We all know that a large part of parenting involves high degrees of insanity.
It's a wonder that any of us have our wits about us at all considering how quickly they go out the window while we wait for our children to do something, while we scrape the very bottom of our patience reserves while they do something other than what we want them to be doing.
"I'm coming mama! I just need to zip my sweatshirt over this pillow because it's my baby." Then you stand there waiting while the tiny hands make every effort to match the two sides of the zipper. The hands miss. The zipper bonks against itself. The hands make another painstakingly slow pass... Miss. Your daughter assumes the pillow needs adjusting for this operation to work. She removes the sweatshirt, fluffs the pillow, struggles as the sweatshirt catches and folds into itself. She yanks it off again, those same little hands smoothing and tugging. The zipper is askew, the hands make the attempt again. Miss. And then?
Seven years of my life pass by and thirty new wrinkles pop up on my forehead.
Yesterday I sat in the front seat of the car. Sunglasses on. Ignition running. Audio story queued to proper chapter. My body twisted around to watch, so that I would know when I could pull out of the driveway, so that I would know when Echo had successfully clicked the seat belt into place. She stretched it long, she slow-motioned her body into view of the buckle. She arranged the belt in her hand. She leaned forward. She stretched her hand waaaay down. She waved the buckle, swaying near the opening. She made a thrust. Miss. She stretched again. The seat belt locked up and she, slow-motion, reeled it back into the starting place. She looked out the window. She adjusted the pillow baby. She reached for the seat belt. Stretched it long...
When the buckle clicked into place I realized I'd been holding my breath. When that silver bit found it's home in the gaping red mouth I felt like I'd never been so happy in my whole life.
No one tells you this when a baby comes out of your vagina. No one tells you that you'll spend a cumulative year of your life waiting for children to be ready for the car to pull away from the curb. When child-less people ask you what you do all day, it's not that they are insensitive, or that they undervalue the work of raising children, it's that they've done the math and it doesn't add up. Even when generous in their sums, adding in extra time for each thing a stay-at-home mom achieves in a day, the result still doesn't account for an entire day. They scratch their heads in wonder and assume there must be moments of bonbons and soap operas. Otherwise where does the time go?
I'll tell you. It goes into this bottomless pit called Having Patience. YOU SIMPLY CANNOT BELIEVE HOW LONG IT TAKES CHILDREN TO DO SOMETHING.
Turning a shirt right-side out? Seven hundred days.
Sorting out the straps of a bike helmet? Twenty one years.
Washing their hands? If the bubbles are good and frothy? Three hundred decades.
And the thing is, you can't leave them behind! Bailing on them while they wrangle their minds and fingers into position just prolongs the event. They cry because they panic. They beseech you to return because they are sure there are monsters in the closet. Or if they are little enough, they'll kill themselves falling headfirst down the stairs or stepping off the wrong side of the footstool. So there you are perpetually married to a small, slow moving being who does not notice the passage of time or anything else for that matter. Blissfully in the moment they follow the thread of their challenge, as long as it takes.
That, my friend, is the source of the accounting error.
That is also the reason why patience is always a hot commodity, why we are always looking for ways to wring a few more drops out of the dry, dry well. Our sanity depends on it. Lately I have a new trick that allows me to stretch out my batch of patience. I label everything, every time consuming, every take-deep-breaths, every watch-time-stand-still moment - HOMESCHOOL.
When Echo "needs" to read off every number from the YMCA locker room lockers before putting her clothes on, I freak out! Do you know how many lockers there are in there? Well I happen to know. There are hundreds. But if I put this time-consuming, life-stalling activity into the category of homeschool, I chill out a bit. She's learning! In homeschool learning opportunities are literally around every corner. So no, she isn't quickly and efficiently getting dressed, but she is doing math! And that's what our days are (supposedly) about. Right?
Well it's at least right enough to eke out that extra bit of patience.
When we're all hungry and the girls want to "help" make dinner. I want to snarl and kick them out, not only out of the kitchen but also out of the immediate area, because I want to be a mean-cooking-machine, turning out a rapid nutritious meal, and I don't want them annoying and underfoot. But then they persist and I feel like a scrooge and I reach for the homeschool label. Yes it takes three million, two thousand and one times longer to negotiate whose turn it is to stir, or to wait while the little hands painstakingly level off the cup of flour, but they are learning! (Not to mention they always eat more of the food they are so proud to have made.)
It's my latest sanity saving trick. And I realize no one needs to be an official homeschooler to pull it out of the bag. Kids certainly don't limit their learning to school hours, they see every moment as a chance to better their skills.
They're actually pretty amazing that way.
Echo has this weird illness that is floating around town. The main symptom seems to be that you feel sick, then you feel better, then you feel sick again. Like a roller coaster ride. The good news is that she's not that sick, just a little fever and lethargy. The other good news is that we happen to have a stack of audio stories she is in love with.
She is clocking some serious audio story time, breaking her own personal records. We're talking eight to nine hours straight. She even listened to an audio story during the walk to and from the library where we got more audio stories.
