Thursday, February 25, 2016

Maternal Instincts...or not.

Recently a video came across my newsfeed that made me literally laugh out loud. It was from the The BreakWomb, a collection of funny shorts from some comedienne moms. You can check it out here:

The basic gist of the video is poking fun at impressionable nature we have as moms when reading blog posts, articles, and books on parenting and child development that analyse every single tiny decision when it comes to parenting. We become so obsessed with finding the "right" way we second guess every decision we make.

Now I am not here to downplay the importance of being an informed parent. It is important to do some research on child development and open yourself to different philosophies that are evidence based and align with your own value system when it comes to making decisions about the physical and emotional health of your child. However when information overload and fear and insecurity of somehow damaging our children "for life" zaps our own "maternal instincts" its time to take a step back.

But I must begin by saying I've never really liked the term "maternal instincts." This term always makes me feel a little squirmy mostly because I've never felt I had them. I at least don't have the romanticized version of them that society perceives. The term suggests that once we've become mothers we just "know" and have automatic responses to what our children need. Please show me one mom who has always known AT ALL TIMES exactly why her baby was crying. My personal belief is that although there are some underlying biological connections we may have to our child (especially in the newborn stage) our maternal abilities are something we gain over time rather than something we are magically bestowed with the minute after child birth. These abilities are shaped by many things- our own childhood, culture, current trends and research, other mothers, our own sense of self and most importantly, our relationship to our child.

 I've always been a person that has approached making decisions on what I think I "should" do. I've tried to approach life by the book. I went to college, then grad school, found a career, married my college sweetheart, we waited until we had a solid financial foundation, bought a house, and then decided to have a child. Everything has been logical and practical. This approach has given me a lot- security, a strong work ethic, solid foundation, and self-pride in my ability to think things through. But on the flip side when things don't have much a by the book approach I tend to struggle to find my own way. So when it comes to the many murky choices I can make as a mother I still have the overwhelming feeling that I have no idea what I am doing.

So I compare myself to other moms, research, read judgmental blogs that come across my Facebook newsfeed and feel more insecure than ever. Then I remember that often times life isn't practical or black and white and doesn't come with a step by step manual. I try to think of some life principles that can help me cope with this ambiguity. I challenge myself to remember a few things:

Children are resilient. It can be quite a dangerous thought process if we believe children are so fragile and impressionable  that any small interaction can "damage" them for life.  Firstly, because it undercuts our ability to believe in their independence and treat them as human beings capable of making their own decisions and forming their own perceptions of situations. Secondly, it can create hopelessness in the parent that the "damage' is done  when there is so much opportunity in modeling to your child that people can change and improve and grow. If there is one truth I know from my career as a social worker is that children are amazingly resilient. Many children have gone through things you can't even imagine and yet still demonstrate a type of strength and sense of positivity I envy. So when you've realized that maybe the way you have been parenting hasn't produced the best results don't fret that there is irreversible damage. Your child is strong and better than the sum of all your actions and you have many opportunities to make it right.

Mistakes are opportunities. More than likely you have or will yell at your child someday or make some other natural parenting mistake. Maybe its because you are sleep deprived or because they've simply got on your last nerve. It most likely will come and that's okay. Don't be ashamed. Instead bounce back by taking responsibility, apologizing, making efforts to handle things differently the next time, and most importantly, talking this all through  with your child. The shame that these articles and books sometimes put down on parents for the way they handle things I think makes it more difficult for parents to be open to changing their approaches. Your mistakes become your child's learning opportunities as well as yours. Teach them its normal to make mistakes, that you don't have to fall apart in shame when you make them, and the importance of taking responsibility for them in moving on.

My relationship with my child will evolve. This is one I challenge myself to remember every day. Somedays when I can't figure out why my son is acting a particular way I remember that we will only become closer in understanding each other as time goes on. Remember being on first dates?  You aren't sure how to act or what to say because you don't know the other person and how they will respond. That is similar to our children. We've only just met our children and yet we've known them their whole life. Its a strange paradox that holds a beautiful truth within it: our understanding and connection will grow deeper with time and you don't need to understand everything about them just yet as they are doing the critical learning of even understanding themselves. Its a process and the only instinct we must follow is to listen and observe.

