Archive for Self-Care for Parents

Feeding the Kids with My Eyes Closed (and Other Reasons to Love Co-Sleeping)

cosleepingNot long after my first child was born, I found myself in a discussion with another new mom about how (not so) well our babies were sleeping. Really, what else do new mothers talk about? It was inevitable that the topic would come up. What wasn’t so obvious to me – though perhaps it should have been – was the discouragement I’d be met with when I confided that my six month-old son slept in bed with my husband and me.

Other moms at the play-date soon dropped their conversations and joined ours. I was grateful for the increase in numbers. Surely, one of them would defend the choice my husband and I had made, offering further assurance that yes, it was possible to sleep peacefully with a baby at your side, and no, we didn’t stay awake all night, petrified we’d roll over on our children.

But, it seemed – at that particular play-date, anyway – that I was alone. The other moms were sincere in their disbelief and peppered me with questions. Back then, I lacked confidence in my answers. After all, I hadn’t intended to co-sleep. I didn’t even know there was a word for it. I just knew that although I’d intended for my son to sleep in his crib as my pediatrician advised, I found it didn’t work. My son hardly slept, but I got even less shut-eye than him. When I wasn’t tending to my crying infant, I lay in my own bed, down the hall, watching my son on the video monitor. I listened to his breathing patterns and watched his chest rise and fall as I attempted to will myself to take my eyes off the screen.

After a few nights of this nightmarish pattern, I flicked off the monitor, grabbed my son, and lay him beside me. The next day, I bought Dr. Sears’ The Baby Sleep Book and read up on how to sleep with your baby safely. I bought a guardrail for my bed, and placed my son between the rail and me at night (since my husband is an incredibly heavy sleeper and actually did worry me that he might roll over on our child). And, then, only a couple nights into this new way of doing things, both my baby and I got a good night’s sleep.

Those sleep-filled nights continued (barring a middle-of-the-night illness  or teething episode), and many years and another co-sleeping child later, my family was well-rested.

It’s been six years since we first let a child into our bed, and now, as I lay next to my snoozing twenty-month old, I think of all the benefits of co-sleeping I wish I could go back and share with those innocently incredulous women. I can’t repeat history, but I can share with a different audience some joys my husband and I have found in co-sleeping.

1) Emotional closeness. When my son was an infant, I joked that he was a heat-seeking missile. In his sleep, he would inch closer, eventually nestled right up against me. As he grew, he searched out my arm and used it as his pillow. Now, at six years old, he sleeps in his own room (what six year old wouldn’t prefer Star Wars bedding to a rose covered quilt?), but occasionally enjoys climbing into my husband’s and my bed when I’m putting his little sister to sleep. He rests his head on my shoulder, sweetly rubs his sister’s arm, and falls asleep right along with her.

2) Setting a precedent for our relationship. The door to the room my husband and I share is an open one for our children, just like our relationship with them. Co-sleeping has taught them that we are always accessible rather than “off limits”. It’s a lesson that translates into other aspects of their lives and that will continue to do so. Because we’ve listened and responded to their needs by allowing them to sleep beside us, our children understand that we are always approachable and available, that they can come to us, and that we will not turn them away.

3) Happy bedtimes. Because bedtime is a chance for us to settle down, cuddle and feel that awesome feeling you get when you’re snuggled up close to those you love, bedtime in our home is rarely a fight. I’ve been in homes where parents (and their kids) dread bedtime. Where kids cry and resist going to their rooms to sleep. Once, when I witnessed a particularly bad tantrum, it hit me that our children love bedtime (unless we’re having a sleepover at their grandparents’ home, where the love to stay up late). My one year-old usually goes to the steps by 7 p.m., and requests sweetly, “bed”. My 6 year-old son often bounds up the stairs to his room, then snuggles up close in his bed, where we read his chosen bedtime book.

4) Nearness in the not-so-healthy times. Co-sleeping offers the ability to read your child’s body language and respond accordingly. Many nights, because of my nearness, I discovered a fever early, before it had a chance to rise uncomfortably high. I could tell when a stomach bug was about to strike or when my son needed to use the bathroom, and in both instances, my closeness often helped my kids to avoid accidents. I soothed them through teething pain without them waking up. And on more than one occasion, I nudged my children back into a regular breathing pattern when, as infants, they had elongated (though usually normal) gaps in their breathing.

5) Less interrupted sleep. I’ll never forget the first time I woke and found my infant son had helped himself to nursing. I was initially confused. Had I fallen asleep nursing him? Obviously, I had. Had he never stopped? Being that it was hours later, obviously, he had. Had he really rolled back over and latched himself back on without me knowing? Yes to that, too. And then, once my perplexity faded, I felt relief that I hadn’t needed to get out of bed to feed or coddle him. As I drifted back to sleep, I wondered why I had ever attempted to put him in a crib in the first place.

6) Peace. It’s what all these other benefits lead to. The peace in knowing your children are safe, healthy, and nearby. The peace of feeling their bodies rise and fall with each breath they take. But, most important, it’s about the peace co-sleeping brings them. The comfort and security they gain from having their parents so close at hand. And, really, that’s the best benefit of all.

Image credit: kdshutterman (freedigitalphotos.com)

The Little Way of Lunches and Laundry

“The world lies to us so readily, telling us that the work of God is outside our homes. That the Lord’s work is gloriously big and newsworthy. That to find those who need us, we must look elsewhere. But, the reality is that the work of God begins inside our homes, for those who need us most are those we share our homes with. Because our spouses and our children go out and face the world armed with the same charity we’ve given them at home.”

