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Balance is a verb

balance is a verb

Balance isn’t a goal; it’s a practice. We tend to think of balance as something we achieve but balance, by its very nature, is temporary. We are constantly shifting the weight of our attention to accommodate change.

Imagine you’re the woman on the tightrope in the illustration above (and we all are the woman on the tightrope), you’re stepping out carefully, your arms flung out as you teeter this way and that. You shift your weight to maintain equilibrium. Even if you choose to stand still you have to contend with air currents that may catch you off guard, sudden gusts of wind that upset your temporary stillness. You are not in a state of balance, a place to stay at rest; you are balancing.

When we can accept balance as a practice then it’s much easier to accept that there will be times when we have to shift our attention. Sometimes you’ll have a great exercise routine going and then you’ll have an injury or a schedule change or the gym will close. Or you’ll finally figure out how to get your family fed more or less happily and someone will develop an allergy or start soccer or you’ll just burn out on cooking the same things all the time.

There will be times when one part of your life will demand more attention and these attention-grabbing events (new babies, new jobs, new relationships) will create disequilibrium; that’s the nature of those big events. You may temporarily lose sight of the other things that are important to you. When this happens, you may suddenly realize you’re on a tightrope that’s 50 feet above the ground and you may feel afraid.

It’s ok. Take a deep breath. You know how to do this.

Remember, the trick to balancing on a tightrope is to hunker down and lower your center of gravity. You will need to fold in for a bit and concentrate on your core. You will need to let some things go for a little while.

But you will get your footing again. You will be able to stand tall and begin shuffling forward, tilting this way and that, figuring out how to walk this tightrope of life with the new weight of those changes.

This is life. This is the nature of balancing. Because balance is a verb.

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.

Empathetic parenthood

"We have all been children and have hadWhen I was teaching parenting classes in Portland nearly two decades ago I had one parent in the class who was there because she’d been mandated by child protective services. I don’t know the whole story but I knew that she didn’t want to be there. She made it clear that she resented having to sit there listening to a youngster many years her junior (me) who didn’t even have any kids yet.

I can’t say that I blamed her.

Fortunately the other parents in the class were there to help her process the information in a loving, respectful way that she could hear.

At one point we were talking about how children have their own experiences in the day beyond what we might witness. I don’t know how she got the message — I think another parent was telling a story about her child in school — but she burst into tears and said, “I had no idea, I had no idea. I never thought that maybe she could have her own bad day or be in her own bad mood.”

It was such a powerful moment.

From that point of the class on she was able to talk about her children’s experiences with compassion and empathy. The class was not easy for her — she was away from her kids and she was confronting a lot of things she wished she’d done differently — but I hope that what she learned there she was able to bring back to her relationships with her children.

It can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be small or even smallish. It’s especially hard to do if we weren’t allowed the full scope of our feelings. If we were treated harshly, we may have stuffed some feelings down so deep that we don’t know how to remember what it’s like to be scared or sad or to feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the big wide world and our small place in it. If we have that extra challenge then we can practice imagining. We can picture what it must be like to worry that we will suffocate if we fall asleep with a stuffy nose. Or to not have the experience to know that one lost book report won’t derail our scholastic dreams.

When we remember or can imagine what it feels like to be a child, it’s easier to know how to react with the firm and loving support that our children need.

What I’ve learned in a decade of parenting

morningbeach-insideThis post originally appeared on my old this woman’s work personal blog. I’m adding it to the site because I saw some people clicking an old link to it on a parenting forum and getting the 404 message that it was missing. I’ve now been parenting for more than one and a half decades and my toddler is now a tween, my tween is now a teen. Basically the message I have is the same: It’s OK. You’re doing OK. Go easy on yourself.

Since my kids are so far apart in age (seven years) I find myself with a whole new cohort of parenting peers. Instead of moving on to parenting a school-ager while having a preschooler like most spaced-sibling families, I’ve got a school-ager and a toddler. Unless my friends have more than two kids (kinda rare), I’m hanging with a new set of people at baby gym class, etc.

In my daughter’s rec center classes, most of the parents have kids that are younger than my oldest (not all but most) and for many of them, the toddler tumbling around is their oldest and so they are fairly new parents. Listening to them really brings it all back to me — the worry, the fretting, the rigidity, the belief that there’s one way to get it right. I remember. But in ten years of parenting and watching my friends parent their kids, I realize that all the things that used to get us worked up just aren’t as important as we thought they were. I hear them discussing the things we discussed with the same earnest conviction and it makes me … tired. I don’t want to live those debates again and I also no longer care whether or not people I like are doing things the way that I think they ought to be done. (In other words, when a woman leans across the child in her lap to speak urgently about the dangers of television I neither feel defensive nor passionate in agreement. I simply don’t care about anyone else’s television choices and I don’t care what they think about mine.)

I also have found (horrors!) that I am very much one of those women who tries not to say, “Wait and see” when someone is telling me that their child will never play computer games/eat fast food/own a Barbie. I try not to be but I can’t help it. (Never say never should be the theme song to parenthood.) I can’t help but raise an eyebrow when a passionate new parent swears s/he will never send their child to school or let them eat refined sugar. Or when they lecture another parent (as I was so happy to lecture) about the proper way to get a child to sleep through the night or learn to pick up his toys.

