Reality is always kinder than the story we tell ourselves about it.
— BYRON KATIE
In an article in the New York Times, Eli Finkel offered some statistics on parents’ quality of life after having children. “In a study published in the journal Science, people reported their emotional experiences during each of 16 activities over the course of the previous day: working, commuting, exercising, watching TV, eating, socializing and so on. They experienced more negative emotion when parenting than during any activity other than working. And they experienced more fatigue when parenting than during almost any other activity.”
Grim, eh? What happened to the joys of parenthood — those sloppy kisses and joyful snuggles? While Finkel’s piece was tough to read (he also quoted statistics reflecting the rise in clinical depression postparenting), it catalyzed a valuable conversation on my Facebook page and no doubt in homes across the country. It is only when we acknowledge our ambivalence about living the life in front of us — including child rearing — that we can find our way to embracing it.
As important as the article was, however, it left readers feeling the weight of parenthood’s unrelenting demands, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Gazing ahead at eighteen years of sleeplessness, financial pressure, and diminished opportunities for sex is not exactly enticing. While I would never suggest that depression can simply be alleviated by a change of attitude, I believe that we do ourselves no favors when we get locked into a negative outlook about our circumstances. The truth is, raising kids is really hard. And holding ourselves to a mythic standard of behavior (always patient, never cranky) only fuels the depression Finkel was talking about.
Parenting is thankless. “I want pasta with butter!” your child demands, after you lovingly serve the organic, non-GMO stew you’ve prepared for dinner. It’s messy. Reach under the couch cushions, and who knows what decomposed food item you may find. And it’s exhausting. One mother told me that the greatest yearning of her life was to have just one night of uninterrupted sleep.
As much as we aspire to move consciously through our parenting days, being responsible for the care and feeding of a child doesn’t erase our personhood or do away with our needs, moods, or desires. We long to read for hours or go to the bathroom without an audience. Naturally, we feel resentful at times. There are going to be moments when we lose our cool. Some days we say things we wish we hadn’t. That is just the way it is. The trick isn’t making the unpleasant experiences go away; it is making peace with them.
The trick isn’t making the unpleasant experiences go away; it is making peace with them.
Snapshot Child Syndrome
In Parenting Without Power Struggles I introduced the idea that we have a hard time accepting our child not because of her problematic behaviors but because we compare our real, 3-D child with what I refer to as our Snapshot Child. The Snapshot Child says, “Sure, Mom!” when we ask her to take out the trash, while the real child lets out a groan. Our Snapshot Child says, “Thanks for reminding me!” when we ask him to start his homework, while the real one, in a trance in front of the TV, acts as though we don’t exist. Our Snapshot Children lovingly get along with one another, sharing toys, hugs, and the last piece of cake. Their real counterparts — well, I think you get the picture.
As frustrating as it is when our child doesn’t match up to who we would like him to be, we don’t lose our cool because he is annoying or uncooperative. We lose it because we think he shouldn’t be annoying or uncooperative. In other words, our difficulty in being fully present with whatever is going on with our children is fueled by the mismatch between our Snapshot Child — who exists only in our imagination — and the real flesh-and-blood one in front of us.
We move into Lawyer or Dictator mode not because our child “makes us” by misbehaving but because of a story — a “thought pill” we swallow — that negatively influences us. That upsetting story is then magnified by an army of inner attorneys who enthusiastically build a case to justify our grievances. If you find yourself thinking, Jeffrey should help out around the house more cheerfully, the team of lawyers in your head will eagerly provide evidence to support that belief, tossing in thoughts like, He only cares about himself! I even have to nag him to pick up his towel off the bathroom floor!
Our difficulty in being fully present with whatever is going on with our children is fueled by the mismatch between our Snapshot Child — who exists only in our imagination — and the real flesh-and-blood one in front of us.