“A toddler makes it difficult to do God’s work,” I lamented to my husband not long before Christmas. Our parish offered ID-100264365several opportunities to grow closer to Christ during Advent, and with Christmas around the corner, it seemed I’d be unable to attend a single one.

I’d specifically been planning to attend nighttime Adoration, but our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter needed me. She was still dependent upon me to nurse her to sleep, and though I very much wanted to sneak out the door, I could hear the exhaustion and desperation in her cries. I sighed and slipped off my coat, picked her up, and cuddled her in my arms. Instead of consoling the heart of Jesus at Adoration, I consoled my baby girl. Instead of getting spiritually fed by our Lord, I fed my daughter as she drifted off to sleep.

I’d like to say I did these things for my daughter with the love and compassion of our Blessed Mother, but I’d be lying. On the contrary, I did these things reluctantly and begrudgingly. I did these things for her with a quiet resentment.

Isn’t this always the way of it? So often I desire to find silence so I can pray, and yet, with children running around the house, silence is nowhere to be found. Many times I wish I could take a half hour to read a snippet of any of the myriad spiritual books lining my shelves, books that I’d long ago planned to crack open, and instead I see them boasting their perfectly un-creased spines. I’ve told my husband on at least a few occasions that I was going to take some time to go to the local soup kitchen to feed meals to those in need. I’ve yet to find the hours to go. And for all these things I counted as spiritual losses, I have looked at my children at some point and thought, “Yes, children indeed make it difficult to do God’s work.”

But, then, early this morning, as I attempted to get up to begin my day with some quiet prayer, my six year-old son came into my room, snuggling next to me to get warm, and whispered, “I want you.” Internally, I sighed, Even at 5 in the morning, I can’t steal some time alone. And though my body was tense, my son relaxed into me. He put his arm around my waist and I noticed a smile on his lips.

This is God’s work, I heard from somewhere within me. This is God’s work, came the whisper again. Because I needed the repetition.

My mother had been trying to tell this to me for quite some time. Always when I lamented that I felt the desire to be at church, she reminded me of my need to be at home. But my stubbornness had blinded me to what she wanted me to see for so long:

That to do God’s work, we must be content to do His will, even if that means being at home to tend our families instead of at church to tend to parishioners.

That raising our children and taking care of our families is God’s work.

That while facilitating a Bible study might be God’s work, telling our children the stories of Noah and King David and St. Paul is God’s work, too.

That while working at a soup kitchen to feed the homeless is certainly God’s work, standing in our own kitchens, feeding our families, is God’s work, too.

That while praying before the Blessed Sacrament is God’s work, praying with our children is God’s work, too.

As parents, we do God’s work in so many little ways.

A few years ago, when I read a book about Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta and of the volunteers who left their First World riches behind to tend to some of the poorest souls on Earth, I felt I’d missed my opportunity. After all, I was now a mother of a young son. There would be no Calcutta for me. No chance to bathe those who couldn’t bathe themselves, to feed those who couldn’t feed themselves, to clothe those who couldn’t clothe themselves.

But the irony of it is that while I wondered when I’d be able to do these works, I was actually doing them already. After all, aren’t I up early each morning, packing my son’s snack and lunch to nourish him during the school day ahead of him? Don’t I spend hours each week, cleaning endless piles of laundry so my family is appropriately clothed? Don’t I change diapers several times a day, and bathe the children every night? Don’t I clean the house constantly throughout the day so that my husband, who works so hard for our family, can come home to a place not of chaos but of peace?

The world lies to us so readily, telling us that the work of God is outside our homes. That the Lord’s work is gloriously big and newsworthy. That to find those who need us, we must look elsewhere. But, the reality is that the work of God begins inside our homes, for those who need us most are those we share our homes with. Because our spouses and our children go out and face the world armed with the same charity we’ve given them at home.

Blessed Mother Teresa knew this well. She instructed, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home, and love your family.”

Doing God’s work, I’ve realized, really is as simple and as important as that.

image credit: “Happy Mother and Son Playing” by photostock (freedigitalphotos.com)

Grateful Parent, Happy Parent

gratitude

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmastime. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” — G.K. Chesterton

All parents want to be happy and God wants that for us, too.  There are obstacles to our happiness, though.  We can fall into the trap of believing that once our baby sleeps through the night we will be happy. Or when we move into that larger home. Or when our toddler matures and stops throwing tantrums. We wait and hope for that moment when we will have the right house, the right job, the right behavior in our child. Of course this is an illusion.

One of the best ways to thrive as a parent has nothing to do with anything in our external environment. It boils down to our attitude, our perspective, our deepest beliefs about our life as parents. In particular, the happiest parents are those who cultivate gratitude, who recognize the many gifts they receive as parents – gifts they never expected, asked for, or deserved.

1. Why being grateful makes us happier

Scientists only really began to study gratitude in the last 10 to 20 years, but their findings are pretty startling. Many psychologists once believed that humans are born with a “set point” for happiness and that nothing we do can change it much. But the research on gratitude contradicts this viewpoint. People who cultivate gratitude in their lives experience measurable increased happiness, decreased depressions and anxiety, and better interpersonal relationships. Here’s a great article over at Psychology Today that provides a nice overview of gratitude research.

