Archives for category: Parenting

Today is International Peace Day. I think a lot about peace and I try hard to cultivate it within myself as well as to be a peaceful participant in the world around me. The degree of success varies but it is rare that a day goes by without my being mindful of my intent.

I have not written as frequently as in the past, in part, because my mind is fragmented. My emotions are fragmented. The world is not making sense. There are many things going on but they are all getting wrapped up literally and metaphorically in our U.S. Presidential election. It is white male heterosexual privilege against everyone else. We have a major presidential candidate with no experience who is viable just because he is white, heterosexual, powerful, and more importantly, an explicit spewer of hate and selfishness. When he cheats, he is savvy. His exploitation of people and resources makes sense because he is the right sex, orientation, and color to dominate others.

Meanwhile, we have a very competent woman running for president with decades of experience who manages to get things done despite the fact that she’s been held to a level of scrutiny that arguably no other candidate has ever faced. Her crime? She’s made mistakes. Women are not allowed to make mistakes. They are allowed to be perfect mothers or to serve men.

Meanwhile, African American people, some children, are being murdered by police. No, this is not new. What is relatively new is that the incidents are now filmed and even when they can be viewed, many white people still come up with reasons why the person, often unarmed, sometimes with their hands-up, deserved to die.

Meanwhile, an African American football player decides to stop standing for the National Anthem at football games. There is strong backlash against this kind of “disrespect” to our country as well as to our military. This is a peaceful protest by a man who belongs to a race that has been owned, systematically oppressed, and clearly shown on video, hunted. It is 2016. This is still happening. We have a major presidential candidate who is whipping up hatred for every “otherized” person. People, what are YOUR PRIORITIES? Respecting the flag or not killing people?

Meanwhile, nearly half of the homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBT. LGBT youth, more generally, are subject to a high incidence of sexual and physical assault, drug/alcohol use, and suicidality. This is all because we believe that not being straight or cisgender somehow threatens our safety.

Meanwhile, immigrants, potential immigrants, or anyone who resembles an immigrant from a non-European country, are being treated like terrorists, despite research evidence pointing to the opposite. Immigrants, by and large, are hard-working people. Their children, on average, engage in significantly less crime and drug use than U.S. born white youth.

Meanwhile, I was at home yesterday when my husband received a text from a friend, who referred to him as “a girl” as a joke. My tolerance for this kind of sexism is low. I told him that it was a misogynist joke. He disagreed and his feelings were hurt. Both men are good and decent men but I was taken aback that my husband defended the joke and acted like I was overreacting. My reaction may have been stronger than usual but that is only because it is exhausting and unhealthy to be in a constant stage of outrage over the insidious and outright violent oppression in our country and world.

I know that I can best advocate for peace, when I have more myself. That does not mean not being angry, afraid, or in grief for some very hateful forces in our world. But it does mean balancing them with the good that exists around me.

In about an hour I am going to the Frye Museum in Seattle where there is a sitting meditation every Wednesday. That will help as will meeting my friend, Nancy, there.

I wish you all peace in your hearts.

 

I was walking in my neighborhood last week and I passed two men. One of them had a newborn strapped to his chest in one of those little baby carriers. His baby looked blissfully asleep and his father looked like he was enjoying his time with his son.

This is not an uncommon sight where I live. It was a rather uncommon sight when I was a girl. When I was young, a man changing his own child’s diaper was considered a rarity. Men played with their babies. They were not as involved with the day-to-day caretaking as they are now. Caretaking was considered “woman’s work” and therefore “beneath” a man. It still is, to a certain extent,  but there really has been a significant overall increase in men’s level of involvement in their children’s lives not to mention an increased appreciation for “women’s work”. I have been providing mental health services to families for since 1991. When I started out this meant working with mothers and their children. Father participation was not common. It is far more common now and it is rare that I never meet with a child’s father.