Here is our current audio story lineup:
At night falling asleep Echo asks her vocabulary questions. "Mom, what are stakes? As in "high-stakes"?" And I love it that she can recite the exact source sentence so that I don't send her down the wrong explanatory road and confuse her completely. And sometimes I have to go to the dictionary myself.
But not everyone loves eight straight hours of audio stories. In this home full of work-from-home folks sometimes it simply doesn't work. That's when we pull out the headphones. But sometimes even this doesn't work. Just yesterday morning Xi came to full fed-up-with-audio-stories mode. She didn't want to hear them out loud and she didn't want Echo disappearing behind head phones either. She wanted to play! She missed her sister.
It got pretty snarky, I have to admit. There was lots of "Fine! Don't play with me!" and scowls and feigned indifference poorly hidden through desperate tears. I know some of you simply do not believe me when I say that we use empathy for 80 percent of our parenting, but seriously? We do.
I didn't even leave my yoga mat, I just paraphrased what I heard in clear feelings-based language. Sure, in my mind I was thinking: "We're screwed! This is going from bad to worse! I don't want to be interrupted! Just get over it girls! Maybe I should just declare that they aren't even allowed to play!" But on the outside I said things like:
And Xi got revved up by my comments, kind of indignant and more sad and angry. But she also stopped arguing her position and arguing the shitty-ness of audio stories. She stopped exaggerating Echo's use of audio stories and her own dislike for them. But also, and maybe more importantly, Echo listened to my empathetic rendition of Xi's position and I could tell from her face that for the first time she actually heard it. Without having to defend herself she could hear Xi's feelings.
To Echo I said:
Echo broke down in tears and said: "I would do anything to play with Xi. I am so tired and bored of feeling sick!" She slumped further in her chair but not in defiance or as part of an argument, she had her eyes on Xi - kind, loving eyes.
Xi came up with the idea that maybe Echo could listen to audio stories during the time Xi is at her mom's house and then not listen to them at all when Xi returns. I smiled (knowing for sure that wasn't going to happen). And then Echo had an idea as well. She thought maybe she could just rally enough energy to simply stop listening to stories and play.
And that's what they did.
At least long enough to reaffirm their love and joy in one another.
Let's say we have a situation where a child has a strong emotional reaction at the prospect of an impending event - I'll pick going to the dentist (since I remember several of your posts on that topic).
The child doesn't want to go because (s)he is scared at the prospect, and you empathize with them about it - but you're still going. How do you avoid the child getting the impression, okay, she knows how I feel about this, but she's still making me go - ergo she doesn't really care?
Or, one of the instances of the linked post - Xi not wanting to eat dinner at the store - you empathized with her, and explained your preference, and that was what happened that day (and Xi got on board) - so Xi had her her preference, and you had yours, and that time, you went with yours. So what is like, the 'hierarchy', or order, in which you honour the different preferences?
These are great questions.
I think the first thing to mention, and it's VERY important, is that empathy does not mean giving the child (or anyone for that matter) what they want. That's actually a big misunderstanding about parenting with empathy- that it is just permissiveness in disguise. Empathy is being fully there for the set of emotions - that's all. And quite often this empathy is "enough" to smooth most situations.
When heard completely, with empathy, kids don't feel uncared for even if circumstances don't go in their favor. Quite the contrary. They see and understand that their feelings about things are important EVEN IF events go against their wishes.
Let's say the child wants candy for breakfast. Mom says no. Kid still wants candy and mom still isn't going to give it, but mom CAN be with the child about their feelings. She can listen closely and explore all the depths of those feelings. There is so much connection available even if the candy isn't.
As far as a hierarchy of preferences go there certainly IS a hierarchy although it shifts all over the place depending on circumstances. As far as the eating at the grocery store example... my preference won out for sure. Xi didn't want to eat there and I gave her empathy for that, and explored the reasons why so that perhaps her preference could be tended to in a roundabout way. Specifically she didn't want to eat there because the last time she didn't enjoy her meal. So while I gave her empathy, and while we explored the reasons for her feelings, she naturally came to an idea of something she DID want to eat and thus was on board for the venture.
As the parent I was choosing to eat at the store for a variety of macro-view reasons. Though I cared about Xi's preference and had empathy for her feelings, I was also having some "pre-empathy" or insight into what the family as a whole needed. It was getting late and if we chose to eat at home we'd need to get there, unload the groceries, and prepare food - all of this would put the hour of eating and the hour of bedtime later than usual. I wanted to avoid this because I could see the girls were hungry and tired already. I wanted to avoid tears and sleep deprivation. I wanted to give them time to read stories before bed (something VERY important to them) and make sure they had a gentle transition to sleep. I also had empathy for myself in that I was hungry too and I also knew that eating at the store was the least stressful version of our evening.
So although it looked like a clear cut case of Xi's preference versus mine, my preference actually INCLUDED empathy for Xi as well. It also included empathy for Echo and Nathan too as they would be affected by the sequence of events as well.
