Weathering a Toddler's Storm

Anyone who's spent time with a toddler knows that they can be intensely emotional beings. Often, the less language a toddler has, the more likely they are to express their big feelings through their body-with movement, noise, tears, and tantrums. These big reactions can feel overwhelming and disorienting to parents, too, and it is often suggested that parents learn to regulate their own emotional response so that they are better able to guide their child. Parents can get pulled into an emotional tug-of-war with their toddler, or try to make logical sense of an irrational situation (my own wonderful 2.5 year old never wants to take a bath these days until she's finally in the bathtub and never wants to get out...), or may simply need to be somewhere in a reasonable timeframe and are faced with a small person with other ideas. 

But HOW do we manage our own emotions so we can better handle theirs?

When the tension builds for parents in these moments, things can feel constricting and it can be hard to think clearly...I've been practicing this mindfulness tool adapted from Tara Brach's work lately and it has both helped me get a little mental space in these situations, and has also helped me have empathy for my toddler's emotional state. The very cool thing about this technique is that you can use it for yourself or for your toddler-whichever is more available for you in the moment. The acronym-R.A.I.N.-is easy to remember. Here's what it stands for:

R: Recognize what's happening: otherwise known as the classic: "you have to name it to tame it." This is where you can say to yourself: "I'm feeling tension," or "I am frustrated and stressed," or that your toddler is "having a hard time" or "isn't feeling cooperative" or is hungry, thirsty, tired, etc...

A: Accept things as they are: Allow life to be what it is right now. This is simultaneously the simplest and most difficult part. We often struggle when we try and make something that is, not be so. If you're in a tug-of-war, stop pulling. Let it be. Accept what's happening for your toddler, and for yourself, right now. 

I: Investigate with kindness: you can ask "is there a need that is not being met?" (for you or for your child), "what needs attention right now?", "what am I believing about myself or my toddler?" This part isn't about any sort of self-criticism, so take care to keep the inquiry welcoming to whatever comes up, and gently attentive. 

N: Non-Identification: You are not your worst parenting moments. Your toddler isn't always like this. Another way to conceptualize non-identification is by thinking of "zooming out." This is just one moment in a lifetime of ups and downs you'll weather together, and this storm, too, shall pass. 

 

This tool obviously won't be able to get your toddler dressed in the morning or buckled into the carseat, but parenting from a place of just a little more calm can free you up to think about the next steps more clearly. In solidarity...

 

 

On Children

On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, 
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

I'm Still ME...even with a baby. Questions and Answers with "Spright"!

I recently answered a few questions about identity and motherhood on the Spright app that I wanted to share here! 

One of my favorite quotes about the transition to motherhood is something I found in this Atlantic article during my own transition to motherhood — ”becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live.”

To be honest, even though I feel so much more like myself (the new and improved version) now that my daughter is a toddler, I still have to be very attentive to my own needs and desires or they can tend to evaporate into the ether...I am in the same exact house I've always lived in but sure spend a lot of time exploring and living in that curious new room!

There is a lot that takes a different shape or tone than we expect when we become mothers, and it's a worthwhile venture to grapple with discovering ourselves in this new context in order to become the mother and person we wish to be. I hope as I answer some of the questions here, we can think together about how to do just that.

I’m a few months out from giving birth and really freaking out about how much our lives, but mine in particular, are going to change. I’m worried about never getting to work out again, or have any alone time, or even time as a couple. How do I calm down?

I'd start by being confident that you've covered your “worst case scenario” bases, and that hopefully actual life will be more forgiving! I joke, because my brain does this to me, especially during big transitions, and the blessing of all the worry is that things are never quite as bad as what my worry brain tells me, and I'm prepared!

In saying that, things are going to change (of course!) but there is some wiggle room and some room to plan for what you need. If you know working out is something that fulfills you, keep fighting for that space to do it. I think one of the coolest parts of growing a baby is the empowering piece! If you can grow a human and deliver it earthside, you can definitely work through finding time for a walk. Though you're right that it may be hard sometimes, it's not impossible to negotiate, I promise!

As a therapist who specializes in this, I would be irresponsible not to mention that if your worry impacts your life or how you're able to feel excited for this baby, there are lots of ways to get more support and to feel more comfortable. Therapy, mom groups, Spright - do what it takes!

Pre-baby I made a lot of friends through a triathlon group. I was never that good at the sport, but I trained and raced with them and was a mentor for new triathletes. Last weekend, a bunch of them did a full Ironman, and I … ran two miles. It feels a little like I swapped out “recreational athlete” for “mom” in my identity, and I’m not totally comfortable with that switch. Any tips for appreciating where I am, or for not comparing myself to my friends (or past me), or for not being jealous when I hear about what my friends are doing now?

