about modeling traits you want your child to learn, rather than just preaching them. And this week I have been thinking a lot about how this applies to the concept of asking for help. If we want our children to be capable of seeking out help and support, then we have to be able to do the same. For most of us, for some reason, this is really hard. But, why?

I think it is time to explore and challenge some of the myths about asking for help:

 

1)      It admits defeat: If I am a good mother, I will always have it under control. If I ask for help, people will know I am not a good mother.

The truth: That’s just silly. Everyone needs help. Asking for it makes us better parents. And that isn’t just a cliché. It’s real. We can all parent better when we have deep resources (both internally and externally.) Sleep deprived, stressed out, emotionally raw parents have more difficulty making good parenting decisions. It just is. So asking for help is actually part of being a good parent.

2)      We will inconvenience others: My friends and family are busy. They don’t have time to help. I don’t want to bother them.

The truth: Being there for each other is what relationships are about. Relationships that are only based on convenience aren’t very deep. Most people feel good about helping others. It makes us feel good when our loved ones ask us for help. We feel connected and useful and engaged. It helps build trust and intimacy. It actually helps relationships flourish.

3)      My friends will know I struggle: Show no weakness. I’m fine! Really….

The truth: Yep. They will know we struggle. And they will like us more for it. Why? Because they need help, too, and we all want to know that everyone is in the same boat as us. If we ask for help, they can ask for help, and then we are truly all in it together.

4)      I will be indebted: Self-sufficiency is key. Don’t depend on anyone. Pay for everything. Quid Pro Quo.

The truth: If we are all in this together, then it will all come out in the wash. I will help you when you need it, you will help me when I need it. Having these types of relationships allows flexibility and trust that both partners can ask for what they need, when they need it. If we give and take support from our relationships, then the concept of accruing debt does not apply.

5)      They will say no: And that would be horrible.

The truth: Maybe. But that’s okay. Sometimes they will say no. It’s not so scary or horrible. It’s just no.

There are more, of course. Deep-seated beliefs that stop us from picking up the phone and asking someone for help. But the truth is, in order to show our kids that asking for help is an important part of life, we have to be willing to challenge our own beliefs and practice what we preach. When we do, we show them that asking for help not only gets us through the big emotions with integrity, but also allows us to celebrate the joys more fully through deeper connection with our loved ones. We have to ask for help, when we need it, from the very people that we tell to ask US for help when THEY need it!

So this week, I give you a challenge: Ask for help.

Ask your child for help. Ask a friend for help. Ask your partner for help. Push through the resistance and ask for help. See what happens. It might just change your day. It might just change your life.

 Posted by at 8:25 am
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
Sep 202012
 

******* A new post by our own Julie Endress. Hopefully the first of many! *******

I came to parenthood through a moment of deep knowing that I would be a parent. Little did I know what the journey would then entail to actually reach the day when I would shout, “We did it!” as our son was birthed from my body. Many of us either know couples or individuals or ARE those couples or individuals who struggle to conceive and/or face the tragedy of prenatal or infant loss. It is not a road for those who aren’t sure they want to parent. In fact, I would imagine it is part of what puts us so in touch with our deep yearning to care for a little one that is our family, our son or daughter. Although each story is unique, ours is similar to too many others AND fortunately ours resulted in the birth of our two sons who we are so blessed to have in our lives.

Although all parents face a fundamental shift once their children are here, those who put forth more struggle, more resources, and more time in reaching that destination are poised and determined to appreciate every single dirty diaper, every nighttime waking, every scream and squeal of joy. The reality is that becoming a parent is such a significant transformation of our lives that it is impossible to anticipate all that we might experience in the process of integrating our new family member and coming to terms with the life we are now living.

The trap that we can find ourselves in is one of having a narrow set of “acceptable” emotions related to parenting and others that are “off-limits” because we fought so hard to get here. It is completely outside our game plan to be in the midst of caring for our little one and feel irritable or annoyed or sucked in by a sense of wanting to make them happy even when the action may not be in our long-term best interest. To a certain extent, maturity is called for, and telling ourselves to “get over it” has a place since parenting is after all about meeting the child’s needs first and then our own. BUT, there is also a time for honoring our own experience even when it isn’t wanted, yummy or well-received by others. These feelings arise in our own experience—why wouldn’t they when caring for a child? We may try ignoring them, pretending they aren’t there, downplaying their importance, talking ourselves out of it, many strategies to push it away. As you can guess, this seldom works since emotions that go unexpressed find a way to surface or manifest somehow in our bodies. In fact, as we parent, we see that children are transparent and their feelings are quite evident—no matter what it is.

