Postpartum challenges helped me be who I am today

I wrote this about 6 months ago and left it to marinate. I am ready to share, now.

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I got pregnant within months of moving to the US. I had really hardly arrived. And then I had a baby. I had no experience whatsoever with little ones, no old friends to cheer me on and no new friends with babies to advise me (yet). Most of our two families are in Europe. I do have an uncle and aunt here and they are lovely but I do not see them all that often. So, there I was holding a baby, on my own. My partner is super supportive and hands-on but within a couple of weeks of me giving birth (the cesarean way) he had to go back to work. Now, I was home alone with a baby –  a baby who cried a lot. My daughter was ‘colicky’ (or actually I think she was processing emotional trauma – but that is another story). I was home alone with a crying baby, with no clue what to do and little to no day-time support. On top of that I had a very hard time adjusting to my new life. I am not a natural housewife, I have always been more focussed on my ‘intellectual’, creative and social life – at school or work. Suddenly time for any of that was gone – there was only baby.

It was hard. I’d go so far as to say it was one of the most challenging times in my life. I was battling Postpartum Anxiety and felt under siege to my own thoughts. I was lonely and bored while not having a single moment to myself (well, I am sure you all have experienced that last bit, at least).

Today, I was looking back on it all and wondering how different my experience of being a new mum with a tiny baby in arms would have been , had I had her in England or Portugal close to our family and dear friends. Would it have been all bliss and walking on air? Would it at least have been much easier for all of us, for me…? Would it have been ‘better’? And this is where I stopped myself.

I am who I am today in part because of the emotional hardship I faced during those first few months. Hey, I know I had it easy compared to many moms who go through much worse but this time was difficult for me, personally. I can’t tell you exactly what I learnt from going through those particular tests but I do think it has brought me humility and empathy for mothers going through all kinds of struggles. Even if their stories are vastly different, a part of me nods in recognition of how hard it can be. And all the challenges since then, from toddler negativism to pre-schooler limit-testing, anything that comes up to try me in parenting, I still compare it to those early months and most of the time I come up saying, nope this is still easy compared to that.

I often joke that if I had had the perfect homebirth (as I had planned), surrounded by angels and dolphins and unicorns shooting rainbows out of their butts, as they say… I would have been basically unbearable and smug and so gung ho and militant about how if I can do it everyone can do it, I imagine. This slowed me down. I am hoping my challenges made me more ‘real’ in a way, more relatable, more able to listen and really understand what others are going through, without judging or comparing.

So, I know everyone is different and I am not telling others to ’embrace their stories’ but I notice, looking back now, three and a half years later, that I would not change mine. I am not sure another way would have been better or would have taught me more. It might have been easier but not necessarily better or  it would not necessarily have made me a better person…

Beneath the tantrum is the love – address the feelings and the behaviours start to resolve themselves

Arcadia Child My photos that have a creative c...

Arcadia Child My photos that have a creative commons license and are free for everyone to download, edit, alter and use as long as you give me, “D Sharon Pruitt” credit as the original owner of the photo. Have fun and enjoy! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a child is acting out or having a tantrum, the question for me is ‘can I see past the kid’s behaviour to their Heart’? Even when my child is screaming ‘I hate you and want to hit you’ can I see her suffering?… and beneath that her love?

I reach to connect with her underlying needs and feelings and, in a sense, refuse to believe what she is saying or doing represents her innermost truth. I don’t mean we should ignore the behaviour, mind you. Limits that ensure everyone’s safety and wellbeing, as well as keeping property protected are very important… but I just do not believe that behaviour truly represents ‘who she is’! I keep looking and listening for clues of what is really going on and what is getting in the way of her being her highest, most loving self. What is she feeling, how is she perceiving this situation and how is the reality of this experience for her? Then I act with all that in mind – seeing her as Love, even in the midst of a storm of anger, fear or sadness.

My primary aim, then, is not to stop the ‘wrong behaviour’ but to re-connect, validate the feelings and meet the underlying needs. I do not deploy time-outs, consequences or other punishments to try and get her to do what I want. Instead, I slow down and try to listen and connect first. Amazingly, I find when that truly happens, when she feels deeply heard and understood, when her basic needs (not all her wants!) are met, the behaviour very often  corrects itself, as if by magic. She just needed to feel loved and seen for who she is. And when she feels safe and secure in my love, again, she wants to co-operate, she wants to work with me and find solutions for going forward together, because she too loves me.

