Inspiration from Orlando

pride heart

pride heartI heard this news story on the way to the All Adoption Meeting last night and waited in the parking lot of the Karl Road library to catch the end. It’s an interview with someone who was at the Pulse club in Orlando but left just before the shootings started. When he woke up the next day and heard what happened, he volunteered to be a translator between the authorities and the victim’s families. What he had to say was inspiring. His name is Eddie Meltzer and I encourage you to listen to the interview or read the transcript. My favorite part is this exchange at the end (Ari Shapiro is the interviewer):

MELTZER: Five and one acquaintance that was injured. I just got word that he’s doing really well in the hospital after surgery, so that’s happy news.

SHAPIRO: The first time you see him, what are you going to say?

MELTZER: I’ll ask him, when are we going out again? That’s what I’ll say.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MELTZER: That’s what I’ll say. I’ll say, when are we going to go have martinis again?

SHAPIRO: There are going to be people listening somewhere in America who will hear that and say, what are you, crazy?

MELTZER: No, I’m not crazy. I’m just not going to subscribe to fear. We’re a strong community. You know, we’re gay men. We don’t – we live in a world where we get a lot of hate. We take a lot of hate. And we know how the world feels about us. And we’re strong people because we live in a world that wasn’t made for us. And if tomorrow somebody took over this country and said, we’re going to kill all the gays, I will be the first one in that square saying, shoot me with my big flag all over the place because I would rather die for what I stand for. You can kill me. I’m an idea, I’m timeless.

Rigidity, Judgment and Parenting

rigidity judgment and parenting

rigidity judgment and parentingI’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.

The right way to raise babies

the right way to raise babies

the right way to raise babiesLast 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.

Kids, Impulse Control and Public Spaces

kids and impulse control

kids and impulse controlI was not at the Cincinnati Zoo when that 4-year old bolted from his mom into the enclosure. I am not an expert on gorillas or on zoo design. I don’t know the child in question or his parents (some reports state dad was there, too, although he’s not come under fire like mom has). We do know that it was a tragedy — a child (and his family and the bystanders) were traumatized, a 17-year old gorilla lost his life.

Preschoolers are developing their impulse control; they don’t already have it. You might have heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. That’s the test where researchers sat down with children 4 to 6 years old and gave them a marshmallow. The researcher tells the child something like, I need to leave and you can eat that marshmallow or you can wait and then you’ll get a second marshmallow when I get back. Then the researcher leaves the room and observes what the child does through a one-way mirror. And what they found is that the younger a child is the more likely they are to eat the marshmallow.

Young preschoolers, they are bird (marshmallow) in hand type people.

And then there are those children who have a harder time with impulse control. Those kids tend to be more active, less scared, more persistent (the ones who will nag nag nag you) and less concerned about punishment and reward. They are kids who live in the RIGHT NOW. These are the ones who eat the marshmallow before the door finishes closing behind the researcher. That’s a temperament thing; some kids just have more impulsive personalities than other kids and will need more support, understanding and opportunity to develop their self-control.

Back to that marshmallow test. They’ve looked at it a lot over the years and one of the things they’ve found is that children are able to delay gratification (be less impulsive) when their environment is “reliable,” i.e., when their environment is more predictable.

Here’s a video that explains that:

Now I want you to think about this when we think about young children in public spaces, where reliability is generally lower. If you’re at home or at your daycare or at your babysitter’s, you pretty much know when you’ll eat and what you eat. You know where the bathroom is. You know when your little sister goes down for her nap. You count on this consistency.

Then there’s the zoo that — with all it’s fun and excitement — is extremely unreliable. You will likely have to wait for the potty, It may be one of those scary self-flushing potties. Your juice might be warmer than you like it or be the wrong juice or the wrong straw. Your dad promises you that you’ll see the snakes but when you get there the exhibit is closed. Children have finite resources to draw on so even a child with pretty good impulse control might hit their limit at places that lack reliability.

I’ve been to the zoo with a slew of 4-year olds (my own and other people’s including some pretty hectic trips with a whole preschool class) and I know that at a certain point everyone is tired, grouchy and done-in. For any child — not just one who’s struggling with impulse control — this is the point where the lousy behavior comes out. Stand at the exit of a zoo sometime and watch how many kids are carried (or dragged) out sobbing. Notice how many wrench free of their parents’ hand or let go of the stroller or their parents’ back pocket to run to the cotton candy stand or souvenir store with their parents hollering at them to “Get back here!”