I love this question. It encapsulates what so many moms deal with, but don't always say. I have a couple of thoughts-the first of which is finding a way to fully accept that swap (that may not be permanent, but is your “now”) and in doing that feeling what might possibly feel like a little (or big!) grief for that part of you that is currently lost. Sadness for what is gone doesn't dim what you've created in its place-your gorgeous baby!

Having such strong simultaneous and seemingly contradictory emotions is part of the mindblowingness of motherhood. Having never done triathlon training myself, I can only imagine what you've gone through throughout pregnancy and in this first year with baby is at least as strenuous, monumental, and meaningful as your friends who ran the Ironman, though I also know that that kind of rational balancing act doesn't always make it better in the moment.

I'd also try and dig a little deeper into what that training provided for you that isn't being fulfilled now...was it a sense of adventure? Did you feel helpful? Like a badass? Whatever that missing piece is might be something you can work to build into your life in a different way until you decide how you can/if you wish to incorporate the triathlon part back in. But first, it's okay to mourn what you've given up in order to make space for your baby.

Before having a baby one could describe me as Type A (to say the least). Since having my little one a few months ago, I feel totally scattered and like that super organized, with-it, driven woman has left the building. I'm sort of too tired to find her at the moment, but it's hard to imagine that those pieces of my identity are gone forever...will they return? Will I rekindle my love of post it notes and to do lists? If yes, when?

You'll rediscover your love for post-its exactly 17 months and 4 days from now. Juuuust kidding. Here's what I think about “mommy-brain” as it sounds like what you're describing: I think that incredibly organized and driven part of you is being put to spectacular use right now with all of the scheduling, worrying, planning, and various other baby-related decisions that are occupying an ENORMOUS part of your brain.

I think we tend to hear of “mommy brain” type stuff framed as a diminished capacity when it's entirely the opposite. You are doing and accomplishing SO much, and just because it's not as visible or concrete as what you did before baby, I'd argue it's more valuable and sophisticated than to-do lists. You might have to be more conscious of noticing and congratulating yourself for the things you accomplish, as they aren't always post-it-able, but in general the baseline for your current level of functioning and accomplishment is WAY higher than before baby, just by the nature of this new role.

On weekends my partner and I are both SO exhausted, we tend to get grumpy when trying to figure out who gets to take “me” time. I know we both need time alone to recharge, but finding that time is hard. Any advice?

Yes, finding that time IS hard. Especially when exhaustion comes into play.

I'd see what you can do to make things as simple as possible in arranging “me” time. Alternate mornings? Just pick something as regular and predictable as possible so you can do it on autopilot.

The other thing I'd mention is that when you're already at the end of your rope, there's also an opportunity to think about ways to build in a little more of a “reserve” - are you trying to accomplish too much during the week? Are there ways you can find more help or lower your expectations? (<---Not a bad thing!)

Since having a baby, there are so many days when I feel like I’m not doing anything well — work, parenting, taking care of myself. I know the traditional wisdom is take care of yourself so you can take care of the baby, but I honestly don’t know how to carve out that time without feeling like I’m sacrificing other things that are also important. Help?

So, I don't go to yoga as often as I'd like to or should, but one time my marvelous yoga teacher said something I loved that I'm hoping can help with your question. She said something to the effect of “you need a different foundation depending on what kind of structure you're building — are you building a cardboard playhouse or a cathedral?” She was talking about physical strength and flexibility, but the emotional realm isn't all that different.

Reframe your definition of “well” if you can. Think about the long game. Make a five or ten year plan. You are building a cathedral! It takes so much work, including pain and suffering and frustration sometimes, because it's big and important.

I'd also mention that though it may look different on the outside, what you describe is a common feeling for most parents, and it doesn't mean you aren't doing wonderful things, it just means relationships can be hard.

Another thing I'd like to mention is the idea of motherhood as a “social construction.” Without going into too much depth, there are many things that get plopped on our lap along with baby that are other people's expectations and may not serve us. There is the blog/instagram/pinterest version of motherhood, the mother we or our partner had, the movie or sitcom mom, etc...and none of those are our real life experience. None of those clearly portray the difficult trade-offs and decisions we have to make day to day or the frustration of not feeling like we can do things well enough.

You do have to sacrifice other things that are important to get some self-care, but remember — you are building a cathedral.