In deciding whose preference gets honored these are the things I factor in -the logic of the preference with regard to time, the line-up of other tasks and pre-decided goals already in place, and the amount of stress involved. I also check to see if one preference is more "downstream" than another. Is it more work to move toward one preference or another?
That being said, empathy is a great checks and balance technique. If I settle in to giving my child empathy and through that realize that my preference is simply a preference and there isn't any solid, good reason to thwart the child's preference, then by all means we go with the child's. We use empathy this way constantly! We like to say "yes" as often as possible and empathy for the kids, and ourselves, let's us discern when one of us just needs our feelings recognized or when one preference should be embraced over another.
When one child asks if they can take a bath with their clothes on and my emotional state is screaming "no way!", empathy for my feelings and empathy for the child's feelings leads me, often, to see that there may not be any good reason not to bathe with clothes on, and my resistance is there simply because I am having disagreeable feelings (about something else usually).
I suppose the short answer is that empathy itself determines the hierarchy in many ways, and so does the common sense evaluation of the family's set of needs.
Want more? Nathan and I are running our parenting with empathy course: Parenting on the Same Team in April. Email me with questions! natalie(at)feeleez(dot)com
We had our parental pow wow last night, alarm clocks in hand, sketching out the plan for the next day:
Then we hustled for the covers, racing the night for some sleep. (I also took a look out the window, saw a freaking layer of snow, and stymied some bawling.) Echo woke at 640 with a tummy ache and a request for a puke bowl. I shrewdly calculated how many more minutes between bowl retrieval and the sounding alarm remained to my half-lidded eyeballs. Got the bowl, rubbed her back. (Sometimes she asks for a bowl and hangs out with it for an hour or two and nothing happens.) Alarm clock rang. I shimmied into jeans and was rummaging around for a shirt when I heard rustling from Xi's room. She too needed a bowl.
Bowls all around. Jeans back on the pile. Nobody is going anywhere today.
Field trip, ha ha. Isn't it funny that we so earnestly plan out our days when actually we know nothing about what the day has in store for us? Funny shake your head, not funny stand-up comedy.
Now these two tandem pukers are parked on the couch in their pajamas. They are acting quite sprightly actually, pleased by one another's company and the rarity of enjoying a sickness in tandem rather than relay-style. They have fresh-pressed cider in hand and a stack of books between them. Basically a little childhood heaven if it wasn't for the nausea.
Thank you Universe for these children. Thank you too for a husband to bring fresh towels and wet washcloths in the dark. Thank you for a life where left turns are possible.
We don't use praise at our house. On the surface I know that may seem a bit scrooge-like. When our kids do something fantastic we don't squeal "GOOD JOB!" or say how proud we are of them. We don't. (And its taken a lot of practice to get there.) What we do do is watch, celebrate when they are celebrating, commiserate when they aren't, stay with them wherever they are emotionally. It's not like we don't do anything, we do a lot, but we don't interject our opinions on their achievements.
A million reasons. Alfie Kohn lays out the most convincing arguments ever seen in print for leaving both praise and punishment behind. Nathan and I read his Unconditional Parenting book and his logic combined well with what we had intuitively already figured. It seems like praise would feel good, would be encouraging, would show a child that you are on the same team as them and are rooting for their success. It also seems like praise would encourage actions the parents desire, thereby cutting down on actions they do not. It all seems this way but actually praise backfires. It muddies the waters so to speak. When a child is praised for doing something at first the praise seems to work, but then not only does it stop working but it actually backfires and inspires the cessation of said activity. Read Unconditional Parenting because Alfie does a better job than I do of describing the ill-effects.
What stands out for me is that praise takes away a child's personal motivation and dilutes it with the element of mom or dad's pleasure. The child quickly switches from "I'm doing this because it's fun" to "when I do this mom likes me more". Ack. And mom's approval is so strongly desired that the child often will stop doing the activity to avoid risking any displeasure. I've seen this very thing in our home when momentarily I forgot myself and whooped out a "Good Job!". I am not kidding, Xideka immediately halted the very activity I was lauding.
Without praise our kids are free to follow their own interests and learn new skills because of their own personal drive, not because we will reward them (or punish them) with our own emotional response.
Which brings us to swimming. And to pace and pressure.
We got a family membership to the YMCA and have been jumping in their chlorinated pool several times a week for the last three weeks. We like it because we get the exercise of treading water and the girls like it because kids, in general, go ape-shit for pools. When we first started Echo was just polishing off her dog-paddle. She tentatively left the pool's edge and swam carefully to my close-by arms. I'd hold her a bit and then send her back to the wall.
Now Echo, from an outside perspective anyway, is a slow-mover. She emphatically moves at her own pace and that pace could be considered slow. One day while she was at the top of a slide she said: "Mom, I noticed something, whenever someone tries to convince me to do something I don't want to do it." Ain't that the truth. The girl does not like to be pressured, even in the slightest "You can do it!" sort of way. What does this require on the part of mama and papa?
