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.