I have been thinking about family legacies of trauma (I’m working on a longer blog post about that) and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that when a family knows that the worst things can happen, hope can become a dangerous thing. Not every family that experiences trauma is like this, obviously, but it’s common because people want to be safe. If you’re too hopeful, you might take risks and you might fail.
I think about this when I hear parents dialing down their kids’ big plans.
“Don’t expect to hit a home run right away, kiddo.”
“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the lead.”
“Not everyone is going to get an award for this, you know.”
We don’t want our kids to be disappointed when they fail so we prepare them for failure.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” we say. But isn’t that what hope is for?
It’s true that we need our kids to be realistic but reality will do that for them. Telling them not to be excited doesn’t protect them from failure; it just adds an ugly sheen to the excited times before.
I get it, I do. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child’s dreams get dashed. Ugh. Like a dagger to your own heart, I know. Our urge to mitigate that possible disappointment comes from a loving place but it’s spoils the fun and dampens the spirit.
Imagine if we did this with other things like, “Sooner or later you’re going to take a swig of milk and realize it’s gone bad so I think you should just prepare yourself for sour milk every time you drink it. I think you should mistrust the anticipation you have that the milk will be good.”
(Substitute some other example if you are dairy-free. Like apples with bruises or when your salad has the lettuce core in it. Or when your pancakes have those bitter lumps of baking soda.)
Nobody wants to live their life expecting disappointment.
So why not be hopeful? Why not get excited? And then if things don’t work out, we can hug the heck out of each other. It’ll be OK.
If you don’t do this with your kids, you might do this with yourself. You might find yourself gearing up by tearing yourself down. Whose voice is in your ear telling you to be careful? Not to aim too high? Who’s telling you to dial down your dreaming?
And here is Mel Brooks singing Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst, because Mel Brooks can make everything funny including the Judaic legacy of trauma (oh boy does this ring familiar and not just because my dad does a killer Yiddish accent):
I’ve been thinking about middle school girls and I’ve been thinking about middle school boys and what a mess it all is to be 12 or 13 and trying to figure this whole thing out, this boy/girl thing and this masculinity/femininity thing. (My youngest just started middle school and the social life of middle schoolers has become the center of our dinner table conversation.) It’s not that those issues aren’t always pressing and aren’t always confusing but it seems like middle school is this outlandish, cartoonish landscape where the cultural expectations are out-sized and ridiculous. The discussion doesn’t stop in middle school but it becomes visible to parental eyes somewhere around there and sometimes it gets stuck there.
The middle school kids I know in my personal and professional life are doing their best to navigate who they are and who they want to be and the expectations of being grown, which are confusing. They are vulnerable, these kids, as they’re looking all around them trying to figure out how to manage gender roles and relationships, which means that media messages in particular hit them hard. Sometimes they make a mess of it. They think they are more sophisticated than they are. They think we can’t possibly understand.
Sometimes when I’m sitting with a young woman in my office who is really hurting I think about the drumbeat that ran in my own head at that age, “If a girl falls in the forest and there’s no one there to see, is she still pretty?”
In a culture that places tremendous value not just on looks but on sex appeal, getting sexual attention can seem both empowering and demoralizing. When I was about 13 I remember this one lipstick commercial where a woman gets out of the car and men are literally bowled over by her beauty. The valet opening her door falls down, the valet standing by the booth falls down and some random passing guy falls down because she is so beautiful and I wanted to be that beautiful, too.
My friend T and I would sometimes meet at the corner between our two houses. We lived in the suburbs but this particular corner was busy and when we’d meet there we noticed that sometimes guys would honk at us. That felt really good. The next best thing to men actually falling at our feet seemed like men compelled to honk and holler at us. We were socialized to think that a performative demonstration of our appeal was the only kind that mattered so no, a girl who falls alone in the forest would NOT be pretty but if there was a guy there to catch her and then to gaze lovestruck into her (perfectly made up) eyes then she would be.
We were not sophisticated enough to know (and no one had told us) that cat calling is attention but it’s not good or safe attention. I mean, random men who drive by and honk at girls (clearly) barely into their teens are not winners but we’d internalized the message that without male attention we didn’t actually exist. Not that this was necessarily the kind of male attention we wanted because in the commercial the super handsome bystander gets up and takes the woman’s hand and presumably falls in love and the guys who honked at us just kept driving, leering out the window as they passed.
