Kids outgrow everything

Kids outgrow things

Kids outgrow thingsOne 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:

  1. Talking to other mothers, the ones you can really get real with, can save your life.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

 

 

Balance is a verb

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.

When the news is overwhelming

when the news is overwhelming

when the news is overwhelmingWhen I brought my newborn baby son home from the hospital we had a broken TV; it took at least 30 minutes to warm up. I was sleeping out on the futon in the living room of our tiny one bedroom apartment and I was leaving the television on all night, muted, so that when the baby woke to be fed I could sit up to nurse him. I needed something to keep me awake because I was so afraid of falling asleep and dropping him.

There were two news stories that played over and over again all night on the one channel (no cable) that stayed on the air twenty-four hours. They were horrific and they had video attached. For several nights I’d wake up to these images, nurse to them, tuck my baby back to sleep.

I can still see those videos, they color my memories of my son’s first week of life. They were dreaded companions to me learning to be a mother, shaping my anxieties in particular ways.

There is bad news today. There is often bad news but some days it’s more present than others. If your Facebook feed looks like mine, there is a lot of anguish mixed in with the day-to-day updates. There’s a lot of well founded outrage and calls to action.

I am thinking of the parents today, who have had enough of bad news.

I’m thinking of the parents whose hearts are still brand new, who haven’t learned how to filter all the terrible things that are in the world (the special brand of denial that’s necessary to the day-to-day work of being a parent).

I’m thinking of the parents who have lost sons and daughters and who can’t stand to read about anyone forced to join their tribe.

I’m thinking of the parents whose hurts are echoed in the hurts they read about and see. The ones who live those hurts daily and who need space to heal from them.

There are times when we have the strength to march in unity and there are times when we need to step away and care for ourselves and our loved ones. Sometimes the news, it’s just too close to home. We cannot separate ourselves (or our children) from it. We need space to gather our resources, to breathe, to make a decision about how we will act.

It’s OK to turn off the news, to turn off Facebook.

Taking a break is not the same thing as running away.

Knowing your limits is not selfish.

My thoughts are with those of you who are hurting today.

#blacklivesmatter

Bounded Compassion with Family

Bounded Compassion with Family

Bounded Compassion with FamilyThe other day I talked to Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating and Body of Truth. She’s working on another book project about estrangement and reconciliation. Here was her call for participation on Facebook:

For my next book, I’m looking to talk with people who have been estranged from family members or are currently estranged. The book is about family estrangements and reconciliations. Please pass the word! Message me for more info.

(If you would like to be interviewed by her, you can contact her via her website.) It was timely for me because I’d been thinking about my last blog post in the context of support clients in setting compassionate boundaries with family, which is oh so much harder than setting them with friends.

We tend to give our family a lot more leeway because, well, because they’re family and we privilege those ties above all others. We have a lot of cultural stories about the importance of family: Family is where you’re supposed to find unconditional love and acceptance. Family is where you’re supposed to find people who know you best and love you anyway. Family is meant to be the people who are always rooting for you.

That’s the ideal but most of us have to make compromises in our expectations.

All of us need to grow up and step away from our families in practical ways (by moving out) and in emotional ways (by choosing our own values and goals). In healthy families this may be painful but it’s supported. Healthy families want you to be your best self — even when it doesn’t jive with their own idea of best self-ness. Healthy families may grumble about the things you do differently (“But we always have turkey on Thanksgiving!”) but will accept your choice anyway (“Oh well, pass the tofurkey. I’m game to try it!”).

In unhealthy families the adult child’s growth and move away from their family of origin is seen as threatening. If the adult child is serving toforkey, the threatened parent might project a whole lot of critical meaning on it. “Are you saying I’m an unhealthy cook?” “Are you saying you’re too good for your grandmother’s roast turkey recipe?” And because it’s family, it’s somehow OK to say that out loud. A parent who would never complain at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner table might think nothing of criticizing their adult child.

The adult child, who might have few issues with setting boundaries with such a rude friend, is stuck wondering what to do. They might start an argument. They might internalize the criticism and feel bad about themselves (“Maybe I am a big snob, maybe I am unreasonable, maybe my values are dumb”). They might avoid the discussion and be resigned to having a lousy Thanksgiving every year.

Many adult children twist themselves into knots to try to accommodate the dysfunctional parents’ demands and struggle with anxiety and depression as a result. It’s hard to love yourself when the person who’s supposed to love you best is so critical (or cruel).

When clients come to my office with dilemmas like this and ask me what to do, I say, “What do you want to do?” Because we can’t control how our family reacts to our decisions but we can control our decisions. The long hard work of healing from harsh parents starts with figuring out what we want separate from our unrealistic expectations. We can bring our best selves to our decision-making and then we can let go of the outcome.