I hate to say it, but parenting the baby/toddler/preschooler? It’s easy. Well, easier. Why? Because their domain is so totally in your control. Yes, it’s exhausting and physically tedious and certainly a huge challenge but they get bigger and not only do they become more themselves (and less amenable) but also the rest of the world intervenes and suddenly you’re not dealing just with your inlaws, who totally don’t get this whole no refined sugar thing you’ve got going on, but with the birthday parties of friends or the Bratz fad that’s infiltrating the neighborhood. (Note from Dawn of the future. Bratz have fallen by the wayside. It’s all about Monster High these days.) I mean, when they’re preschoolers, you can keep them ignorant or else you can just come down hard and fast. Preschoolers mostly listen because what do they know? But bigger kids? They’ve got opinions and sometimes their opinions are absolutely at odds with yours.

Then there’s this other thing — people with a good kid think they’ve got the key to good parenting. I know this because I thought it myself. My oldest is a pretty good listening kid, a kid who wants to please his parents and who craves structure and I thought that was our superior parenting but the truth is, it’s him. He had and has his challenges — not sleeping through the night for the first 3.5 years, an inability to process change well or easily, a tendency to the dramatics — but he’s a pretty easy kid. We’ve parented our youngest exactly the same (mostly) and she’s a fireball of loophole seeking and arguments (but also slept through the night much earlier — go figure). We never had to childproof with him because one stern shake of the head and he’d immediately back off from whatever it was that held potential danger but our youngest has gone out of her way to find the most deadly things in our house and try ’em on for size. A “no” to her is simply a sign to wait until her parent’s back is turned and then try harder.

I love new parents. I love their shell-shocked pride and out-sized concern. I love their myopic devotion. I so remember how important every decision felt. Me and my friends, we were such intense devotees of motherhood. Oh the debates about flaxseed oil! About kindergarten curriculum! About toothbrushing and fluoride and non-punitive discipline! Oh the discussions about the right way to give compliments and the proper way to put a child to bed! And as it turns out? The choices are less important than the values that drive them. When they’re ten, no one can know that you used sun-bleached organic diapers or disposable. You can’t even tell the breastfed babies from the ones who got bottles. The homebirthed babies who ate nothing but organic for their first years are standing by the soda machine jingling their change. The daughters of feminists are putting on lipgloss; the baby boys who nursed their trucks are wrestling on the gym mat. It’s not that our choices have no impact, it’s just that the impact isn’t always what we expect.

I say this not to be discouraging but to be reassuring. It’s OK to let go of some rigidity — your good kids will be good kids even if you “slip” and let them eat jarred baby food instead of painstakingly steaming that organic potato before you run it through the food grinder. It’s the big picture stuff that matters, not so much the tiny decisions that we fret about. I’m just not all that convinced that baby signs or Ferberizing or infant toilet training are going to matter all that much by the time our kids hit their twenties. It’s more about why we do those things.

So I guess I’d say that in ten years of parenting I’ve learned that you do the things you need to do to get through the day with love and hopefully some laughter, you trust your kids (and yourself), and you let yourself have fun along the way.

Should the therapist share your experience?

handshearts-insideI used to teach parenting classes for the Oregon State University Extension Services, which was tricky because I wasn’t yet a parent. This wasn’t something I disclosed to the class attendees (unless they asked) but the second time around I was pregnant when I taught the class and most of them asked me if I had any other kids at home.

Naturally these parents got a little tetchy when they found out that I didn’t. Who was I to think I could teach them anything about parenting? But the great thing about the curriculum I taught is that the focus was on their families and their values and not on trying to be a parent in one particular “right” way so it didn’t really matter that I didn’t know how to be a parent. The premise was that they knew but needed help figuring out what they knew. My expertise was in child development and their expertise was in their families and together we had a terrific class.

This is how I look at therapy, too. I don’t think it’s necessary that your therapist have the same background that you do as long as she has empathy and trusts you in your experience. I do not think that only a gay therapist can counsel a gay client or that only an abuse survivor can counsel another abuse survivor and I don’t think that only a parent can counsel another parent.

That said, there certainly can be some advantages to seeing a counselor who shares your experience. We all know how easy it is to be a good parent before you have kids and so a counselor who’s experienced how hard it is to raise children might have more realistic expectations for her clients. As Kim at Kim’s Counseling Corner says, “Pre-motherhood, I had all kinds of homework for parents, such as charting 5 different aspects of a behavior during the week (when, where, why, your response, their response…sigh), completing daily exercises with their children, taking personal time out for an hour a day… can you imagine? I am much more cognizant of the daily demands of parenthood.” (Her whole list is interesting — as is her blog — so check it out!)

The flip-side to that is that some counselors may become so entrenched in their own experience that it’s hard to see their way out. A counselor may be so sure of her way of parenting that she has a hard time understanding your way. Or she may have unresolved issues from her own history that make it difficult for her to separate her own emotions and expectations from yours.

When I was a teen I saw a counselor who seemed to be as enamored with my high school boyfriend as I was, making it awfully difficult for me to extricate myself from an emotionally destructive relationship. I don’t know if he had frustrated fantasies of being a rock star but he sure was interested in my then-boyfriend’s nascent career in a hard core punk band. We spent more time talking about my awesomely cool boyfriend and not enough time talking about how I could get away from him.

Needless to say, that was not helpful.

So how do you know? Again, it comes back to your comfort level and your instinct. Do you feel heard? Understood? When your therapist makes wrong assumptions is she open to your correction? Does she spend too much time talking about herself and her experience? Does she give you room to feel differently than she does?

Your therapist should also be open to hearing about your concerns without getting defensive. Which means if you say something like, “I’m not sure if you can really get this since you’ve never had to come out to your parents.” She best not huff and puff and try to convince you that she knows plenty, thanks. Instead she should focus on your concerns about her understanding. Remember, your therapy is about you, not about placating your counselor’s ego.

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