These stories and beliefs are only neutralized when we explore why our child’s upsetting behavior makes its own kind of sense: Jeffrey should not cheerfully help out around the house… because he’s a surly teen who is in the midst of heaping doses of peer problems. Or Jeffrey should resist my demands that he help out … because I come at him with irritation and sarcasm.
When we view our child — and our life — from a wider perspective, we become better able to line up with reality instead of fighting it. If we need to make changes, we can respond from strength rather than reacting from desperation. Freeing ourselves from Snapshot Child syndrome means that we stop pushing away reality, acknowledging our resistance and allowing it to move through. As speaker and writer Byron Katie humorously says, “When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100% of the time.”
Just as we might struggle to accept the child we have — preferring the Snapshot Child to the real one — we may also struggle to accept the day to day realities of life with children, which may bear little resemblance to what we imagined it would be like. But therein lies a golden opportunity for stretching and growing.
For some, it’s little things: We didn’t imagine joining the PTA, but when we give it a try we discover an unexpected sense of camaraderie as we help out at a bake sale. Or maybe we’re staunch pacifists and end up with a child who is fascinated with weapons. Lo and behold, we find ourselves throwing our heart and soul into a game of laser tag with our son and his buddies. When we remain inflexible instead of embracing reality, we run the risk of missing out on some terrific experiences.
Growing versus Grumbling
Nearly all of us face some mismatch between our idealized Snapshot Life and the reality we’re living. For some, that snapshot is of a smiling mom and grinning dad surrounded by cheery kids and the family dog; reality might be an acrimonious divorce and an awful custody arrangement. For others, the snapshot might be of a posse of noisy children tumbling through the house. Reality could be a child with a disability, confined to a wheelchair. Another parent might have imagined a life of ease with vacations on the lake and private school for the kids. Economic downturns might instead have left the family in dire straits, crammed into a tiny apartment in a part of town they had assiduously avoided.
Seldom can we control our lives so effectively that we’re spared unexpected plot twists. Human life brings with it countless opportunities to either resist or adapt. I’ve watched people in identical circumstances — serious illness, addiction, foreclosure — assume radically different attitudes about their life situations. Those who resist might suffer for years, angry at God, their former spouse, or their parents for “making them” deal with challenges they didn’t sign up for. Others make peace with what is about their life, stepping into it with humility, acceptance, and appreciation for the smallest moments of brightness.
To grow from rather than grumbling about the mismatch between our idealized snapshots and our real life requires a lot of letting go. Hundreds of times a day we are offered the chance to make friends with a difficult moment rather than gritting our teeth as we endure it. It all comes down to micro choices — the tiny, moment-to-moment decisions we make about how to approach what is in front of us.
Hundreds of times a day we are offered the chance to make friends with a difficult moment rather than gritting our teeth as we endure it.
Sometimes what’s in front of us is baby poop dripping down our leg. My friend Elisha tells the story of being trapped on an overseas flight with his baby, who — to put it delicately — had a stomach issue. The flight would have been a lot easier if he and his wife had brought a few more packs of baby wipes. “I had to decide to just be present with what was happening in the moment, even while the contents of my son’s smelly diaper leaked onto my one pair of clean pants. Funny enough, by not resisting what was happening, and by keeping my sense of humor, I found joy in the midst of that craziness! My wife and I were cracking up about the whole thing.”
It’s not hard to imagine an alternative version of that story along the lines of, “You won’t believe what I had to endure on that flight! It was hell — the worst nine hours of my life!”
Time and again I am awed by the patience and grace I have witnessed as parents release their attachment to their Snapshot Life in favor of their actual one, even when faced with a tremendous hardship, such as a child with a serious illness. You might say, “Those parents have no choice,” but they do; we all have a choice, every moment: Will I resist what’s in front of me and live with bitterness and frustration, or will I align my body, mind, and spirit with the way things are, allowing myself to be at peace?