Apparently Americans express gratitude less readily than people in other cultures. Perhaps we struggle with gratitude because we so value independence and self-sufficiency while gratitude by definition requires us to recognize that somebody has given something to us that we have not earned, that we owe somebody a debt of thanks for a gift received. Gratitude is always other-directed. You can be proud of yourself, angry at yourself, or love yourself, but you can’t really be grateful to yourself.

I think this is why gratitude is so powerful in transforming us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. God made human beings for communion and connection, and a grateful spirit allows us to move more easily outside our little shells to acknowledge one another, to embrace some other. We, for a moment at least, acknowledge that we are better off because of another person, that we get by only because of the work, generosity, and gifts of others. Gratitude feels good and leads to a better life because it allows us to be more human.

2. Gratitude 101: Recognizing and acknowledging gifts

We all have habits that make it hard for us develop real gratitude in our parenting. One of the big ones is viewing ourselves as victims of our children’s choices and habits. We may also have an unconscious sense of entitlement: we think we deserve a particular life or child we don’t have! Or perhaps we are not willing to see our own part in the struggles we have with our children. Are we inconsistent with rules, boundaries, and expectations? Do we yell too much? Shop or drink too much?

We can change these habits. Cultivating gratitude is a choice, not just an emotion. We can choose to become more grateful parents: we can cultivate the habit of gratitude and before we know it, we will be happier parents, able to recognize the spectacular gift we have received in each of our children, more alert to the graces of God in ordinary moments with our kids.

Being grateful requires us to recognize a gift and then to acknowledge it. How does this work for parents? Here are some practical tips for becoming a more grateful parent:

Journaling: Consider keeping gratitude a journal. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to write about five that occurred during the day that you are grateful for. I think this is a great idea for developing a heightened awareness of the good things of life that might go unnoticed because we are distracted or inattentive.

Prayer: Spiritual directors often tell their directees that the first step in spiritual growth is to foster a grateful heart. When I learned about the practice of the Ignatian daily examen prayer, I was told that the first step in the prayer is simply a gesture of gratitude. Megs Blackie over at Ignatius Spirituality explains:

“Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying ‘thank you.’ Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.”

To savor and to celebrate. That is the heart of gratitude. Sin often begins with a failure to recognize God’s gifts, a failure to give thanks. So the first step of the examen prayer is to reflect back over our day almost like a movie being replayed. We pause and meditate on any interactions or struggles that really stand out. We pause and reflect on these moments, look for and acknowledge God’s grace at work.

Visual reminders: Gratitude mentors encourage us to place visual reminders of gratitude around our homes. These might be little plaques or word clouds about gratitude, or perhaps something tangible that symbolizes some gift we want to honor. My youngest daughter Lydia likes to give my wee flowers that are so tiny I can hardly place them in a bud vase without drowning them. When I place these on the window sill above our kitchen sink, it is a reminder of my gratitude for her sweet gestures of affection. I am currently planning a quilt made from some of my children’s old clothing, particularly their baby clothes. If I ever manage to finish it, it will be a visible, cuddly reminder to be grateful for the unfolding of my children’s lives. My older daughter Claire made several painted river rocks over the summer. I think placing a painted gratitude rock on a tray on a nightstand would be a simple, lovely reminder to count our blessings.

3. Gratitude even on bad days?

What about really horrible, frustrating days? Can we find gratitude on these days? Absolutely. Here’s a great reminder from Henri Nouwen:

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart responds with bitterness . . . I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and grimaces of hatred.”

The fun, sweet times with our kids are easy to spot as graces we can be grateful for, but even the crummy stuff holds special graces. Maybe you had a flat tire and your van was filled with hungry, tired kids. While inconvenient, upon reflection you may remember that the tow truck guy was pleasant and humorous and made you smile. This is a grace for which we can be grateful. An argument with a child might lead to greater understanding between the two of you or you perhaps recognize some habit in yourself that isn’t working in your relationship. We can be grateful for these insights despite the discomfort of the argument.

Our perspective shapes our experience of parenting. When you’re a parent, inevitable frustrations and challenges arise, but how you perceive the situation can change your physical and emotional reaction to your children. When you perceive yourself as a victim, as not getting something you earned or deserve as a parent, you can become resentful. Before long your whole experience of parenting has soured and you have a hard time recognizing how privileged you are to be a mom or dad.

Recognizing the many things we have to be grateful for as we raise our particular children, in our particular home, on this particular day will make us happier parents no matter the challenges we encounter. Gratitude is the greatest enemy of resentment, period. Developing a habit of looking for graces and offering our gratitude increases our awareness of the way God is always active in our lives, how he always accompanies us on our parenting journey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Resources for Your Gratitude Practice

Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons. The science of gratitude and how to practice it.

Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer by David Steindl-Rast. “Waking up to the surprise that we live in a given world means coming alive. Awareness of this surprise is the beginning of gratefulness.”

It’s Okay to “Just” Be a Mom

autumn family2

Every so often, it seems I am compelled to test my limits–to see how much I can cram into my schedule before I break. And, before I know it, I’m a harried mess, wondering why my household, and my mind, are falling apart.

As moms, we feel so much pressure. And not just from the local news anchor who’s back on the job after six weeks of maternity leave or from the working mom next door who appears to “do it all”. It’s so easy to start comparing myself to other stay-at-home moms–to feel like I’m the only mom in the whole school who’s never been a room mother or volunteered for recess duty or served on the PTO board. And so I take on a little more. I try to do anything that will make people see that I’m doing something. Pride threatens to take over, I forget who I am, and I place too much value on human esteem.

