August 13, 2010

Conscious parenting 101

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I rushed out to the nearest bookstore to purchase all the books I could afford on pregnancy and birth. The year was 1995, and the atrocious 'What To Expect When Expecting' was up there at the top of the list, as was something or other by Sheila Kitzinger. Entire days were spent lying in bed, eating, and immersing myself in advice about the great unknown. 

Nine months later when my son was born, I went back to the bookstore, only this time my booklist focussed on the early years of childhood and again Kitzinger was in there somewhere, as was Steve Biddulph and Dr. Christopher Green. But as my son grew and we surpassed the major landmarks: sleeping, weaning, eating, teething, crawling, tantrums etc, I stopped buying parenting books altogether. 

Suddenly, the need to consult with the 'experts' seemed less impending than it had done in the beginning. After all, my son had survived the first five years of childhood and so I must have been doing something right... Right?  

As parents, we are often overwhelmed with getting it right in the beginning. If our baby isn't sleeping through the night or if they are slow crawlers, late walkers or fussy eaters, we can take it very personally and feel as though we are doing something wrong. Heaven forbid if Junior isn't toilet trained bang on by 18 months, or if Princess still needs a dummy. It counts for nothing that the advice found in those popular parenting books does more damage than good, or that each child is different, or that many of those books are written by women who have never squeezed out a baby. As new parents we tend to use those books less as guidelines, and more like parenting law. 

For that exact reason, I figured out early on that the local mothers group simply wasn't for me. Instead of being the supportive, nurturing environment I had anticipated; where mothers meet to exchange tips and advice, my mothers group was more like Australia's Next Top Parenting Competition to see who's baby was the most advanced. For three hours a week I was forced to endure the condescending chatter of middle-age, middle-class women boasting about their renovations and the skill sets of their babies. 

My little Jackson is barely two-months old and he can already recite the alphabet backwards in Yiddish. 

Pfft... Paris was born with all of her teeth and she went straight onto solid foods - all organic of course! 

Shame on those mothers who didn't have time to galavant off to the nearest farmers markets in search of the freshest, most expensive organic produce to make homemade organic baby food. And then there were the mandatory, over zealous baby classes, such as Jimberoo, contemporary dance or baby yoga.

 Did I mention three-week old Rosie can do the the salute to the sun?! 

The pressure to get it right in those early years can be guilt ridden and exhausting. Working in toy stores for ten years, both in Fitzroy and Carlton, I saw first hand, the ramifications of the marketing baby-boom, as new mothers (and fathers) spent big money on the latest, big ticket baby retail items. In every culture except our own there is a fundamental understanding that babies do not get their needs met by acquiring a state of the art Swedish cot mattress, or a classic (vs Disney) Winnie the Pooh wall frieze. Babies need food, shelter, comfort and love -  the rest is just clever marketing. 

It's natural to want to be good mothers but the impossible idea of a perfect mother has become a tyranny besieging us all. One problem associated with this trend-obsessive baby culture is that mothers who find themselves struggling to cope (most of us at one time or another) often feel incredible pressure to pretend otherwise. 

French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter claims that women are no longer oppressed by men, they are oppressed by their children. Badinter argues the prevalence of earth mothers who condemn disposable diapers, premade food, and cans of formula have turned babies into tyrants: “We have passed from the troublesome child to the child-king.” 

I don’t agree with everything she says but I love her boldness. Her insistence that women should be women first and mothers second is refreshing and unapologetic.  

In my own experience, those first few years spent child-rearing were hell on earth. After the birth of my second child, I was surprised to find myself, once again as a single parent. With no family support for purely geographical reasons, and perhaps because of undiagnosed post-natal depression, I became cut off from most of my friends. Every aspect of my self-worth was diminished as I battled to get my baby to do the most basic things such as eat and sleep. I was never diagnosed as having post-natal depression, purely because I was too embarrassed to admit that I was struggling. This was my second child and I felt an immense expectation to naturally get it right. 

Eight years ago when my daughter was born, there were no articles depicted my experiences in any of the popular literature and there were even less when my son was born in 1995.  Perhaps if there had been, I might have felt less pressure to live up to the carefree earth-mother stereotype and more pressure to tell the truth.  Post-natal (post-partum) depression is a major cause of suffering for women. The statistics indicate between 8% and 22% of women are affected by this form of clinical depression but I believe the rates to be much higher. In my own circle of friends I know of five women -not including myself -who have suffered PND, and only two came forward due to the associated stigma. 