Of course, none of this means we should avoid doing whatever we can to create change when it is called for; I do not advocate passively letting life roll over us. But as the saying goes, what you resist, persists. While there’s much to be said for having a vision board or a clear image of the life we want to create, we need to throw away the snapshot of what should be happening so that we can enjoy life with the children and circumstances in front of us, as they are.
Grieving for Your Old Life
After having led a serene, prechild life that included dance classes five days a week and a regular painting workshop, Sylvie felt adrift in a sea of demanding children. “I feel cut off from the very things that fed my soul,” she confessed, “even though I love my kids with all my heart.”
Like Angie and Eric, she was wracked with guilt over violating the “shoulds” of parenthood. “It’s so much harder than I thought it would be. I know all the things I should feel — love, gratitude, delight — and I do feel those things some of the time. But my husband works very long hours, and I’m left on my own with an oppositional toddler and a bossy four-year-old. I feel like parts of me are dying. I find myself constantly checking my Facebook page to see what my friends are up to, trying to stay connected to a world outside of potty training and Barney. I feel terrible about how much I check out, removing myself emotionally when I’m with my children: There, but not there.”
Although Sylvie and I talked about the importance of making time to do things she loved, it was clear that just taking a few dance classes was not going to eliminate her resistance to the demands of her day-to-day life. I suspected that making peace with her current life was going to require her to grieve for the one she had had to let go of. Without doing that work, she would remain trapped in the in-between space — no longer living the life she inhabited before she had children but not fully available for the one that she was living now. Parenting from this partially present state is a recipe for child-rearing challenges; when kids sense our halfheartedness, they will do whatever is required to bring all of us into the room, even if it means tantrums, aggression, or defiance.
Parenting from a partially present state is a recipe for child-rearing challenges; when kids sense our halfheartedness, they will do whatever is required to bring all of us into the room, even if it means tantrums, aggression, or defiance.
I told Sylvie, “The only way to neutralize your grievances about life with children is to grieve. And this will require turning toward your feelings, even if your instinct is to turn away from them.” I invited Sylvie to quiet herself and tune in to the feelings underneath her resistance.
She told me, “I feel resentful and trapped. It’s like I’m shut down or suffocating — and then I feel ashamed for feeling that way. After all, I wanted to have children; it isn’t their fault that they have needs or can’t give me the stimulation I get from the outside world.”
I asked her to stay present with what she felt, without slipping into her head about what was going on. “What does that feeling remind you of, Sylvie? How is it familiar — that sense of being trapped or shut down?”
She stayed quiet for a few minutes, and then responded, “I know this feeling. It’s like being a child who wanted more than anything to dance and be imaginative, and I wasn’t allowed to do those things. Dance classes were out of the question in my family, and schoolwork took forever because I had an imaginative mind that didn’t want to be bothered with boring assignments. I felt … trapped.”
Exploring this led Sylvie to uncover a deep sadness over being raised by parents who were invested in trying to change who she was. Her parents were well-intentioned; as first-generation immigrants, they had made enormous sacrifices to raise their children in a country that offered opportunities for education and financial success they could only have dreamed of. But Sylvie was a very right-brained, creative child whose passion was in expressing herself through movement and art. Like all children, one of her greatest needs was to feel celebrated and cherished, as is, by her parents. She needed to know that she was a delight to them — that who she was was enough. “It is profoundly wounding to a youngster to feel that they are a disappointment to those they most love,” I told her. “It’s like being told that there’s something wrong with your size-seven feet because they won’t fit into the size-six shoes you’re being told you should be able to wear.
“This wound — this longing to be free to express your unique qualities and interests — may be fueling some of the frustration you feel now with your children, since you have to tamp down your own interests to take care of your kids each day. It makes sense to me that you would feel resentful; it is, in fact, a big loss — letting go of the things that brought you a sense of joy and aliveness while taking on the mundane tasks of parenting.”
In my sessions with Sylvie over the next few weeks I focused on helping her go deeper with her unresolved feelings about being forced to be who she wasn’t in her early years. I encouraged her to acknowledge and allow space for her feelings, being present for the sensations in her body associated with them — heaviness, constriction, trembling — without checking out or slipping into a mental narrative about what she was experiencing.