A truckload of patience.
So that was/is my tactic in the pool. Even though I knew she could put her face in the water, or jump from the side, or kick better, or whatever, I didn't say a word. I caught her mid-dog-paddle, hugged her, turned her around, and sent her off. A bajillion times. Day after day.
And then one day she said "Mom! Look I can do the backstroke!" And she could. And it wasn't as if I wasn't watching. Dog-paddle, catch, turn. My eyes were on her. But she was right. She had perfected a back stroke. In her wiggly, squirmy, dog-paddling she was working on things. She was developing. She was learning in a completely invisible way to the outside eye. What looked like a stand-still, or snail-slow pace to me was actually a skipping-right-along.
Okay. So there was a backstroke out of the blue. I wanted to squeal in delight and praise the bejeezus out of her. But I didn't. I said: "Look at that! A backstroke. You can do a backstroke now huh?" And she grinned, pleased as punch with herself and moving on (invisibly) toward her next milestone.
No praise, allowing her pace to proceed as it will, and patience. In other words GET OUT OF THE WAY and the little pipsqueak will astound.
So more days of dog-paddle, turn, backstroke, turn, dog-paddle, hug, turn, backstroke, turn. Again and again and again.
Then one day the lifeguard sees Echo swimming and says "You know hon you'll swim a lot faster if you put your face in the water! Want me to get you some goggles? If I get mom some goggles she can go under too and you can wave at each other. Want to try?!" Echo smiled awkwardly and looked at me. I said I was willing if she wanted me to, but I felt myself wanting her to want to. I found myself suddenly, and (secretly, repulsively) wanting to please this lifeguard I didn't even know. Wanting her to think of Echo as a good swimmer or something. Echo agreed. We got goggles. She gave it a half-second attempt and then burst into tears. I held her while she cried for thirty-five minutes.
We went from blissful, swimming-on-her-own-terms to sobbing, miserable child in the blink of an eye. She cried because she didn't know if she could do it and she wanted to be able to do it. She cried because suddenly adults she admired were moving her a few stepping stones ahead before she knew herself to be ready. She cried until the moment became hers again, until enough time had passed and the terms were her own.
Then she slid from my arms, adjusted the goggles and put her face in the water. For two seconds. Then she flung them off and went back to dog-paddle, turn, backstroke, turn.
Lesson learned. Pressure doesn't help. GET OUT OF THE WAY.
All of the days of invisible development started to add up to confident swimming, spinning in circles mid-pool, and bactstroking all over the place. Her mind and body were working overtime yet still without many outward signs. Then yesterday she said: "Mom I'm going to practice my backstroke and them I'm going to take the swim test."
The swim test???
At the YMCA kids have to pass a swim test in order to go into the deep end. Echo and I heard of this our first day and I never gave it another thought. I figured, based on our pace, the deep end would happen for us in a couple of years. Days would go by, other kids would exhibit their skills for the lifeguard and splash off into the dark blue depths, but Echo and I contentedly paddled away well within the five-foot mark.
I was utterly shocked by Echo's new goal but I didn't say anything. And sure enough: "Okay I'm ready mom!" We paddled over to the lifeguard, Xi coming along too, emboldened by her little sister's gumption, to take the test herself. The guard stood, clad in official red, towering over Echo's tiny pinto-bean head. "You know what to do sweetheart?" But Echo was already off. She paddled all the way out to the middle of the pool, touched the center lane line, gracefully laid back and backstroked her way all the way back to the guard. Cool as a cucumber.
She felt good. She was stoked to explore the deep blue. And her victory was all hers.
When I saw her tiny slick head confidently making her way across that aquamarine I finally got it. Her pace is her own. Don't pressure, don't praise. She's reaching for the stars and succeeding.
I've had an email from a sweet mama yearning to find connection with her children. She parented the first in an empathetic style with wildly positive results for all. But now that there are two kids... well it doesn't seem to come as easily. She feels she's just going through the motions and coming up short. She described a typical interaction at her house:
Ella is building some amazing elaborate lego house. Harper sees this, thinks it looks so cool and heads over to touch it and taste it and figure it out. Ella screams and cries when her building gets touched.
Me: Ella! I know that's so disappointing...
Ella: No! Don't talk to me about that right now!
Me: But I want to talk about what you're feeling!
Ella: Harper touched my building! Make him stop! Fix it!
At this point, Harper starts climbing on me, pushing Ella out of the way, pulling down my shirt to nurse and also starts screaming. She amps up her screaming because she's just been pushed off my lap. I'm so so sad and exasperated at this point that the next part of the conversation goes like this:
Me (yelling, now): Ella, I told you if you want to build stuff Harper can't touch, you have to put it up high! He's curious!
Ella: Mom! That's not fair! Much more crying and screaming.
Then I hand Harper a toy and start cleaning the kitchen or something just to get my mind off how sad I am that I don't have unlimited time with either of them. I've been trying so hard to keep things even. To give Harper all the things we gave to Ella when she was his age and to treat Ella the same as we did before Harper was born. It's not working though. I'm exhausted when I wake up and I feel as though both kids are left at the end of the day wanting more of me.
