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.
Last week there was a lot of noise about that crying it out study, which indicated that “graduated extinction” (which is different from simply leaving the baby to cry) isn’t harmful to infants. On my Facebook feed I heard (like many of you heard) a lot from both sides of the debate, decrying the study as too small to be useful or hailing it as the definitive answer from science. People ask me to weigh in on research like this because I’m a counselor who specializes in working with new parents but I’m not that interested in getting parents to do things some mythical right way to raise babies because there isn’t one.
When my son was a teensy-tiny infant I thought someone should invent a sim baby program so that I could make the most appropriate parenting decisions every single time. I could try virtually feeding him rice cereal as a first food and then hit restart to go back and try feeding him sweet potato to see which made him turn out best. Because even then — when the internet was fairly primitive and we all used Netscape — there was so much information out there and such strong opinions about every little thing. It’s not like my mom’s day where the parenting experts were limited to the people you actually knew and saw on a day-to-day basis (and maybe your dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock‘s book). Now there are a whole slew of people who have opinions on every little thing from first foods to sleep habits to how to tell your child that you like the painting they made in preschool (that is if you fall in the pro-preschool camp because oh boy are their opinions about that, too).
Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to raise your baby in any particular way. I want you to raise your baby your way. I don’t want my clients making decisions solely based on the headlines generated by researchers in South Australia; I want them to figure out how to tune into what they need and what their babies need and make decisions based on that. If the researchers in South Australia help inform those decisions — whether that’s helping parents feel good about sleep training or highlighting their own reservations about it — then great.
You and your baby are a unique dyad. You and your baby and your partner and the rest of your family, you are a complicated and distinct system. However you choose to handle sleep with your baby, it’s only one of many decisions you’ll be making over the course of your parenting career. Those decisions are opportunities for you to build your family culture based on your values, wants and wishes for your child. They are opportunities for you to explore and respond to your child’s individual temperament and learn more about the person they will eventually become. And they are opportunities for you to begin to understand who you are as a parent.
There are definitely absolutes about parenting like your babies should always be in car seats and they need to be fed (how you feed them is up to you). But studies like this, while useful and important, cannot take into account the whole colorful array of personalities and practicalities that make up each family.
If you were to come to my office and say, “Should I let my baby cry it out?” I would want to know so much more like who are you? And who is your baby? And what is the context of your lives together? As frustrating as it might be, I would not give you an answer because I want to help my clients find their own answers, the answers they can stand behind and feel good about. I want them to gain the confidence they’ll need for the rest of the hard work of parenting — choosing a kindergarten and giving the sex talk and figuring out curfews. As the kids say, you do you (because trying to do somebody else will just make you unhappy).
Do I have strong opinions? I sure do. I have strong personal opinions about my own parenting choices. But as I say (often), there are lots of ways to be a great parent and to raise great kids. I don’t have a lock on the best way; I’ve just figured out what works for me and mine. For example, I believe my kids are best served by being force-fed a lot of show tunes and being lectured on the superiority of Sondheim over Webber. You will not convince me otherwise but I also promise not to visit that strong bias on you. You go ahead and listen to Phantom and I’ll just sit over here with my well-worn copy of Company.
So if you come to me for answers, I won’t give them to you but I promise you that I will help you find them for yourself.
I know that for a lot of people Mother’s Day is a super hard and generally awful day. I’d love to give you a list of ways to make it less awful but honestly, sometimes things are just bad. And I think it’s OK to just give in. It’s all right to give yourself permission to check out. That means not steeling yourself, not putting your chin up and suffering anyway, and maybe telling people some white lies so you don’t have to show up for things you want to avoid.
You’re not being selfish; you’re taking care of yourself.
I know sometimes we really want to be the bigger person and swallow our sadness and sometimes that’s the right thing to do but maybe this weekend it’s not. That’s all right.
If this year is not the year you’re going to be able to stuff your feelings then I hereby give you permission to do whatever it takes to get through Sunday in whatever self-nurturing, loving way you can. Please don’t punish yourself for needing a break.
So here is a list of ways not meant to make it less awful but to give you ideas you could be good to yourself — you deserve that:
- You can skip church if you want, to avoid those flowers they give out to mothers.
- And brunch? You don’t have to go to brunch.