We all have different talents, different temperaments, and different thresholds for the various stressors in life. I’m not the working mom next door. I’m not the ten o’clock news anchor. I’m not even the PTO board member. I don’t have to save the world, but I am responsible for raising a part of the future of the world. And so it’s up to me to know myself–to realize what is required of me as the heart of my home and keep that as my primary focus.

As an introvert, I need time alone to recharge. I need quality prayer time every day. I need time to breathe in the sanctuary of my own home, or my stress level quickly elevates and radiates out to my family. As the heart of the home, everyone I live with has a finger on my pulse. Whether I like it or not, even my most subtle mood changes have drastic effects on the atmosphere in my home. Staying healthy, both physically and mentally, is never just about me. My state of being directly affects my husband and all five of my children. My state of being is the example around which our family life revolves. My state of being is my family’s guidepost, for better or for worse.

My children are only young once. I have a very small window of time to guide them in the direction that I hope they will go. They need a mother who is present and unharried (at least most of the time), a household that is free of chaos, and a schedule that is centered on family bonds and the love of Christ.

It’s okay to “just” be a mom. It’s okay to spend days doing laundry, baking, and jumping in leaf piles with my children. It’s okay to say no to most outside activities so I’ll have time to waste time with my family.

Making choices that support these values is not always easy. Sometimes we meet people who don’t understand, who think we spoil our children, or who think we simply aren’t “doing” much. But “what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15)

God sees every load of laundry, every diaper changed, every wound caressed. He sees us organizing the snow boots, baking banana bread, and making snowmen out of play dough. He knows that the moments we take to breathe and care for ourselves are moments that will allow us to give more love to our family. And He knows we’re doing something. He knows we’re doing the most important thing. And, in His eyes, we are esteemed.

Image credit: Vlado (freedigitalphotos.com)

Who Mothers Mommy?

Maternal Kiss (Mary Cassatt)Motherhood is a profound blessing and should be deep source of meaning for women, but a mom also faces sleepless nights, strained schedules, and the competing needs of her kids, her spouse, her extended family, her community, and finally HERSELF! What allows some moms to thrive and to find deep satisfaction in motherhood despite the inevitable challenges while others do not thrive emotionally?

Two researchers at Arizona State University asked this question and in a newly-released study they cite 4 key factors that protect mom’s well-being and sense of satisfaction:

1.  Unconditional Acceptance

Moms who can say, “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core” do better in motherhood than moms who feel their value depends on their performance or appearance.  Every mom needs people who will allow them to be honest about their failures, make amends, find new hope and direction, and still be cherished for the unique, unrepeatable persons they are. And this happens to be the model of the love, mercy, and reconciliation that Christ offers us.

2.  Feeling Comforted When Needed

Moms need to be able to say, “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.”  When you are a mom and you feel distressed it is very scary. You have these little people in your care and their very lives depend on you. We all need somebody who will really listen to us and then comfort us in the way WE need when we are struggling so we can get a little perspective on the problem. Sometimes that means somebody will just listen to us without trying to fix the problem — we just need emotional comfort.  At other times we need them to fix it in some way – perhaps through physical relief (a nap, a chance to get out of the house for an hour to clear our head).  Only somebody with some level of empathy will be capable of tuning into a mother’s real need. Without this capacity for attunement, the other person will tend to do what they think we need or what they would want themselves.

3.  Authenticity in Relationships

Feeling like you have to put on a show all the time is really depressing — literally. All mothers will have moments when her ideal for herself as a mom does not match up with what’s on her mind. You love your children but at some point you will probably feel depleted or desperate or even downright irrational. When mothers feel like they have to be perfect around their friends and family, when they can’t be honest with anyone about what they are feeling and thinking, they are at a much higher risk for depression. When you can’t be authentic, you cannot thrive.

Once when my third child was a newborn and my two older kids were still very young, my husband went on an extended work trip. At one point I was talking to him on the phone and I had not slept in two days because my older kids would not go to bed and the baby was still waking every 2 to 3 hours. I felt desperate and helpless! Well, I told him how I was really feeling not what I thought he wanted to hear. I was starting to feel a little kooky and I was not coping well. I was at the if-these-kids-don’t-go-to-sleep-I’m-going-to-smack-them point. When I shared with my husband how I felt, he cut his meeting short, got on an airplane, and came home. He didn’t shame me or say “what the heck is wrong with you?” or pat me on the head with a “you are so strong you can handle anything.”  He came home and I went to bed and then I felt better. I am grateful that I could be honest with him about my REAL feelings even though they fell short of what I hoped for myself as a mom. Because I had that freedom, it allowed him to comfort me in the way I most needed — physical relief (see number 2 above).

4. Friendship Satisfaction

Moms do better emotionally in motherhood when they have a few friends in their lives who can give and receive love.  I think particularly for women, the quality of our friendships has a deep impact on our well-being.

The bottom line: nurturing adult relationships keeps a mom “happy, healthy, and able to give or herself.” And you will notice that all four factors are essential for a child’s flourishing as well!  Children need unconditional acceptance, they need to know they will be comforted when distressed, they need to know they can be authentic in their relationship with their parents, and they need people in their lives who are emotionally free enough to give and receive love. In many ways, we cannot give to our children what we don’t have. So, if our adults relationships are impoverished, we need to find a way to build up the love and support we need in order to love and support our children.