In a lost of cases I'll have no ability to know if I made the right decision and that's okay. Not one single approach in parenting is a guarantee that your child won't develop any challenges. And there is significance in modeling for your child a integral motto of life navigation: "I'm not sure this is going to work but I'm going to try it anyway." Parenting isn't a maze where there is only one way through. Its an deep forest with many paths and twists and turns. You and your child have to find your own unique path. Most of the time you won't know where it will lead you and that's okay. The most important thing is that love and respect are guiding both your way.

Trends change. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if the next generation of psychologists come out with studies on the dangers of Attachment Parenting and my son comes home from his Psych 101 class on holiday break to tell me that our many nights of co-sleeping could have severely damaged his sense of independence. We all love to tell the stories of what our parents did to us as children that would be considered absolutely horrific parenting now. Remember that your are living through a tiny snapshot of what the experts says constitutes "good" parents. Research trends and philosophies will change over time. Choose one that represents your personal values over what you feel is trendy because at least you are modelling to your children that you are making decisions on something you believe passionately about not something Dr. Whatshername said.

So with all that said know when turn off Facebook or put that parenting book down and take a minute to think about what you want for your child and what your child wants for themselves. Sort out the noise. Reflect on your feelings, your partner or co-parent's feelings, and the feelings of your child. Choose a path and see where it leads. What matters most to your child more than anything is that you're holding their hand along the way.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Control Freak

I almost lost my mind over a bath toy the other day. You see, I had just finally got my son to bed almost 2 hours past his bedtime and was cleaning up his bath toys. He has this Daniel Tiger bath toy where Daniel Tiger sits on top of this boat. The problem was that Daniel Tiger doesn't fit on top of the boat in his little crevice so he continues to fall off the boat when you put him on top of it. Why would they make a toy where Daniel Tiger can't stay on the frickin' boat?!? What's the point of having a Daniel Tiger boat if Daniel can't even drive the boat?!?! After the fifth time of placing the boat on the side of the tub and the little Daniel figurine falling off AGAIN I threw the toy across the room.

If you haven't already guessed, this post isn't about a bath toy or the makers of Daniel Tiger bath toys. Although to be honest if I had an extra minute in my day I might write them a letter.

I stopped for a minute and laughed at myself when the boat crashed into the corner of the bathroom. I was being utterly ridiculous. And my therapist self began to take over and I began to analyze. What is the real problem here? Often when we are losing our rational selves over inconsequential problems they are symbols that the larger problems underneath are unresolved and taking their toll.

For me the bath toy incident was about losing control. I needed to have some control and when this simple bath toy wasn't cooperating I couldn't handle it. But it represented the larger issues out of my control that I have been managing lately. I can't seem to get my son on a decent schedule after our move across the world. I don't have control in my sense of what the next year would bring. Will I make friends? Will I feel comfortable here? What will happen to my career while I take a year off? I wasn't slowing down to think and resolve my fears and insecurities. And it all came crashing down on poor little Daniel Tiger.

People have a difficult time with balancing control. There is the camp of people who must have control all the time and have many emotional difficulties when they lose it. Then there is the camp of people who have mantras like "It is what it is" and "Let go and let God" and go through life believing that things happen to them and exercising any control is futile. But even for these people I believe they still are exercising some control-just control in they way they perceive a situation or problem.

As with most things in life its about balance. Control is a very human need. Having control usually helps us feel safe and secure because there is so much in this world that is out of our control. The world keeps turning without our say. The minutes tick by and there is nothing we can do to stop them. Bad things happen. People get sick, people die, disasters occur without anyway of preventing them. It makes sense that some people stay up late into the night organizing books alphabetically or scrubbing the grout on their tile floors until its spotless. We all have ways of coping with uncertainty of the future and having little to no control over it. Its up to us to figure out if that is a healthy way of coping or not. Here are a couple of tips for keeping your inner control freak in check.

