A few years ago, I had a cool conversation with Austin child psychoanalyst JoAnn Ponder. Not only did she totally validate me by saying that she feels that being home with kids is harder than any other job, she described the parent's work as being a lot like being a therapist. "You have to be IN your feelings, but able to step OUT of your feelings," she explained.
I loved that! It perfectly summed up the crazy-making part of being a truly effective parent. Sure, there are a lot of challenging things about raising kids. Lots of decisions to make: things like what to feed them, when is bedtime, where do they go to school, who should they hang out with. But, at least for me, none of that is what drives me crazy. It's that part of being like a therapist that drives me crazy.
First, the first part, being "in your feelings." To be a great parent, you have to be deeply, and I would argue, almost insanely, engaged. You have to be tuned in and connected to facilitate the optimal development of an infant, toddler, preschooler, or older child. This truth is the reason why you can't outsource your parenting to a computer game, Baby Einstein video, or boarding school. Your kid might develop in relationship to any of these things, but she won't thrive as well as a child whose parent really cares about her and spends time in the trenches with her. Some--especially some who have never had kids--say this kind of engagement is mere narcissism, namely, that I love my kid so much because he/she is MY kid. For me, I love my kids because they're my kids, but I also just love kids. I am motivated by a blend of wanting to help create happy and mature humans and a sense of responsibility to society and to my kids.
So when we are "in our feelings," the best barometer of our kid is our own feelings. If we are open and connected to them, we exist in this bizarre state of symbiosis (only we're the same species, sort of!). We muddle along with them, and we feel what they feel. If they're happy, we light up. If they fall down, we mirror concern and frustration. This feeding-back process how kids learn to understand and internalize a sense of their emotions. And it can be really fun and rewarding for the parent, too. Our kids, with their not-quite-yet connected cerebral cortexes, rely on us to regulate their emotions. I like to think of it as their making a remote connection into my limbic system. "Thanks, Mom! Much better now..."
Yet there's this second part, the "able to step out" part. Normally, that just means that the parent and the child are not equals, and that the parent, ideally, has a greater level of objectivity and control, which he/she lends to the child. Even this business about helping kids label the feelings that go with experiences shows that the parent is in a different place. He/she isn't actually the one with the skinned knee, but rather the one who helps the child name and process the feelings that go with it. So even though a good parent is tuned in and invested in what his/her child is going through, it is really important to be able to both be there and let the child have the space to have her own experience.
Knowing when I should step out of my feelings is fairly straight forward for me. Being able to...well, that's the real challenge. For one thing, all kinds of things, such as sleep deprivation, sickness, bad days, and other upsets can make my own feelings especially sticky in a way that can ooze out onto my kids. When I am in need of rest or support, I am sometimes a little too connected to my kids' feelings. Which is bad news, because they're all over the place! And then there are the times when my kids are actively attempting to hook me in to their feelings. For example, as another famous child psychoanalyst, Erna Furman, wrote, "The toddler's close but primitive relationship with the mothering person contains a kind of love which derives pleasure not only from mutual kindness but also from mutual irritation and conflict. ..at times, hurting and being hurt are sought and felt as a form of being intensely close to each other."
I know that, when my kids are being little pests, they're not doing it deliberately to drive me crazy. Who wants her mom to be carted off, after all? They're doing it because they're acting out something they're feeling, and they probably couldn't put words on it if they tried. Or they're tired, or hungry, or overstimulated. Or teething. Whatever!: they're still being pests! The vast majority of the time, I take it in stride, maintain my center, and step out of the way. But if I'm not on top of my game for some reason, it really does feel like my head is going to explode, and not taking things out on them is a big challenge. Sometimes I send myself to Time Out. Sometimes I give warnings that I am about to begin yelling, which no one likes. And sometimes I actually do yell. Mostly, I just wish for a vacation, or someone who will take care of ME for awhile. I remind myself that the stress comes in finite pockets of time that eventually pass. Sometimes, just for laughs, when my husband comes home from work on one of these extra-pesty days, I quip cheerfully, "Did you bring home any heroin for me?"
I'd love to hear your observations...leave a comment!