Not the Whole Story . . .

I think this research is very important and reminds us that God created us for community. I would add, though, that clearly we can identity other factors that set satisfied mothers apart from those who suffer.  In particular, many times our perception of ourselves as mothers impacts our ability to experience joy and satisfaction. Our culture doesn’t value mothering in the way it deserves. If we feel we need to live up to the world’s definition of success, we can struggle with our identity and sense of meaning. If we perceive motherhood as a drudgery, a drag, then we will bring that perception with us into the inevitable demands of motherhood. The first factor in the study sort of hints at this – we need unconditional acceptance. But I think we need people in our lives who value us not only as unique, unrepeatable persons, but also as mothers in particular — who recognize the unique gifts that mothers bring to their families that nobody else can give.

Hanging by My Fingernails

Before I had the courage to let go of my whole way of living, two inner images rose up in my mind as symbols of my controlling behavior.

When my family was still young and I had only seven children from twelve-years-old down to a newborn, I earnestly strove to raise the best children I could. Yet all my effort was actually hindering their development because my anxiety and control acted like a barrier, a prison around them. I was, in fact, preventing my children’s inner, natural development into well-balanced, creative people.

broken-wagon-wheel-1405148000B82I did not take subtle hints, so a powerful inner image rose up from my subconscious which symbolized what I was actually doing by refusing to let go of control.

First I saw an ocean and a tiny black dot in the water. Slowly the image grew larger till I was face to face with a huge octopus.

The scene switched and now seven tentacles wrapped around each of my children with my husband in the eighth. All of them were grey, limp almost lifeless.

I suddenly realized that I was, in fact, the octopus; I was squeezing the life out of my family.

In this inner vision, a sword appeared in a blaze of light and severed each tentacle one by one. The severed tentacle shriveled and fell off each child. As soon as each one was set free, they began dancing and laughing in the sunshine. Soon all seven were joyfully playing.

The eighth tentacle was wrapped tightly around my husband. The kids stopped playing and kneeled on the ground, weeping, desperately pulling and tugging the tentacle but to no avail. Suddenly, in a flash of light, the sword of truth cut through the tentacle, my husband was released and came back to life.

Yet even after this appalling self-revelation, I still could not let go of control.

It was like I stood on the hub of a wagon wheel with my large family balanced on the rim. I crouched on the hub, frantically turning this way and that, grabbing all the broken spokes, desperate to hold the crumbling structured together.

I realized that I had to let go of this futile sense of responsibility and control but I was afraid to stop, afraid that one moment of inattention would cause my entire family to tumble down into the abyss.

I was trapped.

Yet, I realized that once again, my tension, my control acted like a wall, shutting out all life. My sincere concern and earnest self-sacrifice actually magnified everyone’s brokenness by freezing everyone and everything.

It took years, but I finally surrendered control. The broken spokes were instantly repaired. The kids and my husband started smiling. I was free. We were free.

I read a quote that said the worst sin against another human being beside hate and murder is trying to control and manipulate them because you are stealing their real identity, molding them into a false image. Sometimes we just need to “let go” of the things that we worry about (i.e. our children, loved ones, or family members). When we are able to do that, we (and the people we care about) can then truly experience the freedom of living!

Dealing with Discouragement

“Discouragement can feel like such a powerful emotion. It robs us of our peace, makes us question the plan God has for us, and tempts us to despair. But in reality, it has no power. When we call it what it is, the work of the one who wants to see us fail, it is so much easier to see it as what it is:  an illusion, a trick.”

discouragement fancy

I’ve been thinking a lot about discouragement lately. How powerful it can be and how powerless it should be. We are all vulnerable to discouragement in different ways, and it’s a tricky thing- it can sneak up on us when we least expect it.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling mightily with discouragement lately. I feel it sneaking up on me each time my just-cleaned kitchen becomes sticky with spilled juice and scattered with crumbs. It rears its ugly head when an idea I’m excited about for my moms’ group isn’t met with the enthusiasm I expected. I find it lurking in the background when I struggle with overcoming challenges in my marriage. And often, discouragement can be the dominant feeling when my kids are just not behaving the way I want them to. Discouragement says, “Why bother? What you’re doing isn’t working. Your efforts are not worth it. You might as well just give up.”  This quickly leads from simple discouragement to despair, which is a scary, lonely place to be.

As parents, we have to be on guard when this voice whispers in our ear. Why? Because I can tell you, with certainty, that voice is not coming from God. In fact, it almost certainly is coming from the evil one. And there is nothing he wants more than to convince us that what we are trying to do as parents doesn’t matter, that it’s not worth it.

Let’s face it. Parents can be easy targets for this kind of temptation. Parenting can be an exhausting, thankless job. There are no promotions, no bonus checks. We are often criticized for what we do or don’t do, even by those close to us. When despite our efforts to parent with gentleness, grace, and love, our children act less than angelically (as children do), how tempting it is to say, “Why bother?”

The world would have us believe that we shouldn’t. That the effort that we put into raising our children might be better channeled into a “paying job” or something that we find more personally fulfilling. The world would have us believe that having a well-behaved child is more important than how we are working toward that behavior. When faced with this kind of thinking, of course we are susceptible to discouragement and hopelessness. I’ve often come face to face with despair when I think too much about how to navigate this world that is so often at odds with my faith. So what can we do about it?