We’d stand there and see how many honks we could get before one of us had to head home for dinner and the attention felt good but it also felt yucky so it was this mish-mash of feelings, which I hear from the kids in my office, too. This mish-mash of wanting to be pretty but wanting to be valued for ourselves, too, and feeling guilty and discouraged and defensive about it all.
I titled this post the way I did because I think we need to support girls in caring less about what boys think, sure, but I also think we need to humanize boys when we talk about them since I think often we set girls up with a “who cares what boys think!” message when the truth is, they may actually care what boys think. So then we need to start building expectations that help them understand that boys are people and what they’re thinking at that age is also generally a mess of insecurity and worry and longing.
I know there are boys out there who only want “one thing” but I don’t think that’s all boys or even most boys. I think the cultural narrative they’re getting is just as ugly and complicated and as hard to navigate as what girls are getting. And girls need to know that, that the rigid gender expectation are no good for anyone and that there are a lot of boys who feel trapped in hyper masculinity the way that girls feel trapped in hyper femininity. (See this.)
We can also normalize that want for attention that many girls have. If a girl came to my office and said, “I like to stand on the corner and see how many honks I can get” I’d want to acknowledge that need to feel seen before I start criticizing her behavior. I’m not gong to get anywhere if I lead with criticism so I start by saying I understand. Only when I know she trusts me are we going to be able to talk to her about being safe.
Because that’s the biggest concern here, right? How do we help our girls stay safe? How do we help them understand that wanting attention does not mean she has it coming to her if she ends up getting hurt?
We do this by letting her know that we understand her want to be attractive and to have that attractiveness acknowledged. Well meaning feminist moms sometimes come so hard with the “Looks don’t matter” message that we send that conversation underground, which is a lost opportunity to have a discussion that’s more complex and nuanced.
This is not an easy fix and for many women, it’s a lifelong process to unpack our relationship to the male gaze for many reasons both cultural and individual. No wonder then that so many of us struggle in how we talk to our daughters. My advice? Listen first, listen long, have patience and compassion. Adolescence is a tough time to be a kid but it’s also a tough time to be a parent so give yourself that same patience and compassion.
Want to talk further? Hit me up.
As a bonus, I couldn’t find the commercial I’m remembering but this one has the same gist.
Babies need loving, responsive adults to make them whole. This is best illustrated by watching the still face study, which was created by Ed Tronick, a developmental psychologist. This version is done with dads (a great reminder that it’s parents — not just moms – who matter to babies). (You can see a version with older kids here.)
When the baby becomes upset, that’s dysregulation. When parents tune back in, the babies are able to regulate. Babies (and toddlers and children) learn to regulate on their own over time but only with our help.
Now before you start feeling bad about the times you’re on your phone or reading a book or cooking a dinner and your baby is melting down, the important thing is the reconnection. You step away, you come back. They fall apart, you help them come back together. Some frustration is fine because in that frustration are important lessons about trust. Dad comes back. Mom returns. You are not alone. (The second video I linked explains this more.)
Eventually baby’s tolerance increases. As children get older they need less reflection from us and they are able to carry that sense of being seen within themselves. But there will be times when they will need our help even when they’re great big kids. After all, we adults sometimes need someone to hold our hands, too, so we won’t fall to pieces.
“There’s no such thing as an infant,” wrote D. W. Winnicott, famed British child psychiatrist. “If you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for a baby.”
A baby alone is a baby unfinished.
Now imagine what happens if a baby lives alone in dysregulation for a long time or very often. Imagine if a baby does not have someone to complete them. This is what happens to children who are neglected or institutionalized. They don’t learn to self regulate; they’ve never been given the tools to do it. As you can see from the video, some babies shut down and others fall apart. This is where they will go as they get older even if they have help later. Those early experiences leave deep impressions on young hearts and minds.
Now think of yourself. Some adults watch the still face videos and they have a visceral reaction. Tears come to their eyes. They become upset for the seemingly abandoned infant. Perhaps it reminds us of being left to our own dysregulation too often. Perhaps it reminds us of early experiences of fear and loneliness.