How well practiced are we at acknowledging and giving some space to a full range of emotions for ourselves, let alone our children?

The truth of the matter is, like most of this development stuff, allowing a full range of emotions starts with ourselves, and it is the only way to experience life fully. Once we try to put the kibosh on some feelings but not others, we end up dampening and stifling the whole lot of them. Our hearts are no longer open—we cannot be deeply touched by the quiet moments that are the gift of life itself.

And then where would you be on those precious mornings when your much-wanted child awakes before dawn, you curl up on the comfy chair with him and, in the darkness, as he softly spreads his hands over your body, he says “my mommy, my mommy, my mommy…”?

 Posted by at 1:33 pm
Aug 092012
 

Trust is amazing. It says so much with so little. It opens doors for opportunities and relationships and experiences. The more I explore the topic of parenting, both professionally and personally, the more I come to believe that trust is a central issue that impacts both child and parent development.  Do we trust ourselves as parents? Do we trust our children? Do we trust our partners? What does it look like when we engage in relationships from a place of trust and how does the feeling of being trusted (or not) impact our decisions and experiences? An experience in the park the other day brought this home for me.

The rule in our family is that climbing is an individual activity. If you want to climb a tree or a jungle gym or a wall, you can. But you have to do it yourself. And you have to get yourself down. I will not lift you up or hold your body. It is your job to listen to your body and keep yourself safe. If it feels safe for you to climb higher, and it works for your body, then it must be the right decision. If it doesn’t work, if your leg just won’t reach or it doesn’t feel safe, then it must not be the right time or place for you to climb.

This rule is very important to our family. I want my children to learn to trust their bodies and their instincts. I want them to learn their own limits and feel their own challenges and revel in their own successes. I also notice that when I break the rule and help them do something, they are more likely to fall!

Yes, it’s true. I have actually tested it. When I notice my child climbing and calling for help, I make a point to move away rather than closer. I want my children to be aware that they are in full control and need to be thoughtful about their bodies. When I move closer, they trust me to do it for them. They trust I will catch them and they are more likely to let go, fall backward, or move without thinking. Their trust in me outweighs their trust in themselves. Almost without fail, when I move away, I see one of two things: either they move slowly and thoughtfully, climbing in a way that keeps themselves safe and they get where they want on their own volition (success!), or they move slowly and thoughtfully, realize they are out of their league and it isn’t safe and they make their way down (success!). Either way, they listen to their bodies, assess the situation and make the best decision for themselves. The value of this is priceless. The message is twofold: I let them know that I trust them and I give them the time and space to trust themselves. It is so wonderful and rewarding to watch them as they revel in their autonomy and feel good about their own movements.

The other day at the park, this process was in motion. My children were climbing. My oldest was attempting to climb up a structure in a tricky way. He called for help and I simply said, “Wow, you’re trying to climb up in a tricky way. I wonder what you are going to do?” He asked for me to “spot” him and I reminded him that, while I was willing to stand under him for support, I wouldn’t help him climb. “I don’t want you to help me climb,” he said. “I want to do it myself!” He struggled for about 20 minutes. He grunted and whined and even cried a little. An outsider may have thought he was in distress, but I knew he was working through it. I also knew that he would find his way down if it became too challenging. Another parent, whom I was chatting with, reached out to try and help him. When I asked her not to help him, she looked at me a little critically, as if I were somehow leaving him hanging. In fact, I was leaving him hanging. He heard me tell her to not help him and he added (through his grunts) that he could do it himself. I saw that she was skeptical, but I trusted him and I trusted myself.

We were all rewarded for our patience when he made it to the top, spread out his arms and yelled, “Look at me! I made it to the top the tricky way!” His pride was overwhelming! He immediately swung down, went directly back to the starting point, and did it again. I asked him whether he still needed a spotter for support. “Nope, I got this,” he said. The second time, it took him only ten minutes. The third time, it took him five minutes and then he was going up and down more quickly than I could follow.