Well, to start with, we must acknowledge this feeling and name where it comes from. When I hear the words in my head, “Why do I even bother?,” it is a signal for me to stop what I’m doing and identify the source. Once I’ve acknowledged that it’s not coming from God, I can begin to actively work against it.

Scripture is full of encouragement when we are feeling burdened by worry or failure, and I keep these passages handy for when the feeling pops up.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

Where we are weak, God is strong. What greater encouragement is there!? We do not have to be strong, or even successful.  In fact, it is better if we are not at times, so that God can take over and work through us. This simple idea turns discouragement on its head because it take our failures and turns them into God’s sucesses. We need not strive for perfection, only for trust in God and his perfect plan for us.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

When the feeling of discouragement and despair feels overwhelming, there is nothing more powerful than prayer. When I was a child, my mom told me that if I ever felt really frightened, all I needed to do was say a Hail Mary, because anything evil was no match for the Blessed Mother. This stuck with me, and while I’m no longer afraid of what might lurk in the closet, I now have anxiety and fears that feel bigger than those monsters under the bed. Now, when I hear the evil one whispering discouragements in my ear, I stop what I’m doing and pray to the Blessed mother. The evil one and his disparagements flee. They are no match for a loving mother.

Which brings me to my next point: We have to talk to our kids about how to deal with discouragement. In a world that rewards success and punishes failure, we have to instill in our children that God’s ways are not the ways of the world. We have to tell them that hopelessness is not from our loving Father, but from our nemesis. Childhood has the potential to be rife with discouragement. There is so much to be learned, and thus so many opportunities to fail! But if we share with our kids that God takes their failures and makes them His successes, they will be empowered to withstand the real disappointments and yes, even despair, that they are almost certain to face in their lives.

As parents, we are called to stand in for our Heavenly Father on earth, encouraging our children when they are feeling lonely, despairing, hurt. Even if the despair of a small child seems inconsequential to us. (Raise your hand if you’ve comforted your child through the despair of not being able to put their shoes on by themselves, or the angst of not being able to spend an extra half hour at the park!) That is what God does for us when we feel hopeless. So when we say, “I can see you are upset that you can’t do this, but it’s ok. I’ll help you and you can try again next time,” we are showing our children how God treats each one of us. It might even be helpful to explain this feeling to our kids, and put a name to it. After all, naming this feeling as an adult takes away so much of it’s power over us.

This all brings me back to where I started.

Discouragement can feel like such a powerful emotion. It robs us of our peace, makes us question the plan God has for us, and tempts us to despair. But in reality, it has no power. When we call it what it is, the work of the one who wants to see us fail, it is so much easier to see it as what it is:  an illusion, a trick. Our God is infinitely more powerful than any of these tricks; we need only turn to him when we feel its presence, and teach our families to do the same.

Image credit: stockimages, freedigitalphotos.net

What’s Your Communication Style?

communicationI heard Bill Sandoval on his Catholic radio show last week describe The Five Communication Styles, a concept explored through the work of psychologist Claire Newton.  Recognizing these styles and how we tend to communicate can help us become more effective communicators with our spouse and kids, and help us guide own kids in developing more effective communication skills, especially when dealing with difficult people.

Here are the 5 styles of communication:

1.  Aggressive

The aggressive communicator is demanding, abrasive, intimidating, and explosive. They tend to be very sarcastic or they threaten, blame, and insult the other person. “You are crazy.” “Don’t be stupid.” “You make me sick.” “That’s about enough out of you.” “Stop OR ELSE.” These are things an aggressive communicator might say.

Newton says, “This style is about winning – often at someone else’s expense. An aggressive person behaves as if their needs are the most important, as though they have more rights, and have more to contribute than other people. It is an ineffective communication style as the content of the message may get lost because people are too busy reacting to the way it’s delivered.”

People on the other end tend to become aggressive in return or they avoid any kind of confrontation with the aggressive person out of fear. So clearly this communication style is ineffective, because the other person actually avoids us or they want to attack us back.

Hollywood promotes aggressive communication too much and parents should be aware of it. Pay attention to the discourse in movies and popular television shows: the “hero” often has an aggressive communication style and this is portrayed as cool or admirable in some way. I’ve even seen some children’s cable television programs that portray families communicating with one another sarcastically and rudely, and too often the writers try to make it seem normal or funny.

I think many of us are drawn to empathic, gentle parenting partly because we experienced aggressive communication in our childhood and we know it is scary. Children in the long run absorb our message better if we speak to them respectfully and without threats. Teenagers often rebel against aggressive communicators.

2. Passive Aggressive

I have to say that this communication style scares me the most.  Newton explains: “This is a style in which people appear passive on the surface, but are actually acting out their anger in indirect or behind-the-scenes ways. Prisoners of War often act in passive-aggressive ways in order to deal with an overwhelming lack of power. People who behave in this manner usually feel powerless and resentful, and express their feelings by subtly undermining the object (real or imagined) of their resentments – even if this ends up sabotaging themselves. The expression “Cut off your nose to spite your face” is a perfect description of passive-aggressive behaviour.”

Passive-aggressive types can be very sugary sweet on the surface, even touching the person’s arm to communicate warmth, but they are manipulative, tend to gossip, and are two faced – they are nice to your face but spread rumors behind your back or they sabotage your efforts without you knowing it. (This sounds eerily like some behaviour in my dorm at an all-women’s college!)

