July 7, 2019
I found myself in a bookstore the other day, and decided to browse through the parenting section, looking to see if there was a title I overlooked all those years ago that would have spoken to where I find myself today. The short answer: No. There were many books still on the shelves that had provided me comfort, information, and support back in the early days of pregnancy and babyhood. Almost all of these books had something in common, a shared style that I’ll call “parenting by addition.” You worry about sleeping, eating, time outs, play dates– these books will show you the techniques to use to achieve your goals. You pick up one of these books when you want your baby to acquire a new skill or reach some developmental milestone, or when you want to find ways to incorporate your beliefs and values into your parenting. You add a new skill, food, stimulating toy, or piece of music to your parent resumé. The authors of these manuals may very well take into account your individual child’s temperament, but they almost never take into account your temperament. Your own “building blocks”- how you came to be who you are, the parent you are, today.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of us– with or without children– have or had an image in our minds of the kind of parent you want(ed) to be. This image roots itself in the way we ourselves were raised, either growing in contrast to or in honor of the job our parents did. We’ve got to start somewhere, right? And for many kids, this way of “building a parent” works just fine. There are a couple of flaws in this fabric, however. First, the way we think about how we were raised gets a bit stuck in our formative years. When we reflect back on our memories, we often switch gears right into our younger brains– the patterns and thoughts we used way back when, and following close behind are the feelings and emotions from way back when too. As I asked in my last post, do you really want your old, child-formed thought patterns making decisions for you in the present? Unconsciously, you could end up parenting The Ghost of Your Childhood Self, trying to comfort your inner child by either filling in some holes, righting some wrongs that left marks on your psyche, or by slipping out of the harsh realities of adulthood and right into the soothing rituals and words of your imagined idyllic childhood.
And what if this present-day version of the “parent you want to be” just isn’t working for the child you actually have? What if you consulted all the books and experts, “added in” all their tips and tricks, and are still failing to connect with your child? This image you’ve constructed about the parent you are only really serves you— it has nothing to do with your children, the ones who are being parented by you. What if your child needs you to be something you aren’t? This is what I call “parenting against instinct.” For those of you who have been with me on this journey you know that “Parenting Against Instinct” is the title of the book I keep swearing I will write someday. And because every book title needs a colon, Part Two of my title will be, “Becoming the Parent Your Child Needs, Not the One You Thought You’d Be” (or something like that).
In order to become the parent Ollie needed, I had to strip away all of my well-designed plans– plans that had been tested (somewhat) successfully the first time around. This is what I call “parenting by subtraction.” This is what I went searching for in the bookstore the other day. The books that would guide my on my inner journey, help me find all those explicit and implicit memories that laid the tracks inside my brain– only instead of being along for the ride, this time I would “mind the gaps” and force myself to be aware of the scenery flying by outside. What I found was fear– fear of “Not Normal!” and “Something Is Wrong- And It’s All My Fault!” and “You Must Control Everything By Being Perfect.” Ahh, the unexamined fruit of my anxious, perfectionistic child labor, all grown up. The fear underneath it all was buzzing so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t/wouldn’t hear what it was that Ollie really needed from me.
With the extensive, nurturing support of my heroic therapist, I’ve begun to lay some new tracks in my brain. Or, more accurately, I’ve reckoned with the old tracks and am learning to step off into the uncharted unknown. You can’t be present for your kids when you are gripping so tightly onto the past and afraid of the future. What signs are you missing from your children when you are working so hard to parent your younger self? What are your kids learning from you that you are not explicitly teaching them? I’ll share an example– by showing Ollie every single way to name and manage his anxious feelings (something that was missing from my own childhood– who did that sort of thing in the ’70s and ’80s??), I thought I was showing him acceptance, building up his “toolbox” of coping strategies. That was the explicit/outside message. What I was really doing (the implicit message) was showing Ollie that he couldn’t manage his feelings on his own– my fear prevented me from doing what Ollie needed most, which was for me to just sit beside him and bear witness. To validate his emotions and give him the space he needed to work things out on his own. I know I’m simplifying a bit, but please wade through my less-than-perfect explanation (such progress!) and take a moment to think about the difference between what we show our kids and what our kids actually “see.” Take a deep breath. Be Curious. Be Present.
By the way, THERE ARE BOOKS! They don’t seem to pop up when searching for general parenting books– but they should. If I could focus on the past just once more, I wish I had come across these titles BEFORE I became a parent. While each of these titles has the word “parent” in it, the ideas and science behind them would benefit ALL of us– parents or not. This is one of the recurring themes of my blog posts- what wisdom I’ve gained the hard way as a parent is invaluable for all of us, as human beings. It’s scary and hard and breathtaking and impossible and the only way forward.
Here are the titles, in alphabetical order:
“Not By Chance: How Parents Boost Their Teen’s Success In and After Treatment” by Tim R. Thayne, Ph.D.
“Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive” by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.
“The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did” by Philippa Perry
“The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle and the Road Home” by Brad R. Reedy, Ph.D.
I am indebted to these authors. And to my children.