1) Remember what is in your control-the list is short. It's pretty simple actually. What can you control? Your thoughts, your words, your actions. You'll notice I didn't include feelings. Emotions are natural responses and you can not control how you feel but you can control how you deal with them. Another big one that we often attempt to control that doesn't belong? Other people. And that includes our children. We can give them positive modeling, emotional support, and life skills to succeed but ultimately their choices and behaviors are their own and not something we can control. This is helpful to remember when a sibling continues to act irresponsibly and you want to lecture them for the 63rd time or when your toddler is in the throes of a temper tantrum and you feel it must reflect on your parenting and therefore you must do something to fix it. Liberate yourself by putting responsibility back on other people and being there for support not to step in and fix things.

2). Scaling. I'm a big fan of the technique of scaling in my work. Using a scale of 1-10 for a variety of different things in life can give you a little bit more of an objective perspective on your feelings and problems. So when you feel a little out of control ask yourself, "On a scale of 1-10 how important is it to me that I have control in this situation?" You might find you are trying to control a situation or problem that isn't that important to you and you can take a step back.  You can also ask yourself "On a scale of 1-10 how likely is it that I can actually exercise control in this situation?" Your answer may give you some rational thinking and perspective to pull back or figure out a way that you can exercise some control in a practical and rational way.

3.) Take stock of your coping skills. When things are out of our control we tend to compensate with finding ways to control elsewhere. Sometimes this can be a healthy control like cleaning our house  or organizing something. Other times we can get obsessive to the point that our daily lives are impacted negatively or we attempt to control something that we cannot. Make sure you have a go-to list of some healthy coping skills you can use when you are having trouble letting go. My own personal favorites are making sure my dishes are done and having something to pour my nervous energy into like a blog or a personal project.

4.) Take a deep breath and focus on the moment. When you realize that you only have control of yourself in this particular moment it can be liberating to realize that there may be nothing you can do but notice what is going on around you at the time. You have no control of future moments, just this one. Try to notice minute details of the moment that will help draw your mind to what is going on in the present. What do you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell right now? What details can you notice about your current environment? Take notice of your breaths in and out. All you have control over right now is this particular moment--what can you do with it to help yourself feel calm and empowered?

Becoming a parent is a huge loss of control. We lose control over our schedules, some of our privileges, and over having a good understanding of what we are doing in life because let's face it-parenting includes a huge amount of uncertainty. Why is he crying? Why is he off schedule?Why isn't she walking yet? We are responsible for a human being but we can not fully control them. So when parenting is uncertain and you feel you've lost all control keep perspective and be brave for your child. Help them see that in a world of uncertainty you can take a deep breath and summon up courage to continue to try and achieve goals and enjoy your life. Uncertainty is the certainty. And remember, sometimes there are amazing things waiting in the unknown.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Because Sometimes We're Toddlers Too

I recently re-located to Melbourne, Australia from Cleveland, Ohio. It has been a big move and adjustment although we are only here for a year. It has been a challenge to cope with my son’s toddler tantrums and barrage of different emotions while handling my own stress associated with this major life change. I feel my patience wearing thinner at times and my frustration become more apparent to my son through my tone and facial expressions. At times I even check out and disappear into Facebook and feel guilty that I can’t be in the moment with him.