As Sylvie stayed still and present to what she felt when she visited her sadness, the painful emotions began to lessen in intensity. She was surprised that by allowing herself to experience the feelings buried beneath her resistance and resentment, she could begin to move into a very kind and loving place — toward herself as well as her children. As this transformation happened, Sylvie softened; in fact, her whole demeanor seemed more relaxed.
A few weeks after we began, Sylvie shared this with me: “I don’t quite know how it happened, but I’m finding myself much more patient with my kids — enjoying the little moments more. I’m less interested in switching on my phone to see what’s going on in the ‘real world’ and more engaged with the things going on with my children. It’s amazing how not hiding from my resistance is liberating me from it!”
When Anger Unleashes Anger
At times I am astonished by how quickly a client’s long-repressed, unresolved feelings come to the surface when she is ready to face them. Cecilia was the mother of a five-year-old daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. Describing herself as gentle-natured, she scheduled a phone session with me because she became enraged when her daughter expressed anger. “As a child, I wasn’t allowed to get angry. I want my daughter to know that she can express her upset, but when she does, I become furious.”
I asked if a part of her felt that her daughter was breaking a rule — kids shouldn’t be angry — when she got mad. She admitted that she did feel that way. When I suggested that it might also bring up feelings about the fact that while she had to bury her upsets as a child, her daughter was being permitted to express them, she agreed. It wasn’t easy to reconcile the double standard she was facing — wanting it to be okay for her daughter to embrace unpleasant emotions that she herself had been required to suppress.
I invited her to simply sit with her anger, allowing it to be there without judging it. “Where in your body do you feel it? Describe the sensations to me.”
“It’s like a panic. I feel it in my stomach, and my feet feel like they want to move — like I want things to go faster. Like I want to escape.” She went on to say that she also felt her face tighten, as though she was concentrating intensely — trying to make something happen.
“Don’t get caught up in analyzing it. Just stay with what’s going on and see if any other feelings are there, too, such as sadness, or fear, or longing.” As soon as I said this, she said, “Yes, sadness. And longing…” She began sobbing; I could feel the depth of sorrow around whatever was being stirred up.
I remained quiet, letting her know that I was present with a few words here and there, while trying not to intrude on her process.
She described the longing as a black hole. “I can sense it’s there but it is so big I can’t reach it because I know I can’t … have what it wants.” As a child she told me she was not allowed to cry or to want things. And in spite of her parents and brothers expressing anger routinely, she was forbidden to do so. “I would be spanked and told to go to my room until I could be a ‘good’ girl again. I stayed there as long as I could, hot with anger but trying to numb it. I was a girl, and girls were expected to be quiet and good, and not make any trouble.”
“It is so courageous of you, Cecilia, to stay with this grief and give it room. Thank you for being so brave.” As her crying quieted, she told me that she almost never cries. I think she was surprised by how quickly those old feelings came to the surface when she gave them space.
In our conversation afterward, I explained that she was not the only one who would benefit from allowing these emotions to be experienced; her daughter would as well. “Anger is just the outward manifestation of hurt. It’s likely that you are going to find yourself getting less angry with your daughter as you let the sadness have its say.”
I also told her that by traveling this road, she would be better able to help her daughter move into her own sorrow when she becomes frustrated rather than lashing out in rage.
The next time we met, Cecilia told me that a new world had opened up for her as a result of that single breakthrough. She said she had no idea she could be less reactive. “Even my husband has noticed a calmness in my voice.” But it was difficult to say no to her daughter, and she still got upset when her daughter defiantly said it to her. We talked about where that terror of standing her ground had come from. I asked her to say no aloud a few times — not as a plea, but as an announcement.