When I saw the man with his infant, I smiled in recognition of what our culture has gained from the women’s movement. There is still sexism. “Feminist” is still a “bad word”. But it is difficult to deny if I REALLY think about it that men’s lives have been improved by feminism. To know your children better and to be a nurturing force in a vulnerable being’s life are gifts. With the loosening of gender roles, I also think it is easier for gay men to be parents together.

Civil rights and social movements are often met with resistance, the resistance that to give up a privilege is an absolute loss. That there is nothing to be gained through change. There is a lack of acceptance.

Loss, perceived or actual, is often a sticking point. It is a place where we hesitate, trip, or in some cases, fall into a deep pit, for which climbing out is virtually impossible.

Honestly, sometimes we want to stay in the pit even if climbing out is a possibility. We struggle. We suffer. We want to be heard, seen, and felt. At other times, we deny that we are in a pit. “What, this isn’t a pit? Everything is fine.” This is another kind of nonacceptance, and it too causes suffering. Denying and suppressing loss and the grief that comes with it, is a short term solution with painful consequences. In the world of cancer and other griefs, I see this acutely.

In the world of cancer and other griefs, I see this acutely. It can be so difficult to find balance. It is so difficult to find the time and space we need to grieve our own losses and come to some kind of peaceful place with them. On top of that, there is no final destination. Grief is an iterative process, one that we must come back to over and over. This is why we can get on with life and yet not ever “be over” a significant loss in our lives.

This weekend, I have been feeling anxious. I had awful nightmares last night. I feel justifiably underappreciated by my family. However, the way my impatience has played out in my behavior is a way that increases my suffering as well as that of my family.

I came back to my well-spring. I did a sitting meditation and I am sitting her with my own thoughts and feelings, writing this post. I can feel myself letting go of hurt and anxiety. I am not quite solidly balanced, but I am getting there. I am nurturing myself and it is radiating within. When I leave this office and rejoin my family, I am hoping to radiate compassion toward them, as well.

Who, what, where, how, and why are interrogatives, nouns that signal a question.

Very soon after babies start speaking words we understand, they start asking questions, “what” and “who” questions, most commonly phrased in one baby word, “Da’at?” (That, as in “what’s that?” or “who’s that?”) They are learning nouns, the names for people, places and things.

As parents, one of the challenging stages of our children’s development happens a few years later, when we are CONSTANTLY asked, “Why?” We provide the explanation, which is followed up with another, “Why?” It can be exhausting as parents often convey to me.

However, finding out “why” is not always the function of these questions. Some children are just learning that “why” is part of having conversation. Asking “why” is a way of guiding the direction of the conversation, a powerful skill, indeed. Sometimes “why” serves the function of stalling for bed, for clean-up, or for any other distasteful parental instruction that has just been given.

When I was a psychology researcher, there were a lot of questions phrased as “why”. But were they really “why” questions? It seems to me that most scientific questions are actually answering “how” questions; they address questions related to process and sequence. In treatment research, the question is even more rudimentary, “Does it work?” Treatments manipulate many many variables and as a result, it can be difficult to explicate how they work even if they appear to do so. I mean, we have ideas and models for how we think treatments may work but it is difficult to know for sure.

“How” and “why” questions can also preface statements of distress. “How did this happen?” “Why me?” Having a plausible explanation for situations, even if they are not objectively true, can be rather comforting and reduce distress.

“Why” questions are also a concentration of philosophy and religion. “Why are we here?” “Why am I here?”

As a person drawn to complexity, you might think that I would love pondering these big questions. Sometimes I do. Sometimes, I even enjoy it. But some questions are so large and complex that trying to answer the question seems to be a great oversimplification. We have enough people boiling down big problems to utter simplicity, much to the detriment of our world. Most of the current presidential candidates come to mind.

Why are we here?
Why did I get cancer?
Why is my kid having such a challenging time with life?
Why am I here?

More and more, these questions are replaced by:
“I am here.”

Most days that is more than enough.

Sometimes I walk into the chaos of my life and I think, “Who is in charge here?”

I look to my left and to my right. Nothing. Nobody. Silence. Just me.

