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The lies of suffering

parent sufferingIf you are unhappy then it’s time for something to change. Physical pain exists to keep us safe. It says, “Stop running on your broken leg! Take care of that scrape right this minute!”

It’s how emotional pain works, too. Emotional pain reminds us to take care.

I guess it’s our cultural Protestant work ethic that makes us forget this. So many of us take pride in our suffering:

  • I work 70 hours a week, never take a day off. It’s just what the job demands.
  • I haven’t slept through the night since my oldest was born. It’s been twelve years now.
  • No, no, I don’t mind. You go ahead and go to the movies while I stay home and clean up after the party.

It’s one thing if you’re truly happy — if you love your job, if you’re one of those rare people who only need a few hours of sleep, if you’d rather vacuum than go see the latest blockbuster. I mean, I’m not all that invested in telling people that there’s only one way to live a happy life. But so many of us are not happy with the way things are and we ignore it because we believe the lies of suffering.

You know, the lies that say:

  • Your value is in your paycheck.
  • Your kids are more important than you are.
  • You don’t get to enjoy things until you’ve earned them with your blood, sweat and tears.

Suffering, sad to say, is inevitable so why are we so bent on creating even more of it for ourselves?

Because I work so often with parents that’s where I see those lies crop up the most. I see moms and dads who put their own needs aside for so long that they don’t know how to pick them back up again. I know how it is; our children’s abilities creep up on us so sometimes we’re making them breakfast long after they could learn to pour their own cereal.

And you know what? That’s fine if we don’t mind pouring cereal and if we find other ways for them to stretch themselves a little bit. Again, I’m not saying that there’s a cut off point that you have to meet or everyone’s done for. But if you’re resentful, if you’re unhappy, if you want to be able to drink a cup of coffee before you fry up an egg, then it might be time to figure out how you can do that.

Unhappiness is the key that something should change. That’s how you know.

Parenthood should not relegate your needs to the trash heap. Yes, you’ll need to make allowances but that doesn’t mean 18+ years of purgatory.

So how do you do it?

  1. Surround yourself with people who get you and your values and who aren’t going to try to talk you into doing things any particular way. Whether you’re going to breastfeed into the preschool years or wean them at a few months, you get to decide because you’re the boss. It’s ok either way.
  2. By the same token, protect yourself from people who don’t get you and your values and who are going to try to talk you into doing things a particular way. In other words, you do not need to confess your struggles to your judgmental neighbor just because she asked.
  3. Get some good, basic books on child development and understand what your child is capable of doing so you can make informed decisions. Understand, too, that your child is a unique being and you are a unique parent; those books are guides, not infallible tomes. Remember, you’re the boss.
  4. Remind yourself that growing kids is a process. You can try something and then change your mind if it’s not working so don’t be afraid to just try it. It really is all right to make mistakes. So you push them a little too early, well, then you can pull back. But you might find out that they’re ready for a push. So if you’re ready you can give it a try just in case.
  5. Remember that you are your child’s model for self-care and self-love. Do you want your son or daughter to neglect themselves for the sake of their families?
  6. If you decide you want therapeutic help, call the counselor and interview her. Does she have strong feelings about co-sleeping? Veganism? Boarding school? Whatever it is, make sure she’s going to be able to hear you and support you and not get mired in her own biases.

Parenting is already plenty hard; there’s no need to make it harder.

Needing context

kids-insideThere’s a lot I don’t know and knowing what I don’t know is a big piece of being a good counselor. One of the most important things I do know is that I can’t make sense of anything without context.

Because I work with kids and parents, people sometimes assume I must have hard and fast rules about what makes for good parenting but hard and fast rules only work on paper. In real life, we make decisions in the context of our histories and our current experiences. We are making big, well thought out decisions and we are making quick, on-the-fly decisions. Those decisions never happen in a vacuum so when people say, “Is this a problem? Is that a problem?” I have to say, “I don’t know. Tell me more.”

Before I meet with a child for the first time, I meet with her parents. We talk about what’s going on and we talk about what the parents have tried already. We talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Parents are sometimes apologetic or defensive when they share one parenting choice or another because parents (unfortunately) are used to being judged. But I don’t judge parents. My job is to understand them and understand their goals and to understand their children so that I can help them live out those goals and to support their children.

Let’s take spanking for a very heated, very emotional example. I know great parents who spank and I know terrible parents who don’t. I can’t really tell anything about a parent or about their child or about their struggle when I hear, “I spank my kids.” It’s just a single choice in a sea of choices so when I hear a parent say, “I spank my kids” I want to know more about that. Why? Is it a knee-jerk reaction? A considered decision? Under what circumstances? What is the child’s reaction? What is the parent’s reaction?