“I can feel it like a big pressure or energy in my belly, but I can’t get it out. It’s like I’m choking on that feeling.” I didn’t rush her. She started to cry. And then I heard her “No!” It was tentative but powerful, and behind it was a torrent of tears. As her no got a little stronger, Cecilia cried and cried.
At the end of our session, she was much lighter. We laughed about how perfect it was that she had such a feisty, strong-willed daughter. I said, “Isn’t it something, Cecilia, how the universe works? It didn’t send you a meek and mild child; it sent you a strong one — one who can say, ‘Here is what it sounds like to stand up for yourself, Mommy!’ so you could clean up these old feelings around having needs, knowing it’s okay to express them.”
Our children often catalyze tremendous healing within us, if we turn difficult experiences with them into opportunities to give old feelings room to breathe.
As discussed, our children often catalyze tremendous healing within us, if we turn difficult experiences with them into opportunities to give old feelings room to breathe. Such was the case with Cecilia, whose willingness to heal painful wounds from her past left me inspired by her courage.
In the previous two examples, both women’s resistance to the “what is” of their parenting lives had been strongly influenced by unfinished business from their childhoods. I want to note that while it is always good to look to the past for clues if we are experiencing significant emotional reactivity to our present-day lives, I am not advocating that we blame mom and dad for all our woes, or that we disregard the influence of current stressors. Tension in a marriage, business-related difficulties, economic challenges, and even hormonal imbalances can also contribute to resistance we may feel toward our children or our life.
Relying on Our Kids to Make Us Feel Good
Resistance to the what is about our children also shows up when we view them as servants of our self-esteem, the means by which we feel better about ourselves. We may heap praise on our son when he scores the winning touchdown because we swell with pride from the admiring looks of other parents sitting in the bleachers. Or we might lavish attention on our daughter when she’s polite to guests at the party, getting an ego boost when they remark on what a well-mannered little girl she is. There’s nothing wrong with feeling pleasure when our child’s talents or kind nature is recognized by others. But kids are exquisitely attuned to our feelings; they want our approval and they know the rules of the game for winning it. When we need them to be a particular way so that we can feel good, we create a wound because we are establishing conditions for our love and acceptance of them.
Accepting the what is about our children allows us to recognize them as separate people with their own strengths and challenges. It doesn’t ask them to compensate for our insecurities. It doesn’t make them responsible for our feelings. It lets us accept their shortcomings without fearing we will lose value in the eyes of those we believe are judging us based on our children’s accomplishments. All this frees us from being ego driven, so that we can raise the children we have, as they are, with presence.
Accepting the what is about our children allows us to recognize them as separate people with their own strengths and challenges. It doesn’t ask them to compensate for our insecurities. It doesn’t make them responsible for our feelings.
Dysfunctional Acceptance as a Form of Resistance
Acceptance also allows us to face rather than hide from any challenges our children may be struggling with. Lisa was the mother of fifteen-year-old Luke. She knew that her son’s grades had been slipping, but she attributed this to ninth grade being a lot harder than middle school. When Luke came home from a party drunk, she scolded him but chose to believe his promise that it was his first and only time. “I hate the stuff, Mom.”
When his friends showed up at their house furtively heading to Luke’s room without making eye contact, she chalked it up to awkward teenage boy behavior. When she confronted her son about the smell of pot in his room, she believed him when he told her he didn’t touch the stuff and it was probably that weird incense he was burning. Two of Luke’s teachers emailed her to say that he was at risk of failing out of his first semester in their classes. She lectured him about trying harder, but nothing changed. Luke started sleeping till noon on weekends; she told herself that it was normal for his age. In other words, she resisted the what is about her son, refusing to acknowledge that he might be tumbling toward a substance problem, depression, or academic issues that needed attention.