But in the stillness there is clarity.

I can handle loneliness because truly, I am never alone.

I can handle responsibility because truly, I am very competent.

But confusion gives me no direction at all except to spin in a circle.

So today, I am grateful for clarity. I believe that with it, I can move mountains, or at the very least keep my feet solidly beneath me and traveling forward.

 

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Many years ago, I was working on a research study evaluating the efficacy of bullying prevention program for elementary schools. To do this kind of research, schools must be recruited for participation. I was placed in charge of the task of contacting schools and districts as well as making presentations onsite. If memory serves, I made over 50 presentations. (In perhaps another post, I will write more about this. I enjoy public speaking but this was a very high pressure situation. Basically, I threw up about 2o minutes before nearly every presentation though I think I did a good to excellent job with everyone. Looks can be deceiving. A person can be funny, informative, and relaxed, and still have thrown up 20 minutes earlier. You just never know about another person’s life, just by looking.)

One of the presentations was to all elementary principals in a particular school district. After I was completed, there was a bit of time for one on one conversations. There was one principal who made a bee-line for me. She gave me the kind of handshake that starts as a firm “how do you do” and turns quickly in a seemingly never ending grip. Meanwhile she was earnestly telling me about her school. My co-worker, Truc, was also there. Truc observed this action intently; Truc is an excellent observer as well as being very funny. Later Truc said, ‘Elizabeth, she was saying, “Please, Elizabeth you must help our school. You ARE THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN HELP US!”‘

School principals have very demanding jobs with a lot of rushing around. That principal had a story to tell me and she was going to hold onto me until she had a chance to finish and could see that I understood.

Back in days as a researcher, that kind of poignant social interaction was rare. In my clinical life in private practice, especially as a psychologist with a specialty in diagnostic assessment, it is a frequent occurrence.

Everyone has a story, a life story. Families in need, need to tell their story. Some of them do not know where to start. Some of them don’t know how to stop. Both of those extremes keep me on my toes. In particular, parents and their teen children who engage in self-harmful and life threatening behaviors carry an incredible urgency in their stories. This is not my treatment specialty but within my diagnostic specialty, suicidality is much more prevalent than in the general population, especially for girls. So I encounter this situation with some frequency and help families secure appropriate services, which unfortunately, are in short supply.

Parents of suicidal teens are some of the most isolated people you will ever meet. They have a story that they are afraid to tell for fear of being judged harshly, among other reasons. Given the way that many people judge teens and their parents, it is a realistic fear, unfortunately. Sometimes we see another person’s tragic situation and blame them for it. To believe that they have control over it makes us feel safe.

I have heard many stories from parents, so many in fact, that I can tell you one that story is based on many.

I am incredibly alone. My house is full of people and each of us are shell shocked and alone. The loneliest moments are when we are yelling at each other.

I have met many many healthcare providers. I have gotten anywhere between 10 and 50 minutes to tell my story. There is so much to say, much more than I ever thought there would be to say in my life, ever.

You are a stranger to me but I need to tell my story. I will trust you with my helplessness. I will trust you with my failures as a person and as a parent. I will trust you with my shame at times for the unspoken regrets I have about ever choosing to be a parent. Bringing this child into the world has been painful and ungratifying but I will try to move try to move Heaven and Earth to save him.

I will trust you the best that I can. Sometimes I may not do a very good job. Three seconds later, I may do a good job again. My emotional life is like that; it is lived three seconds at a time, either dealing with, waiting for, or trying to ward off the next crisis.

I will do this because it is my job, to put myself second when my child is sick, so very sick that she may take herself from this world before she really even knows who she is, where she is, or the things that can heal with maturity.

Please help us.

We want a different story to tell.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been having a particularly hard time with parenting challenges. I am also working a lot, back to full time hours for the next few months. I am taking off for a number of trips this summer as well as time to entertain out-of-town guests. When I don’t work, I don’t get paid. So on the weeks that I am working, I am putting in extra hours. I am also working extra because for reasons I cannot yet determine, after 12 years of private practice, I am having a particularly hard time collecting balances from the families with whom I work. If I don’t get paid, I don’t get paid.