Recently we were out as a family walking and exploring the city. It was hot and the streets were very crowded. I was still coping with jet lag and a little homesick and overstimulated. We entered a Target and I was so excited because Target back home is such a haven for me. It was completely different than what I am used to and there were so many people it was hard to manoeuvre around with the stroller (or pram as they call it here). All of a sudden I felt this wave of emotion overcome me and wanted desperately to sit on the floor and cry. I imagined this in my head and thought of what I would say if anyone approached me. “I’m from the States. I just moved here. Everything is different and I don’t know anyone here” I would choke out amongst my sobs. I wanted someone to hear me, understand, and tell me it was going to be okay. In reality I just continued to push the pram amongst the crowded section of baby goods. “They don’t sell Pampers, how could they not sell Pampers?!” I screamed aloud in my head bothered by this at a very irrational level. My husband must of saw something in my face and asked me what was wrong. I just stated. “I’m just tired” and moved along. We left Target and eventually made our way to the river boardwalk near our apartment. The crowds thinned and I watched the river and imagined kayaking down the river into the ocean and how beautiful it would be. The wave of emotion passed over me and I felt calm again. This is often something I find helpful to remind myself of when I am overwhelmed by emotions: a wave. Emotions don’t last forever and are fleeting. They can come crashing down upon you but they eventually settle before another one comes and you can catch a breath.

Reflecting on this incident inspired a renewed empathy with my son. I understand what it feels like to have a wave of emotion overtake you and not really know why it’s there or what to do. I felt such a primal instinct to fall apart in that moment but as an adult I am armed with so much more than my son has at his disposal: logic, perspective, coping skills, language and communication, and insight. And it is so easy to forget this empathy when I am trying to get the dishes done and my son is crying after I take away some small household item that could be a choking hazard or when he has said “Mommy” for the 43rd time to show me again that he removed all of the wipes from the wipes container and spread them across the floor.

We have a right to our frustrations as mothers. But we don’t have a right to use these frustrations as a mean to invalidate our child’s feelings. We can challenge ourselves as moms to relate and empathize with our children in the most trying times instead of sending the message that their feelings are frustrating to us. Imagine you are having a drink with your friend and after venting about your frustrations with your partner, your job, or your kids she rolls her eyes, takes a frustrated sigh, or says “Can you just calm down?!” I doubt you’d be calling her for drinks after that. We all have times where feelings overcomes us, when we can’t articulate what we’re feeling, or we can’t see any solutions. And for our children this may happen even more often because of many factors, a change in environment, a new insecurity they aren’t sure how to cope with, physical changes, or some stressor they haven’t been able to articulate or feel comfortable about talking with us about.

So next time your child is pitching a fit take a deep breath and hold them tight. Remember a wave is crashing down on them and although it won’t last forever, they need you. You are their lifejacket.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Motherhood is Not an Number

We are a people who like cold data and hard facts. We feel safe in the quantification of our success and failures. Insecurities about our performance can become less subjective and ambiguous because you can't argue with numbers. How much in sales? What percentage growth? How many hits/likes/stars, etc?

On an individual level many companies find a way to quantify employee performance even when tasks can't necessarily be quantified. As a social worker it was difficult to measure my success with clients but I was evaluated in several areas on a 5 point scale yearly my a direct supervisor. I loved performance evaluation time. My type A personality traits relished in the fact that I could receive quantified validation of my work. I always got 4s and 5s ratings and althought my inner 4th grade teacher's pet got a sense of pride from them it was more a relief that someone saw me trying my best. The other 364 days a year are spent wondering if I made the right decisions, said the right things, or did anything that affected change in a child or family. In my line of work you couldn't correlate a child's positive behaviors with what I said or did because it was too subjective and there were too many other factors involved. But my 4s and 5s said that at least someone saw what I did and was thinking I was on the right track.

Then my son comes along. I have no direct supervisor or evaluation on a 5 point scale. And even if I measured customer satisfaction-how do I measure it? Smiles? Giggles? Ounces of breastmilk or formula? Developmental milestones? Not only am I at a loss for how to measure my performance I have a new set of insecurities and am out of my comfort zone. So I did the only logical thing in my mind: compare to all other mothers. Only what that turned out to be was to find everything other mothers were and were not doing and obsess over whether or not was I was or was not doing them. It only led to more confusion and more insecurity. And even knowing this I still do it sometimes.