Lisa wasn’t a bad or negligent mom; she cared very much about her son and wanted him to have a good life. But she refused to line up with reality, choosing to see him as the innocent, carefree little boy he had once been. Her resistance to the what is about Luke manifested in the form of something I have heard Eckhart Tolle call dysfunctional acceptance. Without considering that his behaviors might be pointing to issues that needed to be addressed, she accepted at face value her son’s explanations that he didn’t like alcohol, didn’t use pot, and that slipping grades and sleeping past noon were a normal teen phase. What seemed like acceptance was in reality a passive form of resistance, or hiding from the reality of her son’s behavior — a dysfunctional acceptance of reality.
What seemed like acceptance was in reality a passive form of resistance, or hiding from the reality of her son’s behavior — a dysfunctional acceptance of reality.
It wasn’t until Luke failed two of his classes that Lisa came to work with me. We found that he was indeed struggling with depression around social problems, long-buried feelings about his parents’ divorce, and significant gaps in his math skills that left him in the dark about how to do the work. Luke had been trying to numb himself with pot, alcohol, and sleep. Lisa was shocked to find out how much trouble her son was in emotionally; she had chosen to look the other way, afraid of the guilt and sense of overwhelm she would have to face if her boy were genuinely in trouble.
Stretching beyond Ourselves
Rising to meet life as it is requires us to move through resistance in ways that might feel uncomfortable or even impossible. Every parent has stories about the ways they have had to stretch to accommodate the realities of parenting. Mine began the day I went into labor.
I am a strong and resourceful person, but in some areas I can be kind of wimpy. For instance, I’m not one to push myself when it comes to exercise. If I do manage to get past my excuses and procrastination, I may take a leisurely bike ride, or stroll along the treadmill for a few minutes. The truth is, I’ve never been very good about pushing through what I believe to be my physical limits.
So it was fairly soon after I went into labor, maybe after my fourth or fifth contraction, that I changed my mind about having a baby. Sure, I had been excited about the whole thing, but as things got serious, I decided that I wasn’t up to it after all!
Twenty-seven hours later (with what would become two black eyes from having to push so vigorously that I burst blood vessels in my eyes) my nine-and-a-half-pound baby boy was born. I had toppled over the edge of what I thought myself capable of, and was now a proud mama lion who would do whatever it took to protect the child who had taken complete possession of my heart.
This is what parenting does; it invites us to stretch beyond ourselves, move through resistance, and tap into inner resources we didn’t know we possessed. While every parent has endured challenges they might not have thought they could handle, parents often tell themselves that they can’t be that Captain who knows how to navigate real storms. Once the going gets rough, they lose faith in their ability to deal with a child’s rage over a divorce or to cope with the magnitude of problems resulting from the discovery that their teen has a real drinking problem. So they look the other way.
Parenting invites us to stretch beyond ourselves, move through resistance, and tap into inner resources we didn’t know we possessed.
But it is in the challenging moments that we get to move through resistance and strengthen our dedication to parenting with presence. Remember, muscle building cannot take place without tearing down muscle fibers — this is called hypertrophy. These microtears are what it takes to build muscle bulk. We grow ourselves up each time we listen without reacting when our child shares something that fills us with dread, teaching her that she does not have to hide the truth from us. We discover that we can respond sanely when she is hurting, rather than crumbling because of our own distress.
These are the moments that shape us not only as parents but as people. By throwing away the snapshot, bravely facing reality, feeling our feelings, and challenging the stories that suggest the grass is greener (or the child easier) in some other, imagined world, we can arrive fully at the life in front of us, with the very children we have been given.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Quiet yourself for a few moments and focus on the feelings you experience when your child behaves in a way that upsets you. Perhaps your daughter is sassy, or your son shows little appreciation for the many things you do, making it hard to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting in anger.
Breathing deeply and steadily, sit with the anger. Don’t try to analyze or talk yourself out of it, or make it more or less than it is. Just allow your feelings, without judging them as good or bad.
You may find that as you sit quietly with the anger, other feelings emerge, such as sadness, disappointment, loneliness, hurt, or a sense of being invisible or unimportant. If you notice other emotions, acknowledge them gently, the way a loving mother might offer comfort to a hurting child. Take your time.