I really enjoy hanging out with my childless friends (and so far, they’ve been great about accommodating my post-baby schedule), but I’m never sure when we’re catching up if I’m talking too much about the baby. Like, she’s a huge part of my life now so obviously, something I want to share. But, I also don’t want to be that mom. How do you balance that?

You just have to “do you” and see who can hang with that. One of the coolest things about motherhood (besides the whole birthing a human part referenced earlier) is the lack of ability to tolerate much extra BS, so, while I'd definitely care about how my friends are feeling about the baby talk, I wouldn't worry TOO much. You're doing your best to be a good mom and friend, and that's enough!

Any final thoughts for us?

One of the best ways to find your "you" in the midst of motherhood is to check in with how you feel. In conversations with friends, do you leave recharged or feeling depleted? Are you feeling like you are snappier than you'd like to be with your partner? What thrills you about your baby? These are little ways to notice and hopefully recalibrate and reconnect with the person at the center of all of this creating that's happening. You're still you, but you're weaving a bigger, more beautiful tapestry, and that takes some extra love and attention! Be good to yourself! 

Poetry

The body’s deepest structure, dancing

CRYSTAL ELLEFSEN

 

 

1.

There are few pleasures better
than knowing who I am,
standing on this rock
while wind and sun surround,
pound my back—my body calm
with a few small certainties.

The traumas have been given space
to surface: collected, categorized,
carved onto quartz and discarded.
The griefs have been grieved,
poured through the sieve, the diamonds
collected into a crown. I've found myself

under the mess. I have prioritized healing,
told myself day after day, forget the dishes
and laundry, today you must focus

on recovery. Her perfect small body bobs
and ripples and I know I must do this.

My legacy
is to make
sense, name
names, stand
and say,
it ends here.

2.

I awake from a dream where I was swimming
in my own genes, DNA like swirling ballerinas,
the body's deepest structure, dancing.

Strand to strand I went
with eraser and pickaxe.

To my husband I whisper:
Before we replicate, Beloved, I must remove
this memory from my chromosomes.

His reply bounces off coiled lattice:
If you want the next generation
to carry better things, 
you'll need this
not that.

And he took the eraser
from my hand and replaced it
with a pen.

Resilience and Self-Compassion

My latest obsession is a book that is likely old news to many but new to me. It's called "The Wise Heart," by Jack Kornfield, and I'm savoring each word. There's a quote in this book that has haunted me since I read it, as it's the most searing, sad and shimmering description of resilience I've ever read. Kornfield quotes D.S. Barnett, who wrote into the magazine The Sun describing years of emotional abuse in childhood, and one of the rituals that helped her survive. She says:

From the age of five or six until I was well into my teens, whenever I had trouble sleeping, I would slip out from under my covers and steal into the kitchen for a bit of bread or cheese, which I would carry back to bed with me. There, I'd pretend my hands belonged to someone else, a comforting, reassuring being without a name--an angel perhaps. The right hand would feed me little bites of cheese or bread as the left hand stroked my cheeks and hair. My eyes closed, I would whisper softly to myself, "There, there. Go to sleep. You're safe now. Everything will be all right. I love you."  

About this passage, Kornfield says:

Describing the life denying landscape of her childhood, Barnett shows how caring floods through us like an inner angel of mercy, like green shoots forcing their way through cracks in the sidewalk. We can see the natural hand of compassion in all the ways we try to keep ourselves from harm, in a thousand daily gestures of self-protection.  The Wise Heart, 27

Resilience, by way of sublime self-compassion, is a gift that Barnett developed to cope with the extreme challenges of her childhood, but self-compassion is  something we can all practice and may need to focus greater attention on in times of stress and transition. As Barnett found her own way through her trials with her "inner angel of mercy," so can we. Several of my favorite, simple exercises for this practice are on Dr. Kristin Neff's site, here (some lovely guided meditations, too!):

Exercise 1: How would you treat a friend?
How do you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when he or she is suffering? This exercise walks you through it.
Exercise 2: Self-Compassion Break
This exercise can be used any time of day or night and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion in the moment you need it most. 
Exercise 3: Exploring self-compassion through writing
Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t like; something that causes them to feel shame, to feel insecure, or not “good enough.” This exercise will help you write a letter to yourself about this issue from a place of acceptance and compassion.

 

For Mother's Day

With all my love to mothers and fathers new and old.

 

"For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness."  -Hermann Hesse

Therapy for Everyone!

This charming and informative video answers questions people commonly have while contemplating therapy. The answers are all true! I find home-visits most effective for my new parent clients, but other than that one difference, feel free to imagine me as a tiny-hatted blue bear. Enjoy!