This sounds romantic, but actually, it is based in hard science. Neuroscience now firmly tells us that kids cannot physically take in what we are saying to them while they are upset (and if they are throwing a tantrum or acting out, trust me, they are not in their ‘happy place’). When the brain is flooded by stress hormones, the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of reason, logic and empathy, among other faculties) pretty much literally shuts down. Then the part of the brain left in charge is the limbic system. The limbic system processes and records feelings. With the impulse-control center (the pre-frontal cortex) shut down, kids are now pretty much all feelings and impulses.

If (instead of punishing or banishing) we can take a minute, stay with them, listening, modeling calmness and, through our loving presence, validate whatever emotion is coming up for our children (because, let’s face it, all emotions are valid. You are never wrong for feeling what you feel – you just do – it is how you deal with those feelings that counts); if we can keep them and ourselves safe (physically preventing them from hurting anyone) while still baring in mind that they are, at their core, LOVE, they will in time return to centre. When all their emotions are spent, when they have expressed themselves to the full and they feel heard and held by us, in our caring heart – then they return to themselves, their pre-frontal cortex is ON again and now they can truly hear us. Now, that they feel accepted and loved, they can listen to any guidance we have to offer. By this point, I for one, don’t feel like pontificating or lecturing. Usually if the limits are clear (“I will not let you hit”, etc) then there is little need to explain why nor is there need to ask why they did it. If they’ve just been crying for 30 minutes or more, it is clear that they were letting go of a huge backlog of anger, fear or stress that was causing their behaviour to go off-track.

And so, this is it, the magic of positive parenting and why we don’t need to use punishments or rewards. When kids feel loved, connected and understood they most often want to co-operate. So, my main job, at any time, is to do what I can to keep that connection alive in my heart and in my kid’s.

This is work, the true work of parenting, for me. It is not always easy (AT ALL) and I am forever learning more… but this path of conscious, peaceful parenting feels good to me. You?

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If you are interested in the neuroscience there are many good books out there popularising this stuff and making it accessible to everyone. For a really easy to understand explanation of this stuff (the neuroscience of kids emotions and how they learn both to ‘behave’ and to empathise with others) I would recommend The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. which is also chock full of practical tips for applying this knowledge to your parenting.

Other related posts:

  • By Janet Lansbury: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/dont-fight-the-feelings/
  • By Julianne Idleman of Hand in Hand Parenting (founded by Patty Wipfler): http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/parent-education-listening-and-limits/
  • By Genevieve  Simperingham founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute:  http://peacefulparent.com/how-to-set-limits-while-maintaining-the-connection/

    Enjoy exploring those, too. :)

Parent peacefully BECAUSE it is hard for you

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E. Frankl

So often I hear how hard it is to break away from the way we were parented to parent differently, more peacefully, more calmly. It takes every ounce of energy we can muster not to react how we were reacted to, not to continue a cycle of parenting violence that did not serve us but that we seem powerless to stop ourselves from repeating.

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was brought up really quite peacefully. This is often thrown at me like a weakness in a ‘you have it so easy’ kind of a way. They are right. I do have it easier. Our brains are literally molded by the way we were parented. The fact that my parents did not beat or even ‘spank’ me, that they did not habitually yell at me and that their responses were not erratic and unpredictable has given me the ability to respond more thoughtfully and peacefully to those things that trigger me (and yes, I get triggered, too!)  And a life-time of spiritual practice has further helped re-wire my brain so that there is often a tiny bit longer pause between stimulus and response – so that I may choose how I want to respond rather than let my conditioning take-over or find myself reacting in ways I later regret.

Let’s be clear, though, I am NOT perfect. I am very much a work in progress, too. My husband and I have argued far more than I’d like, for example (and we are working on that, too). But generally speaking I am a relatively calm person and I find I often have a surprising amount of patience for my little one and that, in particular, I tend not to take her emotional outbursts personally. I can usually see past the mad to the sad (to quote my friend Tabitha). I can usually look past the behaviour and even the angry words to the underlying feelings and needs that are driving those behaviours. I can, in most cases, with some effort, reach in and find some genuine empathy for what she is going through, even when she is shouting that she hates me or is going to hit me or whatever… And I do think the fact that I was not punished, shamed or hit, yelled at or called names when I was growing up plays a part in making sure those are not my first responses to my child, either.

