January 18, 2014

Straining To Be Heard

I have a story. It’s one of those life-event stories that we all have, that we retell a few times a year at parties. Mine happened 37 years ago, but it’s such a fresh memory. The strange thing is that each time I recall it, a different detail stands out, as if the story is trying to tell me something.

Well, the story came back to me a few weeks ago. This time I think it’s trying to teach me something about listening and being heard.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the story:

My first job was at a summer day camp. I was a junior counselor assigned to a group of five and six year olds, led by a senior counselor named Kate. One day Kate and I took the kids to a splash park. After the kids played for a few hours and ate lunch under the trees, Kate and I rounded them up and prepared for the subway ride home. We got off the train and headed up the escalator to catch a bus back to the community center.

Whenever we were on a field trip, Kate always walked at the front, followed by the kids in pairs, and I supervised from the back. Somehow on the escalator, Kate ended up behind five-year-old Liza, whose shoelace had become untied. The shoelace got stuck in the metal stairs. The escalator kept on moving. Liza fell forward. Her right hand got jammed in the steps and two fingers got torn right off.

I watched the entire thing over the heads of the campers. Kate grabbed Liza with one hand, tore off her sneaker with the other, and—with what seemed like another hand—picked up the severed fingers.

The escalator stopped. An ambulance appeared. Kate climbed in after the stretcher. I was alone on the platform with nine little kids staring up at me with terror and confusion.

                                                        *                    *                    *

I’m now a mom of a child the same age as those campers. But the part of the story that is most powerful this time has nothing to do with summer camp or trusting someone else with my daughter. It has everything to do with what it feels like when no one is listening.

Once we were back at the community center, I found another counselor to watch the kids. Then I went in search of Marty, the camp director to tell him what had happened. I was trembling. Now that the campers weren’t with me, I reverted to being the little kid I was.

Marty wasn’t in his office. So I just stood in the doorway and started spewing out details: “Kate went to…her hand…escalator…accident.” But no one heard me. I thought I was yelling, but not one of the five or six adults sitting at the conference table drinking coffee turned to look at me. 

It’s possible that I was just standing there with my mouth opened wide with no words coming out, but I thought I was screaming. I can still feel the frustration of trying in vain to get someone to listen to me. I felt like I had no voice and no way to make my needs known. My horror at witnessing the accident turned into helplessness, and even anger, at not being heard.


                                                           *                    *                    *

I’ve been trying to figure out—of all the times I’ve thought about this story, and all the other details that could be considered more important—why the conference room scene is stuck in my head, and why now. I’m sure it has something to do with my relationship with my daughter. I thought it might be a “I’ve been a bad listener” type lesson, or a “what my child has taught me” story. To be honest, I still don’t know the connection, but I know there must be one.

What I do know is that Cricket becomes as frustrated with not being heard as I was in the conference room that day. She’s developed strategies for expressing her feelings. She’s able to tell me when she’s sad or scared, or apprehensive about an upcoming event. She’s even asked me to tell people ahead of time that she might be “a little shy” and “please don’t make a fuss over me until I feel comfortable.” She sometimes bawls up her fist and punches her thighs when she can’t find the words to express herself. I try to be patient, just remaining silent or giving her some emotion words to help.

                                       
                                                             *                    *                    *


That day in the conference room, Marty had walked in a few seconds later, saw me standing in the doorway, and somehow got me to tell the story. After emergency procedures were enacted, he sat me down and gave me a glass of water, saying something like, “I’m sure it must have been scary for you to see the accident, and then frustrating to try to tell the story but no one would listen.” I may not remember his exact words, but I’ll always remember his empathy.

I saw Liza several weeks after her accident, while I was hanging out with my friends, enjoying the last days of summer before high school. She ran to me and jumped into my arms. She showed me her scars and told me about her surgery, wiggling her fingers as she babbled on about her new baby brother and about starting first grade.

                                                                              
                                                          *                    *                    *

Until I know the exact connection between this past event and my present life, I’m going to think about my communication skills: Where in my life am I not being a good listener? Can I improve on how I make my needs known? How can I show more empathy when someone trusts me with a story or problem? I think the story has done its job if this is all that comes of it.