So how do we keep ourselves from putting unfair expectations on ourselves in order to have the validation we crave that we are mothering well? On my own journey I had several reflections on this:

1) Take stock of your strengths. What are your strengths as a mom? Are you the active mom that always gets your child out and about and exposed to new experiences? Maybe you're the mom that keeps a orderly and structured home which gives your little one a sense of security. Perhaps your the ultra-nurturer showering your child with affection and handling tantrums with patience and empathy. As a social worker I was taught the perspective of looking at the individual in terms of their strengths and aiding them in using strengths to solve problems rather than starting with the problem itself. Take time to relish your strengths and know that you are giving your child a unique experience that will foster a part of their physical, emotional, or social wellbeing. When the day has been tough and you start to let that inner critic tear you down go back to you strengths and use them to bring you back to a feeling of accomplishment. Your strengths are the unique tools that are innate within you and make you a special mom. Sit down and write a list of at leaste 5 of your strengths so you can see them all before you and stay tuned for a follow up post on how exactly to use your strengths to address the issues with which you may be struggling. Maybe you have strengths you haven't even thought about using as a mom. 

2) Set a specific and measurable goal. I will probably continue to bring up this skill a lot. The reason I am so passionate about measurable goals is because I am the queen of having the perspective of the glass being half empty at the end of the day. I never accomplished enough and there is always more to do than ever possible in my head.  Maybe, like me, you would love to challenge yourself to make healthier meals for your child. Set a goal for 2 new healthy recipes to try out each week. Maybe you're the impatient mom who yells more than you want to. Set a goal to use a particular skill daily and track your yelling to see your patterns (like making a tick mark in a notebook every time you yell). When you set measurable goals you not only begin with the end in mind but also set yourself up for success and a feeling of accomplishment. This will in turn effect your attitude, your self-esteem, and your drive to keep improving yourself. You will visually see progress instead of having an unclear view of how much or little you have improved.

3) Let go of what tears you down as a mom and hold on to the things that build you back up. Let go of unfair expectations whether by you, society, or significant others. Let go of the inner voice always pointing out what you didn't do. Let go of taking responsibility for things beyond your control (i.e. You are not responsible for your child's actions only for the way you respond to them).  Hold on to smiles, giggles, "I love yous", mumblings of "thanks" from your irritable teen. These are the 4s and the 5s. Remember them, journal them, and discard the negatives.

4) Ask for feedback. It can feel a little odd to ask "How am I doing?" to your partner or your children but it can open up a great conversation. Let down your defenses and be willing to listen. Most likely you will be surprised by what your family has to say and even the constructive feedback can give you a chance to strive for something you know your child feels they need. Host a family meeting for everyone to have the chance to offer feedback and state what they appreciate about one another and what they would like more of from each other. Simple sentence completions can be utilized such for younger children such as, "I like when mom _______", "I would like it if mom would _______ more or less."

To simply conclude remember that you are doing a job that is it beyond numbers. And you're doing better than you think you are. My apologies though, a raise is just not in the budget this year.

Welcome to Full Motherhood

"This is hard."

And it's true. It is really hard.

Once you're in the mom club life gets full of contradictions and confusion. Day to day pace picks up and trudges along at the same time. You can feel completely bored and overwhelmed by things to do at the same time. All you want is to be alone and when you are you can't help but miss that face, that smile, that giggle. It's easy to feel lost and find your own way in a sea of parenting decisions, online forums and pushy family members.

I'm not an mom expert. But I do have experience as a behavioral health therapist and my reflections on mental health have been a saving grace for me in my own motherhood journey. I inspire to have a full motherhood-one that invigorates me, challenges me, exhausts me, and ultimately fulfills me.

So welcome to Full Motherhood. I intend for this blog to be of encouragement for all you moms out there, drawing on mental and emotional wellness concepts to help you find your own fulfillment in motherhood. From coping with anxiety, frustration or anger and finding peace within the moment, rejecting judgment and societal expectations, and finding your own mom confidence, I hope my weekly posts leave you feeling a little bit lighter of the negative and fuller of self-awareness and joy in privilege of being a mother.