- If there are mothers in your life who are expecting you to be part of their celebrations, you can call in sick and promise to take them out on another less fraught day.
- Or you can go but make plans to get out early. If you have a partner, have them help get you out. If you have a friend who can text you with an “emergency,” do that. Even better if you can meet them somewhere after for hugs and sympathy.
- Or you can go and bring along someone who will squeeze your hand when someone says something hurtful so you know you’re not alone. And who will listen to you vent after.
- You can spend the day crying if crying helps you feel better. <– (that links to the Free to Be You and Me song) Crying releases endorphins and relieves stress and it might help you sleep better. So don’t fight it if you don’t want to. Let that day be a sad day.
- Avoidance is OK, too. Denial as a regular coping mechanism might not be a long-term workable solution but if you need to spend Mother’s Day watching your favorite comedies or going for a long run or otherwise ignoring the celebration, by all means do it.
One of the best things we can do for our physical and mental health is get enough sleep but there are a lot of things (jobs, babies, must-see-TV) that get in the way of that. Happily for those of us who are hanging out online just before bed, there’s one tool to change the look on your monitor to more closely mimic the kind of light you would see if your computer was tuned in to the natural order of things. F.lux is a little piece of software that sits nicely on your menu bar (if you have a Mac) and very quietly and unobtrusively changes the level of blueness in the light your monitor is putting out.
The programmers have a whole page linking to research that explains why this works if you’re curious about it.
There’s also a version that works for your iPhone or iPad but unfortunately you’ll need to jailbreak your device to get it to work. That makes me a little nervous so I haven’t tried it.
I don’t really notice my monitor getting dark unless I’m working on something where I need to be paying attention to color. You’ll definitely want to steer clear of any graphic design after the sun’s gone down or you’ll end up with some unintended color schemes when it’s daytime again or you can simply switch F.lux off and work away.
F.lux is free for Mac OSX, Windows and Linux so check it out and see if it helps you settle into your evening more easily.
Did you know that dreaming is a little like defragmenting your brain?
I don’t have to defragment my computer anymore (does anyone? or is it just a Mac thing that my computer does it for me when I’m not looking?) but I used to like doing it because I liked watching everything get consolidated on the progress screen.
This is how my friend Mart explained computer defragmentation to me. I don’t know if this is his metaphor or not but it’s a good one.
Let’s say you wrote a 500 page paper. It takes up a tidy little space on your desk in your office, it’s all consolidated and in order and you can read through it quickly to find exactly the information that you need.
Now let’s say that you take those 500 pages and you head out to a football field. You toss all of the paper up into the air and the wind catches it and blows it all over the field. Now can you read it easily? Can you find the information you need quickly and easily?
When you defrag your hard drive, you re-consolidate all of the information so your computer runs more quickly and more smoothly.
I listened to this old show from Radiolab awhile back on Sleep and they describe dreaming a little bit like Mart described defragging your hard drive. At least that’s the way I heard it.
See, you only have so much room for memory in your brain and you are like a little PacMan during the day, eating up events and storing them in your head. At the end of the day you sleep and your brain defrags your brain to make room for the things you need. It discards little things (the name of your server at the restaurant you ate at that morning, the color of socks your co-worker was wearing) and consolidates the things you paid more attention to. The more attention you pay to something, the stronger the signal that this is something for your brain to hold onto.
Radiolab explains that this is why a musician can practice a song all day, trying to get it right, and then wake up the next morning and play it perfectly. It’s why sometimes you might go to bed at night fretting about a project you’re working on and wake up knowing exactly how to tackle it.
As our brain quietly re-organizes itself, it puts the pieces back together so that the thoughts that persevered through our day — through chit-chat with the server whose name you forgot, through your overview of your co-worker’s outfit right down to the socks — are finally reunited and you are better able to tackle the things that matter to you and that you’ve been working on and thinking on.
When you think of dreams this way they make more sense, too. It’s your dream mind rummaging through your day’s events — every little thing you did or said or thought — and rearranging them. No wonder your sixth-grade crush might show up sitting next to the canned ham you put aside for the food bank on the boat you’re thinking of renting for next year’s vacation.
Now isn’t that interesting? And see why you need to make sure you’re getting that all important REM sleep?