I may have mentioned about a thousand times that I am not currently popular with my teenaged daughter. I can tell myself over and over  and even from a point of authority as a child/adolescent psychologist, that to a certain extent, this is normative of mother/teen daughter relationships. But I can also tell you, normative or not, it is a source of great pain in my life.  A mama is built to be happy when her girl is happy. Mine is not only frequently unhappy, but often unhappy with me. I have forged a way in my life to be happy, nonetheless, but I have to tell you, it requires a LOT of effort.

This morning, I was feeling overwhelmed with my workload. This is an extremely busy week. Part of that business is related to our going away for the long weekend to a house on the beach. I am very much looking forward to it. I thought to myself, “I’m too busy to walk today.” Then I thought, “I’ll just take a 30 minute long walk. That was my original walking goal, anyway.”

I put on my walking clothes and ventured out into a foggy Seattle morning. I included the local coffee shop, Bird on a Wire, in my walk, I do this when I need an extra boost. The people that work there are always so nice to me and the coffee is a special treat. Angel was the barista today. He is in his mid-twenties and he lives up to his name. Angel customarily introduces people to each other in the coffee shop. He has brought John and me a glass of water when he thought the coffee line was really long and we might need a little refreshment. Angel is also really funny and he actually took his nephew, whom he frequently babysits, to see my daughter’s choir performance!

This morning, I saw that Angel was taking extra care with my latte. He added extra art.

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As he handed the coffee to me, he explained, “You are the butterfly and your husband and daughter are the hearts. You are apart from them but looking on to make sure they are well.” Then he laughed. He had made up a little story.

I said, “Angel, I think you know my family better than you realize. My daughter prefers her dad. I know this may change.”

Angel looked sincerely sad for me. I know he likes John and me a lot. We like him, too.

Little moments can mean a lot. Little kindnesses can go a long way when I stop to notice them.

I’m glad that I noticed today because I really needed it.

Thank you, Angel.

P.S. I ended up walking 4 1/2 miles.

We all know people who are hard to contact. They don’t return phone calls, emails, or texts on a consistent basis. My husband is one of those people. It’s kind of a joke in our extended network of family and friends. He’s not mean or thoughtless. He just gets wrapped up in what he is doing at the time and has trouble shifting gears. To be fair, he has gotten much more reliable about returning text messages, though it is not unusual for him to text me a question, my immediately answer it, and then my not hear from him again for quite some time.

Consequently, I don’t communicate with him as much as I’d like to when he’s not home. It’s not particularly effective or satisfying. But I do know that if I REALLY need to contact him at work, if the situation is urgent, I can do it. We have a system. I text him, call his cell phone, and call his office desk phone, one right after the other. Then he knows that he needs to drop what he is doing and to contact me. I don’t do this often, in fact, it’s been years and I don’t even remember the reason I last engaged the Bat phone/text/land line sequence.

John is in southern Utah with his step-dad, camping and backpacking. They’ve been planning the trip for a long time. It is a 10 day long trip, which is slightly longer than our family vacations. They on Saturday of last week. They will return on Tuesday of next week. They are seeing incredible country. John is texting photos to me every day as well as “I miss you” and “I love you” texts. I’ve spoken to him twice by phone. It’s not as if we are not communicating and in fact, this is much more frequent technology-supported communication than we typically exchange. But I can’t rely on being able to contact him at any time. Phone reception is spotty.

I don’t know exactly why but since the day he has left, our daughter has been having a very hard time, and shall we say, she is not suffering in silence. I feel like I am alone in some kind of parenting Hell. We did have a brief texting conversation this morning. He’d spoken to her yesterday and was worried about her, based on the conversation they’d had. I’ve been in a tricky position of wanting him to enjoy his trip but at the same time, I need support and he is my husband. I tried to need less than I did and as usually is the case, this strategy does not work well and I end up getting needier than I was in the first place. This morning, in a texting conversation I told him that I would not agree to him being way and unreachable for so long again. It was not my plan to tell him this. That’s just going to make him worry and detract from his trip. People, I am a work in progress. I will keep trying.