While this was going on, his younger brother had observed and, as usual, decided that he also wanted to climb. I knew that his body wouldn’t stretch as far and that climbing up this way would be nearly impossible. I knew he wanted to do it and I knew he would ask for help. And that is exactly what happened. And, in my typical response, I stepped back and told him he would need to figure it out for himself.

I have to admit that my anxiety always shoots up a bit. I could tell that my decision was making the other woman very nervous. She made it clear that she thought my decision was dangerous and that she did not trust my parenting style in this situation. In fact, she asked, “Are you going to let him climb that?”  As my son started to try to climb, I reminded him to be thoughtful about his body one last time. Then I forced myself to let him work it out. She gasped and reached out to grab him. He looked a little wobbly and I started to question myself. Her lack of trust in me made me question and doubt myself. What if he got hurt? What if my parenting decision isn’t the best one? I wondered if maybe I should have either told him he couldn’t do it, or helped him to the top. I quieted my mind and again asked her to let him do it on his own. I told him that I trusted him and I knew that he was thoughtful about his body.

And he worked through it. He climbed a little bit, cried a little bit and then made his way down. “It’s too tall for me,” he said. “Bummer,” I replied. “Watch what I can do over here!” he called as he ran to climb an area he had already mastered.  I breathed deeply and reveled in his success. He had tried something, found his own limit and kept himself safe. My trust in him had allowed him to explore this on his own. Success doesn’t always mean making it to the top.

What I noticed was how strongly the woman’s basic distrust of my decision had impacted me. I noticed how much I had questioned myself, my child, and the situation. And I realized how true this must be for our children as well. When we send the message, “I trust you and I’m here to support you,” we open the door for them to take charge of themselves and learn how to negotiate the world. The process of climbing becomes the experience, rather than just a way to get to the top. In the same way, the process of allowing children to climb becomes the experience. Rather than just putting my child on the top of the jungle gym and then having to get him down again, I got to witness my child developing autonomy, learning his limits, exploring his body in space and time, figuring out what feels right for him, pushing himself past his comfort level, and also being secure enough to know when to back down. Amazing!

Maybe, because I trusted him and he learned to trust himself, he will go a little further on his own.

Maybe, because I trusted him to know his own body, he will be more comfortable with his own limits.

Maybe, because he is learning to be comfortable with his own limits, he will stand up to peer pressure.

Maybe, because he knows I am there to support him, he will come to me for guidance and “spotting” rather than solutions.

Maybe, because we trust each other, growing up will be a little bit less painful and scary for both of us.

Of course, there is risk in this. Calculated risk. Would I have let him climb if the ground had been covered in broken glass or if he had been on the side of an abyss to nowhere? No. But here is the thing: because I give him room to consider those types of things, I doubt he would have chosen to climb with those dangers there. Yes, I have to consider the overall safety, but I also have to swallow my fear and let my children figure things out for themselves. After all, that is what growing up is all about.

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Jul 242012
 

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about the primary principles of parenting that I and so many others embrace. As I read blogs and articles written by various experts and bloggers and mothers, I am struck by a commonality of underlying assumptions that is moving the parenting world forward. The collective voice is growing. I believe that it has always been there, but the voice is gaining strength and momentum and courage, and it is impacting the lives of children in an amazing way. We are moving away from viewing children as merely an extension of ourselves to be controlled and molded, toward an understanding that children are in fact people in their own right. As our consciousness shifts, our parenting truths shift. Here are my top ten principles in no particular order:
• Practice gentle communication with our children.
• Be truly present in our interactions with our children.
• Build deep and enduring connections with our children.
• Respect the person each child is in their own right.
• Support and validate children’s experiences, thoughts and emotions.
• Encourage the personal growth and development of our children.
• Create a safe and nurturing environment in which our children can thrive.
• Understand that parenting matters. What we do and say has real impact on our children.
• Learn from our children. Relationships are reciprocal.
• Trust our children to be exactly where they should be in life.

As I read over my tenets, I replaced the word “child” with husband, partner, friend, employer, neighbor, stranger. And it hit me. Perhaps gentle parenting really is a bridge to a gentler world. I know when I am practicing these principles with my kids, I feel better inside. Softer, kinder, relaxed, connected. My relationship with my children is fuller and more rewarding. I see a difference in them and I see a difference in myself. I hear the same thing over and over again from other parents. And so I wonder, Why am I limiting my practice and awareness of these ideas to my children?