This article entitled All Joy and No Fun - Why Parents Hate Parenting , appeared recently in the New York Magazine. The article started an interesting chain reaction, here and here. As more articles like this one start appearing in the press, hopefully we can start to break some of the myths about birth and early child-rearing; myths that have been perpetuated by books like 'What to expect when expecting'.  Perhaps then, more women would feel empowered to ask for the help they so desperately need. As a result we would no doubt see less anxious and more emotionally healthy mothers and babies, as well as healthier connections between mother and child. 

As time goes by and we settle into the role of being parents, that nagging inner voice that once drove us to perfection (lest we screw them up before their 1st birthday) gets drowned out by the day to day business of living and raising children. On one hand, parents are less inclined to seek out the advice of 'experts' once our children have surpassed the major milestones, and we ourselves feel confident enough to move forward independently. On the other hand, the trend toward 'conscious parenting' is generally only marketed to parents of a 0-3 demographic. From here, there is a dramatic lull in the market, although it picks up again at adolescence. 

From this, I can assume two things: 
1. that the  'conscious parenting' boom has been geared toward a baby/toddler/infant demographic, and the marketing potential of child rearing above the age of three does not exist. 
2. parents are supposed to have figured out everything by the time their children can poop in the toilet, including how to actually raise a child. 

In this day and age you are required to learn skills to drive a car, cut hair, make art, plant flowers and fix a leaking tap, but you are not required (or encouraged) to become educated and acquire the skills that will enable you to become a healthy parent. When you consider that we bring to parenting all of the things (good and bad), (conscious and unconscious) that were modelled for us in our own childhoods - all of the unresolved issues - then it isn't difficult to see how the cycle of shitty parenting gets passed on down the line. 

While the majority of us are, for them most part, good parents, good parenting does not necessarily translate to conscious parenting and by conscious I mean being being awake and aware of how we are raising our children. 

The old saying about it taking a village to raise a child is hardly applicable in our post-modern society. Todays version of parents are stressed out, time-poor and more isolated from extended family - and quite often minus the support of a partner. 

Without the village to provide support, advice and a natural set of checks and balances, we rarely ever get the chance to find out how we are doing. If as parents, we could be persuaded to conserve some of the astonishing energy that we bring to early childhood and spread it out evenly across the years, we would have less chance of encountering the guilt trip when they come back to tell us how badly we messed them up. 

Yes, babies are amazing and present and they do not answer back, but the real guts of parenting comes at you when your children can answer back - when their personalities are developed and their ego is firmly in place. It's what you do then that matters most in the scheme of things; because like it or not, our children are shaped by how we respond, encourage, show tolerance, engage, nurture, listen, praise, teach, set boundaries, show affection. 

This is where the real work begins. 

As parents, there is no greater gift you could give your children than becoming aware of your own actions. In fact, the act of conscious parenting is necessary, if we are to raise emotionally healthy, happy, confident, well-rounded human beings.  

Conscious parenting is not a new age term. It has nothing to do with chakra's or lentils or making things out of pipe cleaners. The term consciousness, is rooted firmly in philosophy and psychology, and The Oxford Companion to Philosophy describes consciousness as "Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives."  

This brilliant article from Time Magazine entitled the The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness, is certainly worth your time if you are interested in the neuroscience side of consciousness.  Here, it simply means the possession of self-awareness - or in other words being awake so that you may become aware of the impact your actions/behaviour has upon your children. 

It may sound simple, but sadly, it isn't. If it were simple, then none of us would be this screwed up. No, to be a conscious parent is hard because it requires more of us than just simply being parents. It requires personal inquiry, self-analysis, examination and review. 

It requires asking the hard questions and being brave enough to answer those questions with honesty. It requires complete courage and humility to examine your unconscious behaviour, including the ugly parts that emerge when you are stressed, strung out, tired, angry, frustrated or when you can't get what you want.  

As parents, none of us will ever be perfect, and nor should we expect to be. What we can do is strive to be better, and by better I mean awake.  In my own experience as a parent I have done things unconsciously that I wish I could go back and change. 