December 8, 2013

Finding Beauty and Meaning in Unexpected Tears

Have you ever gotten wonderfully choked up over something your child said or did, whether it was innocent, silly or profound? Of course you have; you’re a parent and this is a fringe benefit of raising kids. It could be as senseless as your son saying, “Mom, this purple yarn reminds me of spaghetti.” Or as stunning as your teen tossing a football into the air while reciting a soliloquy. And then there they are: the unexpected tears.
Stop reading here if you don’t want these lovely moments potentially ruined for you. Continue reading if you want to find even more beauty and truth in them. Here’s what I invite you to do: The next time your child’s words or actions make you tear up spontaneously, think about this: these unexpected tears might be telling you something about where you’ve been and where you are headed.
I came across this idea from a book called Whistling in the Dark by Frederick Buechner. In a chapter called, simply, “Tears” he offers the notion that tears can tell us a lot about ourselves, if we are willing to take notice. Here’s an excerpt:
Tears: You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, a piece of music, … A pair of someone’s old shoes can do it… a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.
They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where…you should go to next.
What an interesting concept, even if you don’t believe in God and want to substitute, universe or inner voice. It stopped me in my tracks because just that morning I had a moment of unexpected tears. My daughter Cricket had walked into the kitchen, cutting some paper with her red safety scissors. She said, “Mom, I want to go to St. J’s next year.” And just like that tears came to my eyes.
She went on to say, “All my friends are going there! I’ll miss them if we’re not at school together.”
I thought to myself, Isn’t that something. She’s growing up so fast. I figured that’s why I was crying—that she is able to express her feeling and wants to participate in decision-making. And all this would have been enough. But then Buechner’s book crossed my path, and I took another look at why I had cried so quickly.
The background to this is that my husband and I have been driving ourselves crazy deciding where we should send Cricket for first grade next year. I started researching elementary schools before she was even in preschool. We’ve been talking about the same thing for over a year: should we send her to the local public school? Should we move to a different school district? What about parochial or private? Leading inevitably to the belief that whatever we choose now will shape who she is to become. An awesome, weighty decision.
Or so I thought.
It’s clear to me now that these tears were telling me to slow down and not to try to control things too much. Which, as the quote says is the mystery of where I’ve been—always trying to control my environment and make the most perfect decisions. I’ve since tried to let go and realize that whatever decision we make is not going to make or break her life. It is important, but not so important a decision as to obsess over it. If we make a mistake, it can be unmade. Come to think of it, this type of letting go has been where I’ve been trying to get to for a very long time.
So, if it strikes your fancy, the next time you have those wonderful unexpected tears, think about this: What are they telling you about yourself? Where have you been? Where are you being directed to go?

October 11, 2013

The Myth of the "Other Mother"

How to Feel Comfortable in Your Own Shoes

Moms often have a difficult time admitting just how hard parenting can be. We assume that other moms are doing it better, faster, easier— and in really good shoes. This can lead us to feeling pretty down on ourselves. Unless and until we realize that no one is perfect.

When Cricket was three years old, she started taking ballet lessons. Every week the dressing room was a swarm of tiny ballerinas in pink tutus, twirling in the mirror or squirming away from their brush-wielding moms. 

During all the confusion I was always drawn to a mom named Ella. She and her three daughters always arrived on time—the first of many reasons she amazed me. Her girls were always well behaved and neatly dressed, wearing shades of light grey and soft pink. Ella herself wore slender jeans tucked in stylish leather boots with a flowing sweater. She seemed so centered and unhurried. 

I felt like a slouch next to her. I had only one child to think about, but I showed up for class late, dragging Cricket behind me, both of us dressed in hastily put-together outfits. Inevitably—though I loved to watch Ella and her three girls—I always ended up feeling like I could and should be doing better.

One day I turned to Ella saying, “Three girls, huh?  Wow,” or something equally as intelligible.  I was about to ask her how she did it. But before I could, she looked up at me with glazed eyes and said, “I have so much laundry to do.”  

Then she started rambling on about her baby’s horrible sleep patterns and her guilt over letting her girls eat chicken nuggets in the car. She looked like she was about to cry. 

She’s not doing it, I thought to myself. She’s not really perfect—she’s just found a way to hide it. 

It’s human nature for people to be self-critical and to assume that others have it all together. For moms, these feelings are magnified—especially when our pre-kid idyllic expectations don’t match the realities of motherhood. Most of us have self-doubts about our parenting skills to begin with.  Seeing someone who appears to be a supermom can leave us feeling pretty down on ourselves.

So how can moms stop being too harsh on themselves and their parenting skills? How can we stop assuming that other woman are doing it better, faster, smarter and in better shoes? 

F it all! 