This time it was something far more dangerous with tragic results. On another day it might have just meant a lecture or a time-out.

Like I said, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it. I don’t know that child or his parents and I’ve never been to the Cincinnati zoo so I can’t speak to the efficacy of the barriers around its exhibits. But I do know 4-year olds. Events like these are blessedly rare but impulsive behavior by preschoolers is not.

The Labyrinth of Life


labyrinthWhen I was twenty I was dating someone who was sober and so I was attending Al-Anon meetings both to support him and because my (also sober) best friend was encouraging me to go. At that time in my life I had this idea that getting sober was an event with a before (drinking) and an after (no drinking). I don’t know why I thought this but I think it was part and parcel of being twenty and not knowing very much and thinking that things could be as easy as that. Back then I thought there was a finish line marked “success” and that grown ups who had any sense were living there and that’s where I — and my boyfriend and my best friend — were headed because we were doing what the experts said, going to meetings, stepping forward one day at a time.

I trusted the straightforward path with straightforward rules and I trusted that as long as we were moving forward and following the rules we would end up at the finish line. I didn’t know then that life is more like a labyrinth — meant for wandering — and that there is no finish line. I didn’t understand that life is process and it’s the process that matters.

When I began working at a women’s shelter in my mid-twenties, the life-as-labyrinth became clear to me. I expected shelter to be a point of resolution, the place where Before met  After. But most of our clients were moving in circles that were slowly (we hoped) growing wider. They were living — and in many cases reliving — their particular crises, gathering information as they went. Instead of a signpost, clearly delineating the way, our shelter program was a rest stop: a place to be nourished and nurtured (if the client wanted our nourishment and nurturing) but not a step towards anything in particular unless she chose to make it one.

I remember one client in particular, who I will call Jill. She was a stand-out client, the one we asked to speak at our fundraisers and the one whose story we told when we wrote grants. She came to us after her time ran out at another shelter and she worked our program hard, managing the myriad of appointments that she had with us and with the other programs — the programs for jobs and housing and care for her kids. She would put her two children in a make-shift double stroller and head out the door to push them up the big hill in front of our building to get them to the top where all the buses lined up, heading out to meeting after meeting. She did this because she wanted to and because she was ready to. She wanted to stay sober and safe; she wanted a better life for her kids than the one she’d been living.

She was amazing and she remained a success story after she left our program securing a good job, long-term housing, and therapy for herself and her boys. But it wasn’t because of us (her case managers); it was because she sought us out and thankfully, we were there. I have no doubt that our presence had an integral role in her life but she was the author of her own change. She was able to see a way out of the circle in her labyrinth to someplace wider with better opportunity.

Here’s what’s important: it was not her first stay at shelter. She’d been there before when she had only one child and was still using, eventually going back to the man who hurt her. That first visit with us she wasn’t ready so she left (actually she was asked to leave when she came back to shelter drunk).

Did her success the next time around make her a failure before? No, not in the big picture. Her failure in our program was part of her process in life’s labyrinth. Jill’s way was complicated, as it is for many of us. The first time she came to shelter is as important as the second because it’s where she had to be before she could get to where she was going. She is the one who came to us the second time, she is the one who remembered the way and she is the one who used our help differently than she was able to use it before.

In my own life I see the same widening of a circle that looks familiar. I meet people and think, “Oh, it’s you again!” a particular kind of relationship I need to get better at, a friendship that feels an awful lot like a friendship I’ve lived before. There’s always something to learn on the way, a better understanding of who I am and who I want to be. Parenting my kids is a chance to reexamine the ways I was raised. Arguing with my husband is a chance to understand each other better. Sometimes the sameness seems stifling and then I know it’s time to find my way to another part of the labyrinth, that the frustration I’m experiencing is a sign that it’s time to grow.

Healing is a process. Where someone is in their process is where they are. Perhaps they can hear only every other thing we say or maybe only every third or four or fifth or even TENTH thing we say. Perhaps a client will have only one epiphany in a program or in counseling but that epiphany may be enough to get them to turn a corner six years down the line. Maybe one day they will remember that thing they learned and that will be the important thing they need to step out of the path they’re on. Or maybe they will not get any epiphanies but they will learn that there are places where people will sit and listen to you; that there are places where hope drives the conversation. Maybe what they need to know is that there is refuge for when life gets too complicated, for when they’re finally ready to stop and rest awhile on the way to where they’re meant to be.