Above all, I regret that I did not share the same close-knit relationship with my son when he was young, that I now enjoy with my daughter. For the first half of his life, I was young and undeniably unconscious. I yelled at him when I couldn't get my own way because that was the only way I knew how to respond. 

Throughout that time however, I was unaware of the way my actions were affecting this small boy and damaging his fragile self-esteem. Then when my son was seven-years old, he told me that when I yelled at him, it made him feel like I didn't want him around. As a mother, those words were hard to hear. To this day they are hard to hear. To say I felt guilty would be a massive understatement. To say that those painful words woke me up from my ignorant bubble and made me want to become a better mother - well that would be the truth. 

One of the core ideas in psychology suggests that "the process of changing our patterns of thought, behaviour, and feeling begins with becoming aware of our repetitive patterns and the consequences of those patterns. While such awareness will not, in itself, change us, it is a necessary step. Once we clearly recognize what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how it is hurting us, we can step back and try to do things differently".  

I have had to work damn hard and dig deep within myself in order to break the pattern of yelling and screaming that felt normal to me. Likewise I have had to work hard to learn to engage with my kids on a level of play, to connect deeply, to engage, to have fun and become more tolerant and playful with my children. For some that will sound awful, for others it will sound familiar - either way it is my truth and I am grateful that I can own it and give it a name. 

As our awareness develops, we learn to recognise and name those patterns that have become deeply rooted in the unconscious. Once we are able to name them and put them in their place, only then can we dismantle their dark and twisted branches and let them go. 

Sometimes I have to bite my tongue when people like Tony Abbott talk about the importance of stay at home mums. You can be a stay at home mum, but if you are not emotionally available to your kids then you may as well be out working. 

I have to work harder now that my son is almost eighteen to build up his self-esteem and to show him my unyielding patience, acceptance and support, because when he was younger, I didn't work hard enough. Had my son never have had the courage to tell me how my behaviour made him feel, would I have ever thought to ask? Would I still be asleep?  Who knows. What I do know, is that these days, we communicate effectively and I very rarely yell at my children.

Oprah was right when she said that parenting is the hardest thing anyone will ever do but not for the reasons she thinks. Its not the selflessness or the sacrifice of time or money or freedom or youth that makes it hard: well not for me anyway. 

The hard part is what the relationship of parenting reveals to me about myself, especially when it reveals aspects of myself that make me want to cringe.  I do know how very hard it is to disassemble those old patterns and triggers - I have to work at it every day and sometimes I get triggered by the most ridiculous of things, but thankfully, with awareness, I can choose how I will respond. 

The task of raising these two children is a blessing and an honour and one that I am humbled by immensely. When I look at them now, and I can actually see them  developing into these amazing, respectful, gentle, thoughtful people, it feels good to know that through the commitment to parent consciously, I am partly responsible.  

The relationships I have with my kids mean more to me than anything. Like all relationships, they take patience, commitment, compromise, humility, awareness, tolerance, flexibility, self-inquiry, compassion and a hell of a lot of hard work.  

Thankfully, they are absolutely worth it.


Master Shami said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kelly said...

I too raided all the book stores and newsagents while I was pregnant. And I also discovered that mother's groups were not for me.

In fact, almost everything you have discussed resonates with me in one way, shape or form.

Particularly where your son told you how your yelling made him feel.

When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter I was adamant that, unlike me, she was going to be able to have the opportunity to tell me if I was doing something she didn't like, or more importantly, that made her feel bad.

Being a single parent for the first 7 years of her life probably made it easier to teach her, but my daughter has the confidence (and the communication skills) to question my behaviour when she feels I am being irrational (she is now 15).

Because she has always known she does not have to blindly obey, my daughter has tended to be well-behaved anyway. She has never had to 'resist' me because she knows I will listen to her perspective.

This doesn't mean she just gets whatever she wants. Sometimes, after our discussion I still feel my behaviour is justified or warranted, but I can give a better explanation to my daughter when I know how it makes her feel.

Overall I think this was an excellent post, and I thank you very much for sharing. i look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

Misha Sim said...

Thanks Kelly for your comment. I think we are definitely on the same page. Misha x