I suspect that some children of aggressive parents become passive aggressive as they mature. They have to find some way to protect their sense of dignity, but they are too fearful to confront the parent or speak their mind. But when this coping strategy becomes a habit, the child is harmed even more because it affects their other relationships which could have been a source of healing and love.

3. Submissive

Newton explains: “This style is about pleasing other people and avoiding conflict. A submissive person behaves as if other peoples’ needs are more important, and other people have more rights and more to contribute.”

What Newton is talking about here is different from the self-giving love that we frequently talk about on this blog. As the heads of our domestic church, parents have to consider the vulnerability of family members in determining whose needs are met first. A young baby’s needs are more urgent than a teenager’s, because the teenager has the emotional ability to postpone getting his need met in order to meet a higher good. A baby is not cognitively capable of adjusting their own expectations or conceptualizing when their need might be met, so they become legitimately distressed when they are hungry, tired, or even bored.

Newton is talking about a person who puts the needs of another person before their own out of fear of rejection. They apologize any time they are asking for what they need, they always do what others want to do and act like what they want to do doesn’t matter, they brush off compliments, and avoid conflict at all costs. People on the other end actually end up feeling frustrated and distant from the submissive person. You can’t have true friendship with a submissive communicator.

4. Manipulative

A manipulative communicator tries to control you, but they don’t do it directly. Instead, they say things that leave you feeling guilty or sorry for them. One of my relatives had a mother-in-law who would say things like “Oh, you two go off camping. Don’t worry about me. If I have a stroke I’m sure somebody could find you to let you know . . .” This is a classic manipulative communication style.  Newton explains: “This style is scheming, calculating and shrewd. Manipulative communicators are skilled at influencing or controlling others to their own advantage. Their spoken words hide an underlying message, of which the other person may be totally unaware.” Of course my relative felt badly for her mother-in-law and guilty for wanting to camp with her husband, but if she canceled her trip she would in the end feel resentful toward her mother-in-law.

While toddlers rarely have tantrums that are motivated by manipulation, older children can sometimes develop manipulative tantrums. In fact, if this communication style can become a bad habit for them. They may cry in the middle of a store when asking for a treat because they know you’ll be embarrassed and give in. It’s important to guide older children in expressing their needs and desires honestly, assertively, and respectfully. We should never “give in” to manipulative tantrums.

5. Assertive

The most effective communication style is assertive. Newton says that when we communicate assertively, “[w]e have the confidence to communicate without resorting to games or manipulation. We know our limits and don’t allow ourselves to be pushed beyond them just because someone else wants or needs something from us. Surprisingly, however, assertive is the style most people use least.”

Assertive communicators have a high self-esteem and are capable of perceiving the experiences and feelings of others. They protect their own rights and recognize that they, too, have needs, but they also consider the rights and needs of others. They ask for what they need, but they do it respectfully. For example, they would ask, “Could you please turn down the volume on the television? I am having a hard time studying” rather than screaming and cursing at the t.v. watcher (this is aggressive communication) or accidentally-on-purpose unplugging the t.v. (passive aggressive) or walking around pouting because they can’t study well (manipulative). They just ask for what they need, but they do it with a respectful tone. When you are dealing with an assertive communicator, you feel like you can trust their word and you can offer your own opinion without being attacked.

It’s interesting to note that the attributes of the assertive communicator are shared by folks who possess a secure attachment disposition. Securely-attached children and adults have self-confidence, recognize the needs and experience of others, and expect to be treated with respect. But even our securely-attached children need guidance in communicating assertively. We can give them lots of practice during conflicts with siblings and friends, and by providing a good example ourselves!

Image credit: artur84, freedigitalphotos.net

 

The Care and Keeping of YOU

This summer I’ve made a special effort to keep our family schedule light, because I have learned the hard way that jam-packed days leave my kids grumpy and me drained.  But even with our open calendar, I am finding myself over-doing things: clearing out our homeschool room, repainting the house, hosting play dates, helping a son cope with chronic migraines, and going to Radio Shack with yet another shopping list for robot parts. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but on Friday I noticed that I was much too tired and depleted.

This morning I appreciated this reminder from Tim Muldoon over at Ignatian Spirituality:

[O]ur care for other persons must not neglect the care of that one person whom we will know our entire lives:  ourselves.  For those who practice care for others, it can be easy to neglect the self.  Parenting, I find, can elicit from me patterns of self-giving which are not really sustainable.  Losing sleep, always seeking the good of the other, spending time on what the other needs instead of what I need—all these I tend to write off as so many types of sacrificial love that I can offer up to God.

Does that sound familiar?  We simply cannot survive parenthood without the regular practice of self-care. We really have to look at it as part of a spiritual practice, because without caring for our bodies, minds, and spirits, we will be crippled in doing the work God  has for us do.

The smaller our kids are, the harder it is to practice self-care, but it’s  all the more important.  How we recharge or refuel is a very personal matter. Writer Holly Pierlot takes regular “mother sabbaticals” during which she goes out alone for an afternoon to pray or just think.  This is a great suggestion and parents should not feel guilty about needing time away from their kids to get their brains back in order.  However, many of us lack the luxury to do this regularly or we just don’t want to leave our small babies for extended periods.