Crap. That's my first reaction because I can just hear the emotions behind the words.
The scenario sounds hard, so very hard. But my second reaction is one of optimism. It is possible to parent two children (or three or four) with empathy, and to find, and relish, connection with each. So where to start?
Let's start here with the "what do I do?" part of the scenario.
1. Still the panic.
When the tower crumbles get to the scene as quick as possible. Stop the "offender" from further changing the structure, not because he is wrong for exploring the tower but because you want Ella to be able to hear you, to sort out her feelings and to find a solution, and she will not be able to do any of that while in a state of panic about the tower.
2. Communicate to Harper.
Use words and sign language (the sign for "talk" is a wide open hand turned sideways and tapped on your chin) to explain why you are restraining him from touching the tower. "I'm going to hold you a moment and talk with Ella about the legos."
3. Communicate to Ella.
Use a loving face and explain to Ella that if Harper wants to nurse you're going to let him because that will give the two of you an opportunity to talk things through. Restrain Harper from kicking her. "I love you and I'm going to help you. Let's let Harper nurse because that will distract him from the tower and give me a chance to work this out with you. Here, let's make room right next to me so I can put my arm around you."
Talk yourself down from panicking (as the two voices are raised and things are looking bad) by using self-empathy. "Shit this is hard. I'm ready to lose my top. I'm so frustrated." Let these words create a smidgen of emotional space for yourself so that you don't end up lending your own raised voice and haggard emotions to the pile.
Play dumb. Act as though you don't know what the problem is so that Ella can tell you all about how hard she worked on the tower and how sad she is that it has changed shape and how tired she is of Harper touching the stuff she's working on. If the conversation goes there let her describe how sucky it is to have a little brother. Don't judge. Just listen.
6. Provide Information.
"It's important to you to build safely, but it doesn't seem as though the tower is safe down here. Harper sees a really cool, colorful thing and he wants to check it out. He's so little that right now the way he checks things out is with his hands and that changes the shape of your tower."
"What do we do?"
After empathy and with the perspective that you are all on the same team (no one is wrong or right), children find solutions quite easily. Wait to see what they come up with. Once completely heard through empathy Ella may not be attached to the tower at all. She may come up with a new idea. She may even want to find a game that includes her brother.
1. Look for opportunity.
Instead of getting things done while both children are happy use that time to amp up connection with one of the children. Even if Ella is happily reading a book and doesn't need you, and if Harper is asleep or doing something else, use that moment to connect with Ella. Sit with her, read to her, listen to her, just tune-in completely.
When my kids are occupied I like to scurry around and clean things and try to get out from under the always growing pile, and it is really hard not to do this. But it sounds like connection is at the top of the wish list, so perhaps the to-do list should take a back seat. It might help to keep in mind the time frame. For the next two years or so your children will need you to be very hands-on, which definitely sounds like an eternity, but in the spectrum of their lives it is quite short. So for two more years you will have a messier house and life than you like, but you will also have a lot of connection. And no regrets.
2. Set reasonable goals.
Keeping a lego tower completely intact? Not reasonable.
Maintaining connection even though the tower tumbles? Definitely within reason.
Giving Harper all the things you gave to Ella when she was his age and treating Ella the same as you did before Harper was born? Not reasonable.
Giving Harper and Ella an incredible amount of love and connection in a variety of ways? Absolutely reasonable.
3. Set an intention.
Set an intention for the day without getting too tight about how that intention is going to come to life. It seems that some of your sadness is that the ways you are able to connect with your two children don't match the way that you were able to connect with Ella when she was a solo child. Perhaps it makes more sense to intend to connect and gratefully accept the ways that connection pops up instead of deciding that it only counts if it comes in a certain package.
Decide to make the purpose of the day about connection and watch as opportunities to connect rise up. If connection is your intention then you are lucky because any instance is an opportunity; spilled milk, scratched knee, funny jokes, or surprise rain.
4. Build trust with Ella.
Responding with empathy, choosing a same team stance, refraining from blame, and everything else mentioned above will build trust with Ella. She needs to know that she's important and loved, that she's just as important and loved as Harper even though you don't hold her and nurse her to the same degree. She will come to know that she is loved and important because you care about her thoughts and feelings, her towers and ideas.
When she wants you to be in one place doing one thing and Harper wants you to be in a different place doing a different thing, go back to "What do we do?". This will drive home the point that they both are important, their desires are important, and that together as a team you will find a way to meet everyone's needs.
Even Larger Scope
1. Check your level of guilt.
Really. Forgive yourself. You are not harming either child by having birthed the other. You have plenty of love to go around and with each day it grows bigger.