The other day, while I was speaking to a friend who was, in her words, ‘brought up pretty physically’ and who, like so many others is finding it hard to transition smoothly to positive, gentle parenting, it struck me that this is exactly why it is so important that we parent our children peacefully. We want their first responses to be loving and compassionate. We want their default setting to be to build connection, whenever possible. We want them not to have to struggle to change their own patterns in the future when or if they decide they want to live with more awareness and more peace in their heart – perhaps for the sake of their children.

And I know it is possible. I am surrounded by living examples of people who were brought up with repeated physical punishment and humiliation who are now choosing to bring up their children in more respectful, compassionate ways. I have friends who suffered repeated abuse at the hand of their parents and other family members and are now parenting in such gentle, loving ways they are an inspiration and a joy to behold. Their children, too, most often give out what they have received: respect, co-operation and attentiveness. Change is possible. I know this from my own experience, too. I am forever learning and growing (as I trust everyone here is) and working to overcome my own challenges – some of those deep and complex. And change comes.

Still, the harder you are finding it to move to peaceful, conscious parenting the more obvious it should be to you how very important it is that you do so. If there is in you yearning to parent your child/ren in non-violent ways that build connection, closeness and trust but you feel locked in by the conditioning that comes from how you were parented… then you know how much this stuff sticks. How we respond to our kids – especially in their first three years but throughout their childhood – shapes who they are, how they relate to others and how they react under stress pretty much for the rest of their lives until or unless they, like you, decide to get more conscious and put time and effort into building new habits. Let’s make it easy on our kids to be kind, gentle and empathic to others, in the future – let’s be kind, gentle and empathic toward them, now.

‘I hate you’ cannot touch Unconditional Love

green gauri

Within each of us is a sea of Unconditional LOVE, yearning for us to remember that it is who we are. Waves come and call themselves sadness, fear, anger, hatred, joy, excitement, etc. They do that. But the sea is LOVE – you are love.

The same happens with our children – but they quickly act as if  they are the waves. They feel a moment of hatred and say ‘I hate you’, they feel a moment of sadness and cry with all their might; they are angry and they express it with their whole selves because they live soooo in the NOW! And that is good, healthy to feel what is arising for them, completely. It is good if we as adults remember always who they are, they are LOVE.

Even as they are ‘waving’ (in anger, sadness, fear, etc), they ARE love and if we keep talking to them knowing, remembering that the unconditional LOVE is way stronger than whatever passing wave of feeling is coming up for them, they will (eventually) return to that, too, their trust and connection with us re-built.

Honour your child’s feelings as they come up. They are real, very real to them. Listen to them deeply, remind them that this feeling is valid… but hold in your heart the certainty that they are LOVE expressing a passing emotion (of anger, hatred, over-excitement), etc. The more often you can come back to love, even as they are ‘waving’ the safer they will feel in showing you all the passing BIG feelings that come for them, as they will sense that you know that is not who they are, it is just what they are feeling, for a moment.

And whether or not they grow up to believe themselves to be an ‘angry person’ or if they know that they are LOVE who happens to occasionally express some passing anger is, in large part, up to you. You can remind your child always, through your actions and words, that feelings are bubbles that come up for us and they pass, but the unconditional bond between you is unbreakable. More  importantly still, who they are is, at its core, LOVE and they can always return their attention to that in fullness, once the very human, very natural feeling has done its waving and is passed.

This is our job, in my opinion, to remember they are love, even when they forget it. Is it easy? No, not always. Not when our beloved child is shouting that they hate us, trying to hit their innocent little sibling or generally pushing our buttons. It is not easy but it is our calling, in my view.

One trick that can be useful for those starting out on this path is to choose one memory from a time in which you were with your child and felt only love for them and then consciously chose to recall that memory at the very moment when you are almost about to believe they are anger, and get pulled into being angry, too… instead, hold the pleasant memory, feel that love and answer from that space. You still validate their feelings but you also remember the unconditional love that binds you.

It becomes a virtuous cycle, remembering they are love and that feelings are just passing clouds (to mix my metaphors) can help us reconnect with the unconditional love inside of us (that is us). And us holding ourselves in our own centres, even as we are challenged to come out of it (and become angry/fearful/sad/etc – and believe we are that – too) will help our child express everything they have to express, fully, and then, when the catharsis, is complete, come back to their own center, knowing they are LOVE.