By that I mean, use the 3-F approach - Find, Forgive and Focus:


Find an empathetic person and vent your frustrations.  When Ella started opening up to me, it seemed as if she hadn’t talked with an adult in days.  A call, email or text to another mom will remind you that everyone feels angst over not being a perfect parent. And perhaps, the person on the receiving end might be needing to hear the same thing.

Forgive yourself when you slide back into old patterns of self-doubt. Breaking habits—like parenting!—is a life-long process.

Focus on what matters: your relationship with your children. We will never feel as close to perfect as when we are spending time with our children, and truly living in the moment. Squishing your hands in Play-Doh or shooting hoops at the local gym with your teen will quickly take your mind of that mythical other mother.

October 1, 2013

Conscious Parenting: The Deciding Factor

There’s just no way around this: Whether you’ve grown up in a dysfunctional home or in a Leave-It-To-Beaver-esque family, when you have kids you will do things like or despite the way you were parented.

Like all moms, my parenting decisions are rooted in the way I was raised, some for the better, some for the worse. It’s these “for the worse” decisions that I’ve been trying to eradicate, which always seem to come during a difficult interaction with my 5-year-old. Situations like toddler tantrums or preschooler stubbornness generally end with tempers rising and tears rolling—or used to anyway.  

There's been a change in my house lately. And it all started during a surprise spring snowstorm several months ago:

Cricket was outside with her dad helping him shovel, so I took the opportunity to get in a quick shower. As soon as the water hit my face, the bathroom door opened and Cricket stepped in gesturing excitedly.

“Mom,” she shouted, “we need a bucket! Daddy and I are building the biggest snowman ever!”

My first reaction was to wonder if I would ever be able to bathe in private again and why she hadn’t thought about asking her father for a bucket.

Then I realized that in her excitement, she hadn’t even bothered to take off her purple and pink polka-dotted hat. Or soaking wet lavender gloves. Or snow-caked purple boots. She looked like a 35-pound waterlogged blueberry.

The movie reel in my mind started to turn.  I pictured her happily tramping up the basement stairs, through the kitchen, across my bedroom and into the bathroom—leaving traces of mud and snow on tile, hardwood and rug.

I had a decision to make: I could indulge my first impulse to scream at her for making a mess. Or, I could see the moment for what it was— genuine, hysterical, and ultimately memorable—and tell my first impulse to go away.

* * *

Growing up with the chaos and unpredictability of alcoholism, my soul craves order, rules—and a Swiss hospital of a house, as my husband calls it. I’m a neat freak. I often catch myself organizing Cricket’s toys when I’m sitting on the rug playing with her. The more out-of-control I feel inside, the greater my need to have a clean house. But I’ve learned this about myself, and I try daily not to let this pattern have a negative influence on the way I’m raising Cricket.

Psychoanalysts Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt call this conscious parenting. In their essay, “Recognizing Our Hidden Wounds” (Finding Your Inner Mama, 2005), Hendrix and Hunt discuss the “importance of recognizing when and how we slip into the past.” When we have  “automatic, unexamined reactions” to a child’s willful or just plain mischievous behavior—especially when they’re hindering your goal of raising a functional, happy family—that’s a clear indication that they’re coming from an unresolved childhood wound.

And that’s the time to commit to conscious parenting. Fortunately, judging from my attempts at this, it isn’t as difficult as it might seem, it just requires a slowing down. I’ve found that a 3-F process has worked for me and I share it with you now in hopes that it will work for you:

Focus on those moments when you have an overwhelming impulse during a trying time— to lose your mind if you don’t get immediate obedience; to yell at your kids for singing at the table; to lash out physically in a moment of anger; to want scream at the top of your lungs when your child tracks in mud all over your clean house.

Find some way to take three seconds before you react.  Does the situation match your reaction? Or, are you are subconsciously performing a reenactment of the things you dreaded most from your own upbringing? Then make a conscious decision to act according to the situation in front of you.

Forgive yourself for past mistakes and resolve to parent more consciously.

* * *

So what did I do that day while trying to take a shower in peace? As hard as it was for me to swallow my rising ire, I quickly acknowledged the root of why I crave order, gave a quick hug to my own wounded child and decided not to wound the child in front of me. I shut off the shower, grabbed a robe and walked to the cold basement with her to get her a bucket. And mopped up the muddy snow later.

I feel like I’ll be in the process of examining my reactions to Cricket’s behavior forever. But this I know for sure: With practice, you’ll notice patterns, and once you see a pattern, it’s impossible to un-see it. You’ll discover the root of your overblown, out-of-proportion reactions, and healthier responses will happen in a blink.