Cultivating Pleasure

The last weeks of pregnancy (or the entire ten months, for some!) and the first  months with a new baby can be a time of diminished pleasure for many reasons that are often built in to the process. We endure physical pain, sleep deprivation, isolation, and can't always find time for regular, satisfying meals. Certain things that may typically bring us pleasure may be on hold for the time being (like running, or sex, or spontaneously going to a movie.) Getting out and seeing the world and all it's stimuli takes a great deal more work with a baby, and the myriad sights and sounds and scents we used to take for granted dissolve into the focused and compact universe of our tiny human. How can we cultivate the deep and fulfilling pleasures in our lives during this time of so much change? 

The first step is acknowledging that there are external processes in play like those listed above. In noticing that, we can begin to shed some of the ideas we have or are told about how we're "supposed" to feel. Sure, there are infinite pleasurable and joyful things about having a baby, but if the baby isn't making "it all worth it" (quite a big job for such a little person, I'd add), it's time to cultivate what pleasure we can on our own behalf. Here are some prompts, but feel free to write your own pleasure prescription:

1. Eat the most delicious thing you can imagine, sometimes. And as much of it as you want. Give yourself permission. Live a little.

2. Turn on some music that makes you feel lighter or energized or sparks a fire in your soul. Stevie Wonder? Robyn? Marvin Gaye? You know the one(s). Go on and move your body if it feels right.

3. Get out! Though it may be challenging at the beginning, it gets easier. See what's in bloom. If the weather's crappy, walk around Target. It doesn't matter as much where you go, just that you see, and feel, and hear new and different things. 

4. Hug and cuddle and hug some more. With your baby, with your partner, or with a pet or friend. Hugging releases oxytocin:

Oxytocin does more than make us feel good.  It lowers the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain and perhaps even speeding how fast wounds heal.  It also seems to play an important role in our relationships.  It’s been linked, for example, to how much we trust others.  -NIH News in Health

5. Wear soft and comfortable things. Let your body be as it is. It is a powerful, unique and extraordinary home for YOU, and deserves utmost respect. If it pleases your body to wear your fancy clothes, do that! What matters most is what feels good to you, and the process of discovering that.

What makes you feel good? What brings you comfort? What do you desire? What ignites your soul? Snuggle into those things as often and as fully as you can and the even the tiniest seeds of pleasure you plant will begin to grow.

6 Thoughts On Parenting With More Presence

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future -and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” 
― Thích Nhất HạnhThe Miracle of Mindfulness

 

When we're constantly anticipating the future or ruminating about the past, we miss the actual life we've worked so hard to create for ourselves. Nowhere is the idea of missing what's right in front of us more loaded or potentially guilt-inducing than in motherhood and fatherhood. Not only are parents' minds more inundated with the latest research, fears, and unsolicited public opinion than ever before, but we also hold increasingly higher standards for what we expect for our kids and ourselves as parents. It's hard to slough off all the "extra" of the current parenting culture and just be-with our kids, with our partners, with ourselves.  

 

With this in mind, here are 6 simple(ish) practices to help bring parents back to the present moment:

1.  When your toddler is having a hard time, start with taking a moment for your breath. Take a slow, deep one (or two or three) and even young toddlers can practice this with you. It's sometimes startling enough to change the course of the tantrum, too, as breathing takes some focus when a little body is that overwhelmed with emotion. 

2.  Sometimes parents feel tantrum-y, too. It usually looks a little different for us as we have more experience with our feelings and it isn't usually socially acceptable for us to throw ourselves on the floor, but when you feel overwhelmed with ALL of it and want to come back to here-and-now, take a moment to smell your baby (or kid's) head. Can you describe it to yourself? 

3. Can you take a few things off your plate, in this moment or in the bigger picture? Can you just do less? It often feels like we should be accomplishing things all the time, but being a parent is quite a huge undertaking in and of itself.  

4. Take a moment to try and see through your baby or child's eyes. Are they noticing a shadow or hearing a sound you that you hadn't? Try and see how many layers of sound, shape, color or scent you can find. Babies and children filter sensory experiences differently than we do, and notice a lot that we don't. It's more than a little magical.

5. Share a meal with your child. Can you describe the flavors, textures and colors on the plate? 

6. This one's even simpler: just stop what you are doing, close your eyes if it's safe, and feel. That's it.

The tricky thing about being present is that it takes practice, but the wonderful thing is that practice is beneficial for us in ever expanding ways. How powerful for our kids to be raised by people who can model this for them. The practice is even better than the perfect.