2. Rewrite your story.
The current story is as you described above. Two children simply cannot be parented with a satisfying level of empathy and connection. You do not want this to be true. The more you tell this story to your neighbors, friends, husband, and to yourself the deeper it will sink into your reality and the more true it will become for you. You have a different story in mind as to how you'd like your family to unfold and if you want it to become more of your reality you'll have to start noticing it now. You already have a huge jump start. The final part of your letter said this:
The whole reason this style of parenting appealed to me was because of the connection it seemed to foster. I see it "working" in lots of other ways; the kids don't fight often and are really sweet to one another, they are both kind to other kids and communicate their needs really clearly, they are both so sensitive to others' feelings. But...
The more you notice and appreciate and languish in thoughts like this, the more your family vision will come to life. The only part I would edit is the "but" there at the end. A good rule of thumb would be to stop short any time you are about to add a "but" to your sentences. For instance: "The kids had a really great day, laughing and playing together. It was so fun to see but I just wish every day could more like that instead of the squabbling we usually see." Stop your thoughts and words before you get to the "but". Notice what you like and turn your thoughts from that which you do not.
Go ahead and trust that everything you want is possible.
I did these drawings last year. Echo sleeps with us and we, for the most part, really like it. I say "for the most part" because there are times, certainly, when I wonder: Is this working???? I think this to myself when I realize that for three months straight I have been sleeping on the very very edge of the bed without room to even roll over because Echo has plastered herself to my side. We've evolved from the drawings above, now Echo sleeps in the middle every night. When I get into bed I like a few moments sans entanglement so just slip in near the edge without making a fuss, leaving room between us. And then at some point her pinky toe meets my thigh and like a heat-seeking missile and without opening an eye, she sidles her way over to me until she had wound one arm through my hair, one arm around my arm, and both legs over my pelvis. And there we remain for the next six hours.
There's no doubt it's working for her. But for me? Sometimes I'm not so sure.
Because the truth is I sometimes wonder about this whole attachment parenting thing. I wonder about it especially when I compare myself and my daughter to other people. I fret about how much I carry Echo, or that I never go anywhere without her. Lots of other people don't do this. To be clear, they compare themselves to others, sure, and fret about their parenting, of course, but many people don't sleep with their kids or hold them as much. When I think about this I start to question our family set up.
Then I read Nathan's recent blog post. He writes over a period of days and often around 2 in the morning so I never actually know what he's writing until it goes online. And his latest post is titled "Hold That Baby!". I started reading it because he's my partner and that's a supportive thing to do, but based on the title I figured it was a bit of a review, a summary of the benefits of holding your babe, stuff I already knew. But I kept reading because he was giving me new information, utterly compelling news about brain development.
In order to claim the promise of the human brain, we parents must spend those first months tending to the infant’stransition from in Mama’s womb to on Mama’s chest, and then onto Mama and Papa’s hips (backs, etc.), and then holding onto Mama and Papa’s hands, and so on. And the way the brain needs us to do that is by continually making each chapter of the transition feel safe.
This part I think I knew in some sense. The first few months after the baby is born is the time to hold that baby and let it hear your heartbeat and transition into this strange new world gently. This intuitively made sense to me so that's of course what we did. But I read on...
The sense of security that the brain needs to develop has a spectrum of thresholds: without any sense of safety a newborn will die (from a condition cryptically know as “failure to thrive”); with a minimum experience of security, babies will live but be vastly under-developed and/or psychologically dissociated; at a higher amount of security, as most of us have had, development proceeds largely unimpeded, but with less vigor than that of which it is capable, babies grow into under- or mis-developed adults with all the physical, mental, and emotional atrophies and dysfunction that are so prevalent today. Of course, there is a higher threshold, still, experienced by precious few, wherein the infant and growing child is made to feel ultimately secure, comfortably safe, and unconditionally loved — in short, as though he belongs – at which point the brain, nervous system, and body are fully signaled and empowered to develop, absorb, learn, and create in ways that most of us can barely imagine today.
It was at this point that I started to realize that the brain is still a brain even after the early months of a child's life. Safety and security are just as important for a five-year old as for a two-month old. And the part about the higher threshold, well that's appealing...
I read on.
Think of it this way — if brains in general are machines, then the earliest models of brains were/are wind-up toys: they’re set in motion and just perpetuate repetitiously until they wind down (usually immediately following procreation). Reptile brains are calculators: they perform a prescribed set of specific functions only, and very little if anything outside of those parameters. Mammal brains get into higher and higher forms of computing devices, all the way up to humans, which are a bit more advanced than your standard desktop personal computer. And as mentioned above, part of what makes the human brain-computer so powerful is that it has carefully maintained and refined the best elements of the wind-up toys, the calculators, and the simple Commodore 64′s that preceded it evolutionarily. We’ve got hardware, and hardwired programs that run, whether we tend to them or not; and we’ve got additional programs that come added in (on arrival) and that can expand as we use them; and then, depending on the software that is downloaded onto our hard drives, we run more and more varying and coalescing programs throughout our lives. If we get low-grade software, or if it doesn’t get downloaded properly, or our hard drives get hacked by destructive programming, or the like, then our capacity may be limited, our programs may run into errors that force shut downs, or our programs may conflict, etc., etc.. Whereas, if we get top-of-the-line software, and it’s loaded with care, and our security systems are in place to protect our processors, then we are capable of running programs like Mozart 2.0, or Einstein 3.1, or Gandhi OSX.