Sometimes being alone is a beautiful and peaceful place. Sometimes it’s just lonely.

Photo of John by Don Girvin, 5/2/15

Photo of John by Don Girvin, 5/2/15

When I practice mindfulness, I encounter a paradox of experiencing a greater connectedness with thoughts, feelings, and sensations but also having some kind of buffer. I don’t really know how to describe it exactly. It’s not exactly a distance but it kind of is. No doubt there are individuals far more practiced in mindfulness who have written about this much more precisely and eloquently. I know that the word, “equanimity” is often used to describe this state, a mental composure that wards against imbalance of the mind.

Yesterday morning I was walking and noticing. I do most of my mindfulness practices while I walk. I also do a great deal of contemplation about my life. I was thinking about how much more fun I am having with my family these days and the level of harmony we’ve been experiencing. The sun was out and I could feel it on my skin. The flowers and trees in the neighborhood were beautiful. I felt a great deal of joy. In these times of mindfulness I find that I encounter unexpected thoughts and feelings. The balance that I feel makes this possible, I think.

Yesterday, I felt hopeful, a feeling that is familiar to me. But yesterday it was followed other thoughts and feelings. Hope involves taking mental chances. Hope leaves the door open for good outcomes after a long time of fearing the worst and experiencing very hard times.

Hope can be frightening.

As I’ve mentioned previously, my husband and I both love to write. And as luck would have it, we met in a college English Composition class. I read his short stories. He read my poetry. We talked about books. I remember guessing that he was an English major, only to be greatly surprised that he was completing a computer science degree and considering dropping the class due to his heavy course load.

Soon after our daughter was born, it was clear that she was verbally precocious. The day she turned 8 months old, it was finally clear that the “da da” she’d been babbling consistently for several days was, “Dada”. I remember the first time she said something intentionally funny. She pointed at me and said, “Baby” and then to herself and said, “Mimi”, her name for me at the times. Then she giggled like crazy and repeated the joke over and over. She was less than 10 months old at the time.

As she grew older, she regaled us with thoughts and questions far beyond her years. She “cracked the code” of reading rather early, reading her name through sight word recognition just before her second birthday. She went on to become a voracious reader.

So you would not blame us for expecting that a girl with such facility with language and so many interesting things to say would love to write. But she didn’t. I remember meeting with her 6th grade honor’s English/social studies teacher for conferences. She showed us a worksheet on which students were to answer short questions about Greek civilizations. Our daughter had originally started all of her answers to the “why” questions with “Because”. When her teacher told her not to start her answers with the word, “Because”, she just crossed out the word and left sentence fragments.

Even in high school, my daughter with an incredibly high verbal IQ would write as little as possible and use non-specific vocabulary or worse, non-words like “kinda” and “sorta”. Then there was her habit of not following the writing instructions. This was at times, unintentional and at other times, intentional. The latter writings had a definite voice and tone and it’s name was “smart ass”. Essays for final exams would start out as, “I know that this is not what you want me to write but…”

Every once in awhile, she would write something brilliant. Earlier in the school year she remarked to me, “Mom, I write two ways, really good and really bad.” I kept my response to a minimum but was encouraged to hear that there was perhaps some self-awareness in the works.

My daughter tested into a college program that allows her to take college courses to finish up high school. And she also gets to keep the college credit! This means that she takes fewer courses as one quarter at the college is worth a full year of a high school class. Winter quarter started last month. When she told John and I that she was registered for TWO English classes (creative writing and English comp) as well as advanced algebra (math is her strongest subject, along with music), our hearts sank. Getting through one semester of high school English has always been arduous for her. And she accepts no help from us on writing; this is not new. It has been the case for as far back as I can recall.