Even if we enjoy personal sabbaticals, we need to practice self-care more frequently than a day out can give us.  Muldoon suggests “taking long naps, reading a challenging essay, physical exercise, foreign travel, walks in nature, conversation with friends, a glass of wine on a beautiful lanai, or climbing a mountain.”  What strikes me about Muldoon’s suggestions is that I could do just about all these things with my family around me.  (Except perhaps reading a challenging essay . . . )

Over the weekend, instead of painting baseboard, Philip and I took the kids hiking.  The hike was absolutely beautiful, but also physically challenging.

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I initially viewed this outing as “for my kids,” but I see in retrospect that I was also practicing self-care.  Seeing a new place, experiencing nature’s strange silence, and feeling my muscles working hard to carry me forward renewed my spirit as I prepared for the week. I think I needed a change of scenery – literally.  This week my head is less cob-webbed, praying is easier, and my imagination is percolating.

I’m thinking this afternoon about “mini-sabbaticals.”  Instead of going off for a day alone every two weeks, why not carve out thirty minutes to an hour every day when we can be grown-ups doing grown-up stuff?  This may take the cooperation of our spouse if we have very small children, but it’s worth considering.  When my kids were all little I instituted an afternoon quiet hour during which everyone — babies, toddlers, older kids alike — remained in their beds.  The older kids were required to stay in bed, too, but they could read or play with quiet toys.  I explained that Mommy was having a quiet hour, too, that we all needed to let our minds and bodies rest so we could hear and play better for the rest of the day.  During that time, I think I initially took a nap, but later I just made fresh coffee, prayed, and read in complete quiet.  I think I really did hear and play better after that!

I’m not sure if I need the afternoon quiet hour again, but I’ll make an effort to pay attention to the signals that I need to shift course.  Maybe I can forget the walls that need painting, say “not today” to the new robot shopping list, or look for a new hiking trail.

When “Me Time” Becomes “You and Me Time”

Last week, I was given a rare opportunity to drive alone. Yes, alone. I could hardly wait. I only had to pick up dinner and stop by the post office, but it would be a half hour to treasure.

But as I opened the car door, I heard the front door to the house open, too. “Mommy, where are you going?” my five year old asked.

“Just to pick up dinner,” I called back.

“Oh, is it quick?”

“Yes,” I reassured him, assuming he just wanted to make certain I wouldn’t be gone long.

“Oh, good,” he answered. “Can I come, too, then?”

Mother and Child, Picasso (1922)

Mother and Child, Picasso (1922)

Oops. Question misunderstood. So, he’d been hoping to come, and was merely ensuring I wouldn’t be dragging him on an endless run of errands. I hesitated. This was the only “me time” I’d had in the past week. My quiet-in-the-car, no-kids, “me time”. As with most moms, I sorely needed it. I only have two children, but one of those is a ten-month old who’s still pretty much glued to my body. Though I love her immensely, I looked forward to just a few stolen moments alone. Just a little quiet time to recharge. After all, during His ministry, even Jesus sought a little time apart from the crowds (Mt 14:13).

But, how could I look at my son and tell him no, that I didn’t want him to come along? He looked so hopeful on the front step, cradling his shoes in his little hands. And, though seeking a little alone time, wasn’t Jesus still interrupted in order to care for others? And didn’t He oblige? (Mt 14:14)

“Sure,” I answered, “Go tell Daddy you’re coming with me.”

“Goody!” he yelled gleefully.

I was happy for him, but what had I just done? Why can’t I ever just allow myself some time alone? As a stay-at-home mom, I parent 24-7. With a husband who’s at work from before the sun rises until about an hour before the kids’ bedtime, I parent alone for much of the day. I should have suffered no guilt for giving myself a half hour of silence.

Instead, here I was, no longer alone but with a little boy in tow. And that little boy was anything but quiet. He was in a questioning mood. A talking mood. And without his little sister babbling, squealing or crying away in the seat next to him, I understood why he was so giddy and chatty.

Because, for him, this wasn’t “me time”, it was “you and me time”. For him, it was a quiet car ride where the only noise was of a conversation between himself and the mom who is always so busy with another, needier child. For him, these were moments when he had no one to be second to, no one to talk over, no one to compete with for Mom’s attention.

And he soaked up these moments. He chatted about things we’d never talked about before. Nothing substantial, just little talks about why it’s good to get a low score in golf (a question that arose as we passed a golf course), or what type of swing set Daddy should build in the backyard (a thought that occurred as we passed a yard with a really great swing set), or musings on what exactly God does in heaven all day (prompted by my remark on the beauty of the sun rays streaming through the clouds).

Seconds into the drive, I was glad I wasn’t alone. Because though I hadn’t realized it, I needed this time, too. I needed to reconnect with my son who’s always such a great helper with his baby sister, but who doesn’t get much time alone with me anymore. I needed to return, even for a few moments, to the days when it was just the two of us for much of the day. Because he’s getting older and slipping a little further away from me every day, and these uninterrupted minutes together are growing rarer.

Because motherhood, I’ve learned this past year, is such a delicate balancing act. We juggle everything from time with our husband, to time with each child, to time tending to friends and relatives. We balance schedules and checkbooks and appointments and meals. And in this daily juggling act, we risk making our loved ones feel less set apart as someone truly special to us and more like an item to be taken care of on our checklist.

Or, worse, a hindrance to our “me time”.

My son and I needed our simple half hour together. Though it was nothing exciting, we had fun buying stamps, mailing letters, and waiting for our order to come up at the pizza place. In these moments, we were blessed with something we both desperately needed. Not “me time”. It was something better. It was “you and me” time.