And as I read I again kept remembering that all this is true for brains in general, and that brains don't stop needing to feel safe even if the brain's home is now the body of an almost five year old, they continue to develop, forming new pathways as long as the environment is secure enough to allow for that expansion.
Armed with this new perspective I myself developed a new perspective. When Echo sidled up to me in the night and took over my body with her own I wasn't thinking of all the parents that sleep with the whole bed to themselves. I wasn't doubting. Instead I was thinking of her ear next to my heart, that sound that has brought her comfort from the moment she could hear it. I pictured her mind feeling so safe that it could venture to wire new roads and develop complex ideas and thoughts. I imagined her in a nest of security and therefore able to unfurl her developmental wings.
Who knows, with all of this "top-of-the-line software loaded with care" she might wake up one morning and literally fly.
I really don't understand anything about anything. It's a good thing I'm comfortable with following intuition. There is no reason to think that making a video would cause accelerated development in a four-year old but that's what happened. Echo and I made the nursing video, from the last post, where she talked about missing nursing. Within that video we sort of stumbled upon the idea that we could hold each other in an intense purposeful way in order to substitute for the connection she was missing from nursing. Then we pressed Stop and went about our day. I held her more, we fell in love just a little more, and there were smiles all around.
But then she mentioned she wanted a "Goodbye Milky" party, a celebration of no longer nursing. I was taken a bit aback since it had been ten months since she last nursed. But it turns out she hadn't wanted a party because she still thought of herself as a nurser, even though there wasn't any nursing going on. After making the video and establishing what we would do instead of nursing she was ready to think of herself differently. She wanted a party.
Well a party means a cake and so that's just what we made. I thought we'd cobble together a little something from the baking drawer but she was very specific and before I knew it I was committed to a two-tier chocolate cake with strawberry filling and salty caramel icing. It felt silly to be going all-out in the middle of the week to celebrate something that happened almost a year ago but I went with it and I'm glad.
Because part of the lesson here is that rites of passage are important. Making an actual "deal" of no longer nursing meant that we marked a passage in little Echo's life. Where before we sort of tiptoed around the idea of Echo not nursing in deference to her sadness about it, we were now congratulating her and celebrating with her a whole new girl. I didn't think it would have that big an effect, but it did.
She was proud.
And she felt older. At one point in the afternoon she went into the art closet and conferred with her imaginary step-mom Mama Pom Pom and emerged, according to her, two years older. She was four before the party, and six after the party. By bedtime she was seven and by the next day, seventeen. Pretty cute.
So I've been thinking about rites of passage and sort of renewing my commitment to acknowledging them in our family. I am reminded that first and last days of school are important, weaning is important, birthdays are important, losing a tooth is important, etc. But I also can't help but notice that it might only feel like an official rite, something to celebrate, when the child crosses it herself. Crossing the finish line doesn't feel that celebratory when one is thrown across the line by someone else. And Echo's pace, well it's been pretty darn slow. So slow that I forgot there was even a finish line she was moving toward.
That's the part I know nothing about, what form development can take if given the opportunity to evolve on it's own, without "shoulds" and nudges from the parents. Hmmm.
But here's the other part I am surprised by: not only did Echo grow older from her rite of passage, it seems that her brain opened up to new information and growth as well. It sounds funny but I'm not kidding. Over the last two days this girl has been screaming through new skills and information. She learned to tell time, for instance. She learned to count quickly to one hundred and beyond. She can now write every letter and every number on her own. She can identify new, long words, on site. And last night in the span of five minutes she learned to count money, adding quarters and nickels and dimes like it's old hat. Before last night she hadn't known that coins had different value at all.
I guess I am taking home a couple different messages with this one. Kids develop at the rate that is appropriate for them and it doesn't necessarily coincide with anyone else's rate. And, it seems that readiness to learn new things is dependent on factors that we cannot see, gauge, or easily guess at. For Echo, having another comfort method to reach for when the old method retired, allowed her brain to expand. Security is essential for learning, I knew that, for instance if you want your child to feel confident in exploring the world it's important to give him a solid nest from which to leap, but I didn't know the "solid nest" part could be so sensitive or subtle, and I didn't know that the effects of shoring up the nest could be so profound.
ps. After conferring with Nathan I wanted to say that Echo indeed has been practicing reading and counting (except money) so it wasn't as if she woke up one day and could do something completely foreign, but more like there was an extremely sudden "snapping together" of connections which made the application of what she's been learning instantaneous.