I am struck by the realization that as we practice these types of interactions with our children, not only are our children more likely to engage with others in the same fashion, but WE are more likely to engage with others in the same fashion! Imagine it: A whole family, community, region, world where people approach each other in the same way we are striving to approach our children! That is the world I want my boys to live in. That is the world I want all our children to live in.

The Center for Non-Violent Communication lists as one of their visions a world in which “people joyfully and compassionately contribute to each other and resolve conflicts peacefully.”

Joyfully and compassionately contribute to each other. Let’s do that.

 Posted by at 1:46 pm
Jun 072012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 3:19 pm
May 212012
 

How present are you for your children? When I ask this question, the response is usually both quick and vague, something like, “I’m pretty present, but I wish I could be more.” Most of us go to great lengths to be there for our kids. We provide them with a safe environment, we take them to museums and to the park and to the library. We attend story hours and play groups and make healthy meals and provide opportunities for art and interactions with other kids and help with homework. We work hard to ensure that their lives are full and busy. In fact, some of us can run ourselves ragged filling our children’s day with these opportunities.

But is that all there is to it? Is this the same as being present? And what does “being present” do for the parent?

When I think of being present with my children, I think of the times when I am truly and genuinely focused on them, in the moment. They have my full attention. I am not thinking about my phone, or my work, or dinner or the house payment. I’m not thinking about whether we are late to an activity or whether their lives are being developmentally enriched or whether I am saying the right thing or doing what my other mom friends would do. In fact, in these moments, I am not thinking of parenting at all. In these moments, when I am truly present, I am simply there, with them, doing whatever the moment calls for, while everything else falls away.

This weekend I took my boys to the park. I automatically took my place on the side of the jungle gym and watched them while they climbed and slid and swung. My mind wandered to work and what I was going to make for dinner and the laundry that was piling up. I looked at the time and nodded and smiled as the boys continually called out, “Mama, watch!” “Look, Mama!” “Want to see this?” That was when I realized that they didn’t really need me to see them go down the slide. Their constant calling was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” I turned off my busy mind and started to play with them. I mean really play. I became a yellow moon monster hopping through the lava. I chased and got chased and giggled and actually participated in their game. I played. It wasn’t until I saw another parent laugh at me that I realized I had been completely engrossed in the silliness of the game and the interactions with my children. It felt amazing. And notably different from how our outing to the park started.

Another opportunity occurred last week during the hectic madness that comes around 5:30 every night. While I struggled to get dinner on the table, my youngest repeatedly came into the kitchen with a new “owie” which required tending to. There were no bruises, blood or bumps, and my half-hearted attempt to show empathy while making the spaghetti sauce was obviously not doing it for him. He would go back to his activity for a minute, only to return with another owie. First his toe, then his elbow, then his knee. I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed, wishing he would give me 20 minutes to finish dinner. My reactions to him got less and less empathic, while his attempts to get my attention got louder and more frequent. And then I realized, he didn’t really need a kiss on his elbow; it was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” So I did. I put down my knife, turned off the burner on the stove and plopped down on the kitchen floor. “Do you need me? What can I do for you?” I asked. He jumped into my lap and nestled his head into my neck, his arms wrapped around me. He held on for dear life. I have no idea what was going on inside his heart, but he felt sad and I found myself holding him tighter. I held him quietly for two or three minutes until he pulled his head away and looked me in the eye. “I love you, Mama” he said, smiled and stroked my cheek. Following his lead I offered him the same, love and gentle touches to his face and head. After a few more minutes, he started laughing, hopped up and ran into the living room to play. I got to finish making dinner without any more owies.

When I consider these two moments, I realize that there is a big difference between providing opportunities for my children and being truly and genuinely present in the moment. Providing opportunities is important. But, the truth is that forced to choose between an “opportunity” with a distracted parent or a few moments of your undivided attention, our kids are going to choose us. And when I think back over the week, it is these moments that stand out for me, too. These are the moments when I really feel the rewards of parenting: these unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured moments when I am truly connected to my children.