Parenting our children can bring up some of these deep seated losses. Sometimes giving to our children what we didn’t have is healing and sometimes it can bring us grief we don’t understand and don’t know how to manage.
So what do we need then? Where can we find connection to regulate? Perhaps it’s from our partner. Perhaps it’s through meditation to connect us to our feelings so we can attend to them. And perhaps it’s in the office of a trusted counselor.
Parenting is often joyous, rewarding, fulfilling and fun. Parenting is also often lousy, frustrating and draining.
This is because parenting is a relationship and relationships are both wonderful and hard. And it’s also because the parent/child dynamic is full of complications and expectations that are hard to manage on a good day let alone on the day when you forgot to set your alarm and it’s raining and your kid announces (just as you get everyone hustled into the car to rush them late to school) that they need to have $2.75 for the field trip on Thursday.
It doesn’t feel good to doubt that your child is ever going to grow into a responsible person.
It doesn’t feel good to hear them whine about the rain or the money or about being late.
It doesn’t feel good for your last conversation of the morning to be one full of yelling.
I know that. I know you want to do better. I know you want your kids to do better. But it doesn’t mean that you’re doing a bad job of parenting.
Unfortunately we can’t actually look at our kids for proof that we’re doing a good job; they don’t always show what great jobs we’re doing with stellar behavior and cheerful dispositions. We never get to say, “Boy, I nailed that situation so I’m gonna rest on my laurels for the rest of the week!” because there’s always another situation coming down the pike that demands brand new attention and resources.
We can’t even say to ourselves, “At least they’re happy” when they’re decidedly unhappy due to all the yelling going on at school drop off that morning.
To survive parenting with our heart and souls intact, we have to be Big Picture thinkers.
Let’s use taking out the trash as an example. Many of us want our kids to take on this necessary and important job. That’s good parenting, having reasonable chore expectations and holding your child to those expectations. But by doing that, we might have to be subjected to a stomping, snarling, grouch of a kid who’s arguing with us about the injustice represented by forced garbage emptying.
If this is such great parenting, why does it feel so lousy?
Are we raising spoiled kids? Unreasonable kids?
Are we unreasonable parents? Unfair parents?
The answer is neither. This is what it looks like, this good parenting. Sometimes it looks ugly and sometimes it doesn’t feel good.
This doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
You and your child are going to have conflicts because that’s the nature of being two different people who live together. In your Big Picture parenting where you’re building on your values of teamwork and responsibility and kindness and compassion you’re going to knock heads with each other.
Think about it: You’re trying to raise up people who will understand that garbage cans need to be emptied; and that we all have to do jobs we don’t like for the good of the whole. That’s what you’re trying to do. They on the other hand are trying to do other stuff like finish this one level on a video game or win this argument with their sibling or see how long they can ignore you before you’ll give up and leave them alone.
They’re also trying to grow up, with all that entails. (Just like we’re also trying to pay the mortgage and get dinner on the table.)
See, they don’t value trash removal yet so you’re trying to get buy-in from someone who simply doesn’t share your point of view about this particular job. No wonder they’re grouchy about it.
So that’s one thing, which is that if you’re going to be focused on growing those people — turning “who cares about the trash” people into “I care about the trash” people — then you’ll need to accept that it’s not always going to be pretty.
Here’s how you know if the feeling bad thing is really and truly a problem:
- If you chronically feel bad about your parenting or feel bad way more often than you feel good then it’s time to check in with someone.
- If you start to avoid promoting your Big Picture values because you can’t stand the inevitable conflict. Long term, this is just going to lead to more frustration and unhappiness on your part.
- If you feel you’ve lost your way and aren’t sure what your Big Picture values even are. If you don’t have a vision for what you want for yourself or your family or your individual child, it’s time to get some perspective.
In any of those cases, I’d say it’s a good sign that some supportive, understanding, clarifying counseling is in order.
One of my hardest parenting lessons happened when my son was about a year and a half. Seemingly overnight, my lovely little blue-eyed baby turned into a tiny hissing grouch monster with flailing feet and fists. He went from generally amenable around transitions to someone I had to carry kicking and screaming from grandma’s house, the resale shop and various restaurants. From a cuddly person who always wanted to be carried in the sling he became someone who insisted on walking “by self!” and when expected to hand-hold in a parking lot became a wailing dead weight.