It is possible to feel love, even as we are angry. The unconditional love for me is like an unmoving background, always there, even as other passing-feelings project themselves on that canvas. The more we practice connecting with and seeing the unconditional LOVE (definitely different from romantic love or infatuation), the more we remember that LOVE is stronger and the easier it becomes to come back to it, even in times of crises.

Again, I waver. I don’t always find it easy, either… but I do find it true. I do find it a very worthwhile practice. I do see it helps in every facet of my life to know the LOVE is not just unconditional, it is truly eternal and ever present.

I am LOVE and remembering that helps me remember my child is LOVE, too… even when she isn’t acting like it.

Gauri

Slow Parenting: eight simple steps to help our children be calmer

Everyone wants a smart child, a co-operative and respectful child but in the rush to fill their minds and set stern loving limits, sometimes it would seem – those of us living in Western countries especially – can forget to leave time for peace, for contemplation, for silence and healing solitude.

We complain our children are bouncing off walls and sometimes that comes down to genetic differences… but often these kids are just responding to the pace of life we immerse them in. They are running fast because their lives are fast, the games and TV shows they watch are fast, even the food they eat is fast – ‘cooked’ fast and eaten faster.

So, while you continue to nurture your kids’ intellectual potential and  support them in developing an inner moral code and even as you may or may not be taking them to church or otherwise feeding their soul… spare a thought for the importance of nothingness, of being okay with just being and feeling comfortable within one’s own skin.

Here are few a suggested starting points:

  1. 67- footprints on the beach copy IIIIf you want to have a calmer child, start by having a calm schedule and make sure you timetable-in free time for self-led play, ideally every day. Kids need time to process what is going on in the world around them. They are taking so much in.  Being kids, they get to grips with what is happening through play. It needs to be self-led to really unlock the full power of creativity and the potential within them, imo. Don’t get me wrong other types of play are crucial, too, such as with their peers, ‘special’ one-to-one time with a parent/caregiver, therapeutic play (aka laughter games and ‘PlayListening’) but pure, unsupervised self-initiated play is incredibly valuable, too, and I believe it is crucial in allowing kids to self-regulate their emotions. Make sure you make time for each of your kids to enjoy the pleasure of their own company and pursue whatever is interesting them at the moment, on their own.
  2. Time in nature is healing. Want a calmer kid? Help them spend as much time in nature  as possible. [Read this: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/how-nature-resets-our-minds-and-bodies/274455/. And I love this about the magical effect of nature and space in resolving sibling conflicts: http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-power-of-nature-fighting-kids.html%5D
  3. A relaxing environment, simple, spacious with few open-ended toys displayed in little scenes (rather than thrown in big bins) can also really invite longer, calmer periods of play, indoors. I have written more about that here… although I confess I need to really re-simplify my own living environment, too!
  4. Calming foods (slow/homecooked foods) also help – and reducing junk, sugar, hydrogenated fats, artificial colours and preservatives is part of that.  Make sure kids are well hydrated, too, and that they get lots of good fats as those are two important factors in soothing the nervous system. Here are a few suggestions of specifically calming foods: http://www.livestrong.com/article/287759-foods-to-calm-adhd-children/ (and at our house we love green smoothies which almost always have bananas AND spinach – two of the calming ingredients). Or check out this eye-opening first person account: http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/diet-really-can-calm-some-out-of-control-kids.
  5. … and taking care of the body, generally, is important in creating the inner conditions for calm – for example by making sure kids get enough exercise and sleep every day!
  6. Silence also aids concentration and inner restfulness. Having only nature sounds or ‘working silence‘ surround your kid much of their day is very soothing. If you live in a city, it can be about NOT having the TV or radio on in the background ALL the time. Mellow classical/instrumental music without words can be relaxing sometimes, too (but silence is important other times, too, right?). And here is Janet Lansbury on the  importance of silence in learning to listen: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/03/10-secrets-to-raising-good-listeners/
  7. Freedom of expression… few things are more helpful to cultivating inner peace than to let all the psychic and emotional junk out. At times, what some kids need is a good listening to! It is amazing what feeling understood can do to help our kids be at ease with who they are and be able to play for long periods of time in harmony with themselves and others. Some of my ‘aha!’ moments on this topic: here. Much more on the clearing, cathartic effects of emotional release on kids here: http://superprotectivefactor.com/
  8. Keeping calm, yourself, and surrounding your kid with relaxed, joyful, empathic people models the way.