Tonight helping Echo fall asleep, after round four of "Hush Little Baby", I suggested she close her eyes. She grumbled and complained. She said she hated night and wanted it to be morning already. I've heard this for the last several nights, it wasn't a a road I wanted to travel down, I just wanted her to fall asleep. For many nights now, before starting the lullabies she asks me if she is safe and in order to avoid the hour-later conversation about hating nighttime I usually spend a bit of earnest time describing to her just how safe she is. I mention her sturdy house, her strong parents, the watchful dogs, her safe town, and her parents' determination to do anything to protect their children. We had this conversation again tonight but it didn't prevent her from feeling scared later.
A couple rounds into the lullaby is not when I want to re-start a conversation of any kind with my daughter. I just want her to fall asleep. Most of the time I don't even have anything in particular I am in a rush to do after bedtime I just know it's bedtime and I want to get the job done. Other times I do have something I want to do and I want Echo to fall asleep quickly so that I don't fall asleep as well. The nine pm "nap" ruins my evening plans and energy every time. I just never recover all the way and find myself stumbling into the lit kitchen all befuddled. So of course I tried to reassure Echo she was safe and that falling asleep makes morning come more quickly but it all felt so empty. In my well-intentioned motherly way I was just trying to fix her problem long enough so that she'd fall asleep. I wasn't actually helping her.
So I went down the counter-intuitive path and really engaged her in exploring her scared feeling. I asked all kinds of questions about the feeling's size, shape, location, name, and weight. It turns out her scared feeling is shaped like a puzzle piece with a whale tail. It's heavy and dark purplish bluish. It is 1600 nights old. The feeling begins right after stories, disappears after she falls asleep, and then returns the next night right after stories. It is painful and the size of her chest. If she could grab it she'd throw it out the window and into the window of two guys she doesn't like. It doesn't have a name. She can't tell if its solid or airy and she can't smell it.
This exploratory path is counter-intuive because it feels time consuming and it feels like I am making the problem even bigger by focusing on it. It feels more intuitive to shush lovingly and repeat assurances of safety. Detailing the terror with specifics seems ludicrous, unwise, and above all else, a postponement of the go-to-sleep goal. But here's the thing, after Echo answered all of my questions I asked her if the feeling was still there. She was silent for a moment, then she said.
"It's smaller! Much much smaller!"
Then I sang one more round of "Hush Little Baby" and even before I reached the end she was a limp sack of sleep.
In a general sense this is what always happens with feelings. If you honor them and feel them they break into mist and wisp away. If you try to avoid them or logic yourself or another out of them they stick like glue.
Someone close to me is struggling with another loved one about feelings. Person A is really irritated by Person B's emotional story and all the attention getting behavior and the LAST THING she wants to do is find and offer empathy to Person B because she fears that the emotions will just get bigger and steal more of the show than ever before.
Isn't this a common scenario? I myself was bothered by Echo's feelings because I didn't want her to have them anymore, I just wanted her to fall asleep. So I tried logic ("you're completely safe honey", "morning will come quickly if you fall asleep") and fixes ("just close your eyes and think about things you like, like moving rocks at the river") and it didn't work. I didn't want to give her fears any attention because I didn't even want them around and certainly didn't want to make them any bigger by shining a spotlight on them.
I see parents every day that don't want their children's feelings to be there or get any bigger so they try methods of distraction, disdain, logic, and even tom foolery to get them out of the way. We think this might work because it feels more intuitive and regardless, we aren't willing to risk the consequences of stopping and really looking at what's going on.
But our bedtime example makes the perfect case for just going right to the heart of things. The last two nights, with my reassurances and avoidance, it took Echo an hour and a half to fall asleep. Tonight after going full-boar into the fear it took her ten minutes. And of course, like icing on the cake, our connection as she fell asleep was like a glowing ember, rich and honey-colored. Instead of putting her off until sleep overcame her, I walked with her right through her fear and into a better place. Emotionally I never left her side.
If you can get around your own fears, irritation, or concern and pause for a moment with another person - right in the middle of their "stuff", unexpectedly you make that stuff (fear, pain, worry) get smaller. It takes some time in the moment to explore with them, but it saves time in the long run because, as the feeling dissipates, there is nothing left to address.Try it.
p.s. The technique of delving right in and asking questions about an emotion's physical qualities etc. is a classic Life Coaching technique. The first time I experienced it was when I was pregnant and losing my shit. Nathan pulled it out of his coaching hat and helped me find some relief. You can schedule an appointment with him for your own dose.
p.p.s I want to be clear about one thing. Looking closely at an emotion, with empathy and a clinical microscope of sorts is not the same thing as "juicing up" the emotion, stepping into that emotion yourself, or agreeing. Doing any of the following actually does have the ability of making the emotion worse/bigger.
The difference would be:
"Tell me about that feeling. What's it like?"
Juicing up: "Oh man! You must be TERRIFIED! That's horrible! Let's think of all the SCARIEST things that happen at night!"
Stepping into: "Oh my god! Now you have ME freaked out! Let's hold each other because I am so scared now!"
Agreeing: "Oh yeah, I totally agree with you. Nighttime is the worst! You have every right to feel scared. You never know what is going to happen."