Dinner time, nap time, go downstairs time, greet daddy at the door time, put on shoes time, change diaper time — they were all opportunities for him to lose his dang mind (and for me to lose mine).
It was awful.
It was me, I knew it was me. I was the worst mother ever. My experience working with other people’s kids, it felt useless. I remember crying in the passenger seat of our car while my husband drove us away from yet another public tantrum saying, “I don’t know what I’ve done! I think I broke him!” And I had a list a mile long of every little thing I might have done wrong.
And then this wonderful thing happened, which was an old friend from my job at the shelter called me because her daughter (exactly one month older than my son) was doing the same exact thing and she wanted my advice. Which was hilarious of course because I had no idea how to fix any of it. But as we talked (and cried and eventually laughed) we both realized, oh, this is toddlers. This is a toddler thing. Here we were trying to raise babies — using all those mad baby raising skills we’d perfected — and they’d turned into toddlers so that baby stuff didn’t work anymore.
This taught me several things:
- Talking to other mothers, the ones you can really get real with, can save your life.
- All the theory in the world — all the advice and technique — is no match for the emotional work of parenting. It’s one thing to understand why toddlers tantrum but it’s a whole different thing to learn how to deal with the emotional reality of parenting a tantrumming toddler.
- Kids outgrow everything including your tried and true parenting techniques.
That last one, that’s really the point I want to make today. Kids outgrow everything — clothes and car seats and parenting tools. So we know how to do things, we know how to handle our kids and then one day we realize that we don’t. It’s a terrible feeling especially because we don’t figure out that things don’t work anymore until, well, until they stop working. Which means that usually we need to fail in some way to realize we need to change up our game.
You know what it’s like? It’s like when you reach into the diaper bag at library story time for that extra pants for inevitable diaper blow outs and realize you’ve only got a summer sunsuit for a three-month old and nothing to fit the robust nine-month old in front of you on this crisp winter morning. You thought you were prepared — and you absolutely were prepared when you packed that diaper bag six or seven months ago — but time got away from you.
They outgrow stuff. We aren’t always ready for it.
Failing is no fun, especially when it comes to our kids, which is why I think we need to reframe the idea that it is a failure. Maybe that’s just what parenting looks like. Maybe it’s a lot messier than we thought and maybe we, as parents, need to know that sometimes (often) we’re going to be learning on the run. So my son completely flipping out over everything was his way of saying, “Yo, this isn’t working for me” and not a condemnation of every single thing that came before. All those things I was doing that felt like mistakes? They weren’t mistakes; they were just outdated. It worked until it didn’t, which is just how it’s going to be.
As parents, we will make decisions that we may eventually regret but that doesn’t mean they were the wrong decisions. We can only respond to what we know right then and there at the moment we’re making them. Later on down the line as things change — ourselves, our kids, our circumstances — we will be responding to new things and we will make new decisions.
With my son, one of the big decisions I made was to adjust my expectations. Once I realized that he was being a pretty typical toddler, I relaxed a whole lot. I planned for him to balk at transitions, I honed my transitioning techniques, and I made the rest of his life more toddler-friendly (a big thing for my son was that he was ready for new activities; I hadn’t realized that he was bored). And the next time we hit a breaking point, I recognized it for what it was — a time for me to stop and reassess, not proof that I was doing it all wrong.
Oh and then my daughter? Whole new thing, whole new path, whole new challenges. Because there is no such thing as figuring this out, the end. It’s always process and progress and a big old mess of love and struggle (thus the Mr. Rogers quote up there).
I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time and that’s pull out some comments for the next post because it got me thinking and I appreciate that Cynthia is giving me the opportunity to do this. On my last post Cynthia, who is also a therapist here in town, wrote:
I have to admit I find this discussion difficult, and that I have a bias after reading Alice Miller’s books (For Your Own Good, etc.). I think there’s a level beyond political correctness where we have to start to acknowledge what we know about the nervous system responses to certain kinds of treatment, and do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence.
Alice Miller, if you haven’t read her, is a German psychoanalyst who looks at the ways trauma and abuse are perpetuated across generations. Her books are dense but very good and I sometimes recommend them to clients who are working to figure out the impact their own childhood is having on their lives. I’ll also add that Cynthia is a therapist who specializes in trauma work and it makes sense that she would look at my last post through this lens. But for my purposes, doing this is problematic and I wanted to explain why.