Be present with any and all feelings, giving them space. The fury you initially associated with this upsetting behavior of your child’s may mutate into something closer to sorrow or grief. You might be reminded of pain from your childhood, noticing that the anger you feel toward your child is fueled by these unfinished hurts. Let yourself feel whatever comes up, treating each emotion with respect and tenderness.
When you are ready, take a few moments to reorient yourself to the room, touching your heart in thanks for your effort and your courage to experience difficult feelings. If this exercise has generated noticeable distress, consider investing in professional counseling for additional support.
MAKING IT PRACTICAL
Parenting with Presence in Real Life
How do I accept my life, just as it is?
QUESTION: My marriage is ending, and I am having a tough time even dealing with ordinary problems with my kids, such as complaints about doing homework or having to brush their teeth. It is almost impossible for me to accept how my life is right now. I try to put my needs aside so I can be there for my children (who are also hurting), but I feel lost without the trappings of the life I always believed was so secure. I find myself drinking an extra glass of wine in the evenings just to make it through the day without feeling so depressed.
SUGGESTION: It is so very sad to say good-bye to a life you wish you still had and to face the uncertainty of what is to come. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you make time for whatever lifts your spirit and comforts your soul. If nothing else, when you model good self-care to your children, you teach them the importance of dealing with life’s challenges rather than numbing ourselves to them.
Good therapy can be critically important when things are rough, as is the loving comfort of a tribe of faithful friends. Being tethered to a sense of peace inside can be a great help; perhaps yoga, meditation, or a mindfulness practice would appeal to you. And of course diet, sleep, exercise, and good self-care will be vital as you limp through these difficult days.
As much as we might try to do everything possible to prevent life from changing, sometimes we are forced to accept a new normal. I firmly believe that we come equipped with the resources to deal with whatever comes our way, but we have to find and then use them. By being truthful about the pain you are experiencing, you can address it; burying it will only make it surface in unhealthy behaviors. Being a parent doesn’t mean being a martyr, denying your own needs, or repressing your emotions. Get the support you need to move through your grief, and despite what you might think today, you and your children will come through intact on the other side of this loss.
It may also help to identify the thoughts that influence you to define your current situation as grim. Pain is often generated by our beliefs and ideas about a circumstance rather than the situation itself. When your mind propels you into the future (with imagined loneliness or fear) or into the past (where there is longing or anger), you are likely to suffer. But if you bring yourself fully into the present moment — noticing your breath coming in and out, paying attention to the sensation of the air on your skin — you may discover that in this moment, you are fine. Identify the thoughts that cause you pain, and understand that you are not obligated to believe them.
If you are facing an actual problem right now, address it with focus and attention. But be vigilant about falling into a pattern of abandoning the present moment to be dragged into the past or future with stress-inducing thoughts. This is not meant to diminish the loss you are facing, but only to help alleviate the extra burden of unhappiness your mind may be generating.
How do I get the negotiations with my grandson to stop?
QUESTION: My husband and I have been raising our grandson for the last year and a half. I have tried to accept his defiant nature, but I am utterly worn out. Everything is a negotiation — wanting more time on his video games, insisting he’ll do his chores “later,” or refusing to take a shower because he’s suddenly too tired. I understand that I do better when I stop wishing he would be a more easygoing child. But I want the battles and arguments to stop!
SUGGESTION: My previous book was all about dealing with power struggles, so I will touch on only a few points here. The first is this: When we need something from our children, we tend to come at them rather than alongside them, which activates their defiance. Kids smell desperation and they wisely understand that they are not meant to be responsible for our happiness. Outside of a close and loving attachment — the basis of genuine authority in our children’s eyes — they are likely to push back when our interactions with them have the fragrance of neediness. It is human nature. I once heard someone say something very wise: He who is most attached to a particular outcome has the least amount of power.