None of these are magical cures for ‘electric’ children but together they can help and at the very least should be, imo, the starting point for helping kids find their own inner calm… and if they are old enough, you can even start practicing a little meditation together :)

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Further reading:
BBC piece on the importance of being ‘bored’ 
– ‘Simplicity Parenting‘ by Kim John Payne
– ‘Last Child in the Woods‘ by  Richard Louv

Musings on Materialism, the Day After Christmas…

Whenever somebody asked my child what she wanted for Christmas she answered ‘a surprise’. I felt all glowey about this – not least because this response was not coached in any way, it came totally from her.Gauri and Anya opening prezzies

But now she has us scratching our heads, wondering how we can preserve this open-heartedness in her. How do we keep it from turning into the greed, materialism and acquisitiveness that so often comes with Christmas? She is (nearly, nearly) 3 now.

We plan to continue to focus on family, good food and the feeling of love and connection rather than on ‘things’. Will that be enough, I wonder?…

I can’t help but think that cultivating the ‘Christmas spirit’ of giving, gratitude and gracefulness is not about what we do one day a year, what we give her or don’t give her on the 25th of December, what we say when she opens a gift or how we respond to her reactions as she discovers what ‘santa’ brought her… I suspect it is our attitude toward having rather than being all year round, that counts. That is what shapes who she is and how she feels about herself and whether or not she thinks she needs stuff.

A friend of mine said once that she likes to give her kids whatever they want so that they grow up feeling abundant and that whatever they want is within their reach. She comes from kind of new-agey stock :)  (as do I, but we see this one differently…) I actually think it is the opposite. The more we cultivate contentedness and gratitude for what we already have the more ‘abundant’ we feel in our hearts and in our lives.

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How about you – what little or big things have you been doing to combat the ‘holidays = gifts’ and the ‘more, bigger, better’ mentality that surrounds our kids this time of year?

Bragging or sharing joy..?

Child 1

Child 1 (Photo credit: Tony Trần)

I once did a yoga class in the dark. My teacher used to always say, ‘yoga is not a competition, you only need to chart your progress against yourself: did you go an inch further this week than last week’?

I see parenting and our children’s progress the same way. There is no need to compare one child to another. Each is on their own unique, individual journey – one which is perfect for them. Is there a temptation even pressure to judge and compare, just to check they are doing ‘alright’? Sure… but it is so liberating in those moments in which we can totally transcend that.

A friend tells me: “my kid started walking at seven months” or “my child’s vocab has been burgeoning in the last few weeks.” Personally, I really appreciate and enjoy when people share facts like this with me about their children. They are letting me in a little to their lives and I love that. I feel like one of the family. And now, with toddlers, I often share deep belly-laughs for the antics of other cute, smart kids in our circle. I try only to measure each child’s progress (if at all) against their achievements when I had last seen them. When you view it like that, you become totally detached from the toddler-rat-race and able to rejoice in each child’s accomplishments.

In fact, in a way (as I have said before), I view them all as my children. What I mean by that is that I try and look through my mama-eyes at all kids and find the empathy, enjoyment and pride for all of them.

And I do not consider it bragging to tell me what a child has achieved… unless there is a value judgement that goes with it, some implication that therefore they are better than other children. Indeed, I think there is a fundamental difference between bragging and reporting facts. Bragging of the ‘this child is better than that one’ kind is ugly and stinks a little, too. But observing with loving interest what your child has been doing is not bragging, in my opinion. It is joy, shared. It is a fine line, I grant you. But there is a trend, nowadays, to feel you cannot talk about your child’s successes to others, lest it be seen as a kind of vanity. I guess, I am just appealing for a middle ground, balance. Yes, keep your value judgements (of good/bad, better/worse) to yourself. If you need to share them because they are burning a hole in you, keep them in the immediate family, I reckon. But do not hold back from sharing with me your factual observations of what your child has done. Do share with me, also, your feelings about this, please (sadness, joy, shame, hope, anger, pride, etc. are all, effectively, another kind of fact – emotional truth). Let’s leave it at that, though: fact and truth. Then we can all rejoice in the achievements and progress of all life’s children.