Generally speaking, people come to therapy because there’s something that isn’t working in their lives. The very act of making an appointment with a therapist is a request for change and a statement of some level of willingness to explore the possibility of doing the hard work of changing. This is where we begin together, a vulnerable parent who is sad or anxious or angry and me, the person who ostensibly has the answers for them. But I believe that one of the problems for parents is all of the experts (official ones like whoever is writing the latest book and unofficial ones like whoever is standing behind you in the checkout lane criticizing your parenting) and so I want to help the parent locate their own inner expert, which means we are actually going to start with the assumption that the parent has the answers but hasn’t figured out how to tap into them. The stuff I know is about kids and parenting in general but what you know is the specificity of you and your child, which takes precedence as we chart our way.
Nearly twenty years ago, as a new parent myself I found my philosophical home in a very particular local mom’s meeting, which was a radical attachment parenting type meeting. I had one baby and I loved him to distraction and everyone kept telling me to put him down only I didn’t want to put him down. I was trying to figure out who I was as a mother and I was trying to do it — like we all try to do it — against a background of other people telling me what kind of mother I ought to be. Going to that meeting gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do anyway and when I got criticism I had answers to it because of what I was learning there. That meeting shaped my identity as a parent in many, many good ways (and, I’ll add, my identity as a therapist).
But I remember other mothers who came to that same meeting and didn’t find answers and freedom; they found rigidity and judgment. The motherhood identity they wanted to craft didn’t align with the culture of that community. That group took a hard-line “baby comes first,” which is not flexible enough for the reality of mothering for most of us. (You’ll note, too, that my language here has shifted to mothers because it is inevitably mothers who are taking the hit on child-first parenting.) For me, my values aligned enough with the group’s values that I could make the necessary shifts to write my narrative without losing access to my village but for other women, the village began to feel more like a prison.
Back to my clients, many of whom come from the same rigid parenting community that I came from. I know this community well because I’ve been living there for going on two decades and I know how hard we are on ourselves and on each other. I know that Cynthia’s well-intentioned plea that we “do our best to help ourselves and each other notice our patterns of response and disowned feelings so we can stop perpetuating violence” is exactly the kind of language we use in our community when we’re talking about parenting but I also know that it’s this kind of language that is hurting us.
I’m going to take crying it out to talk about it because that’s what my original post was about. The word “violence” is the kind of word the gentle parenting community might use when we’re talking about sleep training. But using words like “violence” stops the conversation cold. After all, there is no excuse for violence against a child so the exhausted mother is left without recourse. There is no flexibility, no nuance in the conversation when we equate actual child abuse with sleep training.
Sleep and the lack thereof is strongly correlated with mental health and so helping families how to manage night-time parenting is a huge — HUGE — part of the work I do with postpartum mothers. For most of us, sleep is terribly fraught, tied up with her own feelings of abandonment and fear and revisited again and again throughout the first few years. Sleep training is not the right answer for every family but sometimes it is and we cannot know that if we can’t even have the conversation.
(I’ll add that I don’t think Cynthia is equating sleep training to violence because I think she’s talking about a broader need to be willing to speak out against certain kinds of truly violent parenting and to be willing to think critically about our choices. I agree with this. However the parents I see in my office, they’re all too critical of themselves already and the violence they are perpetuating tends to be against themselves. Which is to say, while Cynthia is pointing to a necessary conversation we need to have culturally, my post is directed to the parent who is likely already having it.)
As I said in my comment to Cynthia, my blog post (all of them actually) is targeted to the ordinary good enough parent, which is the vast majority of us. I am starting with the assumption that if you’re reading my blog or contacting me for services then you are an ordinary good enough parent. I’m going to assume that you are doing a lot of things right. I’m going to believe that you know what’s best for your family only you might not know it yet or you may not be clear how to get there. Of course if I see you doing harm — real harm — to yourself or your child then of course I’m going to tell you (and as a mandated reporter, if I see instances of abuse I will tell you but I will also tell the authorities) but I’m not going to start from the assumption that that’s where you are because most of us are NOT. Most of us, as I said, are ordinary good enough parents and all of us need and deserve respectful support as we make our way.