Compassionately acknowledge your grandson’s longing to postpone his chores or skip his shower with less investment in winning: “I know it’s a thousand times more fun to play that game than to take a shower. And it must be even worse for me to show up, asking you to turn it off when you were almost ready to move to the next level.” As simplistic as it may sound, validating his feelings will help.
I sometimes talk about relationships as having a pH value. In science, if a solution is too acidic, we don’t bring it back to neutral by removing acid; we add alkaline, or a base, to restore pH balance. Similarly, when our relationships with others — spouses, children, grandchildren — are too acidic, we bring them back into balance by adding alkaline, which in my model means including more interactions that strengthen attachment.
The fact that your grandson is not being raised by either of his parents also suggests that he may have deeper issues — anger, grief, sadness — that influence his chronic resistance. A youngster who has been subjected to significant upheaval is familiar with feelings of powerlessness, prompting him to make extra efforts to exercise control in situations where he can. I trust that your grandson — and you — have had counseling and support to help him adjust to the change in his life circumstances, regardless of how much better it is for him to be in the loving care of you and your husband.
Make sure your grandson has help off-loading pent-up feelings of frustration and loss. And work on fortifying attachment, effectively changing the “pH” of the relationship so that he is less inclined to dig in his heels whenever you make a request. For more on attachment, please see chapter 9, or refer to Parenting Without Power Struggles.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Avoid engaging in power struggles and arguments with your grandson. Instead, focus on building a connection that deepens his awareness that although you might prefer him to be more easygoing, you delight in him just as he is.
Is it okay that I don’t always like my kids?
QUESTION: I feel a lot of shame saying this, but I have a dirty little secret. Sometimes I don’t like my kids. I love them, but there are times when I just want to be left alone. In many ways I had to parent my mother, and I feel resentful that I always have to be “on” for my two children, even though I love them so much. I have meditated most of my life, and now it is hard to get even ten minutes alone. There are times when my kids are pounding on my bedroom door while I am trying to sit and meditate. Talk about not being very “spiritual” — they just want to be with me and I’m trying to tune them out!
SUGGESTION: Unless and until we look the truth squarely in the eye, we cannot change in ways that will ultimately serve us. Whatever we are experiencing — guilt, shame, exhaustion, awe, gratitude, joy — needs to be acknowledged for us to fully inhabit the complex person that we are. If you shy away from the moments when you aren’t thrilled to be a parent, you will only push your resentment underground, where it will leak out in the form of impatience, sarcasm, or withdrawal.
Feel what you feel. It makes perfect sense that you would yearn for your prechild, unencumbered life. I can also remember times when I longed to be alone and meditate for a little while, only to hear that knock, knock, knocking on the door, accompanied by, “Momma! I need you!” And I recall hiding in the bathroom with a page-turner in the hopes that I might lose myself in the story the way I had enjoyed before becoming a mother. It is only by allowing ourselves to be present with whatever is going on that we can let feelings move through with grace.
We are, alas, simply human. We each bring to parenting the trials and travails of our own childhoods, paired with our unique temperament and nature. Some parents get lost in the joy and magic of raising children, never once glancing over their shoulder at the life they were living before their children arrived. But others step into the demands of parenting in fits and starts, doing their best to embrace the role but still haunted by a nagging uncertainty about whether they’re cut out for the job.
And within all of us lives the small child who just wants to be on the receiving end of love, kindness, and support. When we include him or her in the care and presence we offer our children, we can generate deep healing for the wounded parts of ourselves.
My advice is to be immensely patient with yourself, allowing whatever you feel to bubble up and be known. You may find it valuable to work with a therapist to move through some of the old feelings of resentment that are weighing you down. And when family life gets too chaotic, take a break! It is far better to ask a friend or family member to help you out so that you can have some time alone than it is to vent your frustrations in ways that are hurtful to you or your kids. Some moms form supportive networks that allow them an overnight once every few months, just to have twenty-four hours to recharge and do whatever they feel like from one moment to the next. Just moving through a day without factoring in the needs of others can be highly rejuvenating.