This is how I approach all of those hot button issues: co-sleeping or crying it out, homeschooling or not, time outs or non-coercive parenting. I want to know what these decisions mean in the context of that family. How did those decisions happen? How do those decisions support or undermine the family’s goals? Do the parents feel their choices are working for their children? For themselves? Is it time to consider new options?

When I make recommendations, I make them in front of a background of what the research says, what I know from personal experience and from talking to lots (and lots) of families and — most importantly — I do with respect for the child and family in front of me. I may push parents to reconsider some of their previous choices but I will do it with respect for the values that drive those choices.

Dual Relationships in Therapy

networking-insideThere’s this thing in counseling relationships where you can’t have two roles with a client.

For example, I can’t be your therapist and your friend. Or I can’t have you as a client and use your house sitting services. Or I can’t be your child’s therapist and your therapist. The reason for this is that when we have dual relationships with clients, we run the risk of creating conflicts of interest. The therapist/friend one is obvious, right? And the client/house sitter thing doesn’t work because what happens if I’m supporting you to become more assertive and then you come to me for a raise that I don’t want to give?

The roles in the therapy relationship — being your child’s therapist and not being yours — are more complicated. It’s one thing to support you to be the best parent you can be and to help you confront any issues that come up in that context but it’s another thing to, say, address your issues of trauma and do sand play with your kid. This is because when you are being someone’s therapist you are also being their advocate. If I were seeing you as an individual and your child as an individual, what happens when my advocacy for your child runs up against my advocacy for you? Whose needs take precedence? Let’s say a parent discloses that she’s thinking of moving to Boca Rotan and wants to use me as a sounding board to talk about her career options but I’m already seeing her child who has severe separation anxiety. Can I honestly help her assess her choices if my first concern is that her child’s life not be too disrupted? No, far better for her to talk to me about the impact those decisions might have on her child and to find another therapist to help her figure out the bigger picture.

This is why sometimes I’ll encourage my clients to seek the support of another therapist. This is why I can see an individual and include her partner in sessions but I cannot go from being her therapist to being their therapist. In the first case (including the partner in her individual therapy), my advocacy is always with her. In the second case (going from her therapist to their therapist), the established relationship I have with the client would set me up to have some pretty heavy bias when it comes to understanding her partner’s experience.

It’s confusing for people, I know, but the structure is there to protect the client first and foremost.

Blog for Choice 2013

Blog for Choice 2013A couple of years ago I was walking with an acquaintance and she mentioned a speaker she was hoping to see later that day at a pro-life rally.

“Wouldn’t you be thrilled to see her?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “I’m pro-choice so even though I value the right of people to disagree with me, I wouldn’t be comfortable at an anti-choice rally.”

My friend said she was surprised to hear this since I’m an adoptive parent. Then she said, “So you wouldn’t be able to counsel a woman who wanted to keep her baby just like I couldn’t work with a woman who wanted to have an abortion.” I explained that pro-choice means exactly the opposite. Pro-choice means what it says: Pro-CHOICE. Of course I commend any woman who chooses to continue a pregnancy because I recognize the validity of her choice. I celebrate when any woman freely makes the decision that is right for her; that’s what reproductive justice is all about.

Being a pro-choice therapist is at the core of my counseling philosophy. Without this central tenet I wouldn’t be able to work with my clients whose thoughts, feelings, spiritual beliefs, cultural backgrounds and experiences vary so widely. I don’t want my clients to live out my ideas about what a good life looks like; I want them to live the lives that they are meant to live and this means empowering them, helping them get solid information about their options, and trusting their decisions.

This is especially important when we’re discussing counseling about family building. Issues of choice go beyond helping a woman consider her options during a crisis pregnancy. Choice is part of decision-making in fertility treatments, family planning, and birth options. Choice is about honoring every woman’s ability to know herself best and to make her own good decisions. Choice is about offering her loving, respectful support whether or not her decision looks like anyone else’s.

Choice also speaks to my commitment to hear individual women’s experiences and to give space for joy and grief and for ambivalence. Family planning, pregnancy, fertility — these are complex, deeply personal issues and our feelings reflect that complexity. Our feelings may change over time. We need space to grow and to bring that growth to our understanding of the paths we’ve taken over the course of our lives.

I support you. I support your right to decide. I am invested in protecting your right to accept or reject any option. I honor your decision-making. I trust you. I am pro-choice.

I’ve written this post in honor of NARAL’s Blog for Choice Day 2013.


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