Letting go of the outcome starts with confronting and grieving the ideal we’ve been hoping for. In the video below (go ahead and scroll down to watch if you have 15ish minutes), brother Phil has a wonderful, full and accomplished life away from his family. He’s an award-winning journalist with best-selling books and  big deal magazine covers but his family has nothing but criticism because his accomplishments separate him from them. Instead of celebrating with him they ignore him, tell him he doesn’t look good, and advise him to consider a career change. If Phil has been holding on to hope that winning the Nobel prize is finally going to get him the love and acceptance he craves, he’s going to leave the house feeling pretty low. But if he’s worked to recognize family patterns and realized that his family’s reaction is theirs, he may still grieve that his family is not supportive but he won’t internalize their negativity towards his accomplishments.

Instead of thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me that my mom doesn’t love me like I want her to?” He can think, “My mom is incapable of loving me the way I want her to, this is not my fault and I get to choose how much time I spend with her.”

Sometimes in our work together, when we start talking about families of origin like this, clients will feel like they’re betraying their parents or siblings by being critical so please understand that this is not about bad mouthing our relatives. I believe both that most of us are doing the absolutely best we can (compassion) and that good intentions don’t negate toxicity.

Our families may love us the only way they know how, but that doesn’t mean that we are required to ignore the hurt they cause us.

For some people setting boundaries means estrangement. It means visiting less or not visiting at all. It means Thanksgiving at the vegetarian co-op instead of with our family. It means making decisions designed to support your own needs instead of trying to do things to make other people happy.

 

 

Bounded Compassion

Bounded Compassion

Bounded Compassion

Today I drove my daughter to one of her summer camps and we were talking about friendships both general and specific and it got me thinking about having the same conversation with other middle school aged kids, which got me thinking about remarkably similar conversations I’m having with adults, too.

We encourage children to have boundless compassion for other people and in theory that’s a wonderful thing but in real life we’d be better served if we were raised to have bounded compassion, which is compassion with clear boundaries.

In our efforts to build empathy and understanding we may unintentionally teach kids to put aside their own needs even though empathy and understanding grow best when we are able to protect ourselves. After all, what’s compassion for others if we can’t hold it for ourselves?

bestbestfriendsMy daughter had a picture book that she loved when she was little. (She took the dust cover off and taped it to her door when she was five.) It’s called Best Best Friends. It’s about two little girls at daycare who are (you guessed it) best best friends. Then one day Mary is having a birthday and she gets a crown and she gets some preschool privileges and Claire is jealous. In her jealousy, Claire snaps at Mary and insults her (she tells her she doesn’t like pink, which is Mary’s favorite color). The two girls decide they are NOT friends and go play with other people.

Then after a restorative nap, Claire comes and apologizes and Mary shares her birthday spoils.

Mary appears to be a compassionate person but she’s no door mat. Claire crosses a line but when she’s able to make amends Mary is able to welcome her back. (If you scroll down, I’m including a video of someone reading the book.)

Mary doesn’t go away from Claire to teach her a lesson. She doesn’t put aside her own birthday happiness to attend to her friend’s jealousy. She moves on, she plays. She has a happy birthday anyway. She didn’t share before she was ready because she wasn’t ready. She’s a little kid, and already she’s mastered the ability to say, “I like you but I don’t like this so I’m setting my boundary.”

If we don’t get it in preschool (and let’s face it, even if we do get it in the rarefied protective air of an excellent early childhood environment, it takes repeated practice) we will need to learn that understanding someone doesn’t mean we have to excuse them. Because boundaries are not about the other person; they’re about the person setting them. In other words, boundaries are not about teaching someone a lesson or a passive aggressive way to communicate. Boundaries are about having compassion for our selves and tending to our own needs.

It’s understandable that a friend might act poorly because she’s jealous (or tired or having a hard time) and we can look at that friend with compassion and understanding but it doesn’t mean we have to share our birthday crown before we’re ready.

“But wait,” you say. “What if I’m just being a jerk? I mean, it’s a crown. What’s the big deal?”

That’s where it gets tricky, right? Because sometimes we are being jerks. Sometimes we aren’t sharing when we probably should. And that’s where we have to accept that the dance of friendship is a step forward and a step back, it’s a relationship we create with that other person.

And this is something else about this book. The girls go and play with other kids. Mary plays with Caitlin and Claire plays with Ben. Let’s say that the next day Caitlin wants to play with Mary again and Mary shuts her down because she’s got her best best friend back and she doesn’t need Caitlin anymore. Mary gets to do that and Caitlin gets to decide whether or not this is OK with her. She can condemn this behavior (fair weather friendships) and decide whether or not she wants to say yes the next time Mary and Claire have a fight and Mary wants to play again. Caitlin gets to decide how she feels about that behavior and how she wants to engage (or not) with it. Caitlin can understand why Mary only wants to play with her sometimes but she’s still the one who can choose whether or not that’s the kind of friendship she wants to have.

This is where we need help processing, trying to figure out in the murky friendships where we find ourselves having to stretch or contort to maintain the relationship. Is this really what we want? Is the trade-off worth it? It’s one thing to stretch a bit but it’s another thing to twist ourselves into knots of compassion.

We don’t really get to decide how other people behave or even how they treat us. We do get to decide how we feel about it and whether or not we’ll participate. We can absolutely hold someone in empathy and understanding and still maintain our boundaries. That’s bounded compassion — loving but firm, limitless in theory but limited in practice.