Lo and behold, our daughter has met other students in college, who like to write. They take the creative writing class together and workshop each others’ work. Her friends not only tell her when they like or dislike her ideas, they tell her when she needs to follow the professor’s instructions! (Clouds part. Angels sing.) She works on her writing for hours a day. She says, “I didn’t realize I like writing so much.”

She has actually even started letting my husband and I read her papers. They are exceptionally good with precise and vivid vocabulary, thematic depth, and particularly good dialog. We are delighted. A couple of weeks ago, her professor handed back a paper to her personally and told her, “This is excellent. You are one of only two students who earned a 4.0 on this assignment.” My daughter, a 16 year old in a college class, earned the highest possible grade on a WRITING assignment. She was thrilled.

She still doesn’t want corrective feedback on her writing but I don’t offer any, anyway. She is learning that writing is a process of planning, revising, rewriting, re-planning, etc. She asks, “Did you like it? Are you proud of me?”

Yes, I like it very much. I am so very proud of you. I am so happy that you have discovered what we’ve long known. You’ve got things to say.

It is easy to be harshly judgmental. It makes life simpler. It places a distance between ourselves and someone else’s suffering. If I can find a way to justify someone’s suffering, it buffers me from the reality that bad things can happen to anyone.

As a child clinical psychologist, I see aspects of people’s family lives that are largely invisible to outsiders. I consider their revealing these hurts, fears, and faults, as a sacred trust. This translates into a strong sense of responsibility to respect my patients and their families. I do, however, have to make judgments and interpretations in order to make diagnoses, treatment plans, and to carry them out. Sometimes I have to share difficult views, things I consider to be hard truths.

Honestly, sometimes I get frustrated with my patients, especially their parents. Those are the times that I try to reflect and observe. Why I am so frustrated? What can I do to get back to a more balanced place, the place that is necessary for my work as well as for my personal happiness?

I’ve had a couple of conversations with a friend of mine, also in mental health, about how we just don’t know what goes on in people’s lives, even those that are close to us. We just don’t know what challenges with which a person is dealing. Some of this is due to shame and stigma. Some is to protect loved ones from harsh judgment and bad treatment. Other times, we just can’t function on a daily basis if we advertise every hurt and pain. For mental health, a balance must be attained in order to live in reality. No one’s reality is all suffering, though some people have much more than their fair share.

I have been working on my judgment of myself and others in my personal life as part of my mindfulness practices. Stress and working too hard is a trigger for me to be very sensitive and hurt easily, to which I am apt to respond with harsh judgment. I can see the changes I have made in my life to decrease this but understandably, it still occurs. Harsh judgment is not something I will likely ever eliminate from my life. It will wax an wane in my own mind. My hope is that my periods of being “stuck” in it will be less frequent and of shorter duration.

I have worked on being more compassionate and accepting of myself. I have worked on being more compassionate and accepting of my husband. Now I find myself struggling with harsh judgment of my teen daughter. If I am quite honest with myself, I am finding parenting at this time of my life, to be ungratifying, not to mention the times when it’s just scary. As a parent, I am generally much above average in acceptance and patience. I know my daughter loves me, but she mostly pays very little attention to me except to ask for things and typically responds with irritation when I talk to her, regardless of the subject. I know to a large extent that this is developmental and a common feature of mother/adolescent relationships, but it is still very painful. I love my daughter and I like her a lot. I would like to be a part of her life that is not so stressful to either of us. Right now there is no ease in our relationship.

I have also worked hard on backing off, reminding her less, and better respecting her independence. I think I have done a really good job with that. I guess I had a fantasy that if I did that, she would re-engage with me and our relationship with be not only less conflict-laden, but emotionally closer. That may still happen but it hasn’t happened yet. I know that it could be much worse but for me, thinking about how much worse things could be, typically does not work as a form of self-encouragement.

I just don’t know what all my daughter is dealing with in her life. And I really want to know but I can’t. I can work to accept this but all of the positive thinking in the world is going to get me to be happy with this. But acceptance is a peaceful place and there is healing there for both my daughter and for myself.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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