Lovely, right?

But, then there is reality. Dinner has to get made, bills have to get paid, laundry must get done. The kids are fighting, work is overwhelming, schedules are full and sometimes we just feel like there isn’t any more of us to go around. How can we be present with our children when it doesn’t feel like there is even room to take a breath? It would be so great if someone could just tell us the secret to easy, sure-thing parenting.

Well, I’m sorry to say, there isn’t a quick fix, magic word or parenting technique that works in all situations with all kids. What I can say is that finding a way to be present, for even a few moments a day, is the closest thing to a magic wand that I have found. So what is it about being present that works?

1)      Being truly present tells your child, “I’m here,” “You’re safe,” “You’re valid”: In the end, this is what a child needs to know. That they are loved, safe, secure, valid. This is what builds healthy, strong, resilient individuals. Our children need to know that they are connected to us and that we are connected to them. And the truth is, they need this more than they need another scheduled activity.

2)      A little goes a long way: Four or five minutes of undivided attention can work wonders and allow a child to feel safe and secure. This feeling of being loved and heard and safe stays with them and bolsters their confidence and ability to trust themselves, which may result in more independent play and give us time to make dinner.

3)      Being present is about quality, not quantity: There isn’t a magic number of minutes per day that children need. Don’t focus on the clock. When the moment is over, you will know it. Both you and your child will feel ready to move to the next moment. Sometimes it almost feels like a magic trick.

4)      Being present benefits the parent as much as the child: Parenting can be an unending, thankless job of never ending demands and needs. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Really, you need to eat again? I just fed you!” Being present allows us to really experience the connection that we have with our children. The joy, the love, the wonder, the fun. Yes, they need to eat…again. But, they also want to look into your eyes and stroke your cheek, and that feels amazing.

5)      Practicing being present allows us to feel the difference: Start to become aware of how present (or not) you are during your parenting moments. It may be surprising how much being present in the moment may impact our ability to know what our children need and to respond to them in a meaningful way, which in turn has a direct correlation with less tantrums, melt downs and power struggles.

So how can we start to increase the amount of time we are actually present for our children?

1)      Set an intention: Choose one of the activities that you have planned for your children and make an intention to be truly present and engaged throughout it. Commit that this time will be screen free (no TV, phone, texting, email, computer, Facebook, iPad). Really challenge yourself to focus only on your children. Sit on the floor, climb the slide, put yourself in their world. You may be surprised at how it looks from their perspective. Intentionally be present; mind, body and spirit! 

2)      Respond to a frustrating moment by becoming fully present and engaged: Often it is the times when I am at the end of my rope, frustrated, pulling my hair out that I know I need to take a moment to fully engage. Whatever I am doing to try to “get control” of things isn’t working, and I’m missing the boat. It’s likely that my kids are trying to tell me something (in kid language, which can often be tricky) that I’m too distracted to hear. We are in a power struggle and I’m probably losing. It is in these moments that I know if I stop, breathe and connect with my child, things will probably feel a whole lot different. Unfortunately, these are the times that I feel the least capable of being present; these are also the times that it is the most productive and rewarding for everyone.

3)      Participate in cooperative play with your child: Many parents can tell you that they were  aware of the moment that their child began engaging in cooperative play (engaging in play that depends on the interaction between two or more children) rather than just parallel play (children playing side-by-side, but not acknowledging each other). But, how often do we engage in cooperative play with our kids? Try it! One idea is to choose an obscure object and ask, “What should we do with this?” inviting your child to play with you. Rather than sitting back and observing, or directing or commenting, go on and actually play. The connection that develops may surprise you. I once asked my child what we should do with wood chips. “Build a boat.” Obviously. So we did, and, as we built, he asked about countries I have traveled to and wanted to hear stories of my life before he was born. We talked and built and dreamed and imagined. All because I was prepared to really be present for a few minutes.

In the end, remember that childhood only happens once. These moments are fleeting and while I will soon forget about the brilliant art project I set up or the fact that dinner was on the table at exactly 6 pm, I will likely always remember my stint as a yellow moon monster and that moment of tenderness on the kitchen floor. I will treasure the moments when they said, “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now!” and I listened. Those are the moments that make parenting great and those are the moments that can make us great parents.

 Posted by at 3:41 pm