How To Make Parenting and Everything Else Less Hard Work

IMG_1543-0.JPG I used to say being enlightened seemed like too much work to me. I imagined all the urges you would have to conquer. You would need to study, and meditate, and pray, and do hours and hours of yoga, I thought. It seemed much easier to give in to the urge to eat too much, drink too much, talk too much, spend too much, even if it meant sometimes having a panic about it all. Not to mention, wouldn’t you get bored, just sitting around all day long thinking benign thoughts. I would have to work really hard to tolerate the stillness, the vast silence of enlightenment. I assumed that I was just not spiritual and that was that for the Infinite and I.

I never considered whether it was hard work being unenlightened.

Now, I think that it must be, because you are always acting on urges or assessing your actions. Either you are working to satisfy your ego by attaining goals, or you are trying to recover your resources in some relatively healthy or unhealthy way. Your mind naturally turns to the next step, the outcome, the anticipation of pleasure or success. When plans work out, it is great, but there is always a next thing to think about, so relief is short-lived. When life does not seem to be going well, frustration, anxiety, or despair wraps us in dark cloud. It is like living on a battlefield, mobilising your troops this way and that, day in day out. The rush of winning, or the respite of truce can feel wonderful, but the other side is always there to take you down.

I began to realise that people don’t become zen by winning their battles, but by leaving the battlefield altogether. It is not an act of seizing ultimate control, but one of relinquishing the need for it. I also understand that you can be spiritual by appreciating the moment you are living right now, and putting your faith in people around you. No studying, chanting, yoga, or meditation is necessary. All you have to do is settle down, maintain an open mind, and establish a rapport with the world.

Obsessing over the urge to change, or escape from, your current situation is hard work indeed, and without enlightenment this is what people are doomed to do. Whether you are trying to control yourself or your circumstances, it is a fight that you are creating. This is fabulous news, because you can also walk away from it. I use the pronoun ‘you’ here, not to differentiate between me and you, but in the rhetorical sense to indicate that this applies to myself and others ALL the time.

Sometimes, I can feel when I am fighting my present moment, and stop doing it. At least, I can reliably spot the signs of unnecessary struggle after the fact. I can look at my smarting emotions and realise that I just charged into a battle and came out the worse, but it is all invented anyway, so I can get over it and move on. I am learning.

Like the other day, our youngest daughter woke up crying and I went to comfort her. She carried on wailing and I continued to try and ‘get her down to sleep’. I tried stroking her head, rocking her, offering her a dummy, a boob. Nothing was working and she was disturbing the other kids, which was not going to help.

‘She’ll go off in a minute’ I kept thinking, but she didn’t.

I kept trying to get her off to sleep in her room because I thought ‘what if I set a new precedent and she decides she wants to get up every night?’. Leaving the room was inconsistent with our routine and might disrupt her sleep even further. I had been warned that, now she had entered toddlerhood, it was the time to ‘lay down the law’ and to be firm about rules. I was scared that she had grown into a new phase where the comfort measures she was accustomed to had started to fail and I couldn’t think of anything new to do other than let her lie there and cry.

Our son woke up and also started crying. I tearfully told our daughter that I didn’t know what to do. She kept crying and I lay there unhappily next to her. I gave up on the idea of ‘getting her off to sleep’ and I picked her up. We headed for the living room. She immediately stopped crying and was soon asleep. I sat there by the fire, holding my sleeping baby. Recovering myself a bit. I took her back to bed in her room and she didn’t wake up.

In the morning, I could see the situation for what it was. When our daughter woke up and cried, I tried everything that usually worked to get her to sleep and it didn’t. I was resolute that she should go back to sleep in her room, and was worried about the dire, far-reaching consequences of this not happening. She was unable to sleep in those conditions, so in that particular moment we were at impasse. All I could do was lie there feeling awful and listen to my child crying. It was only when I gave up and we left the room that she could do what she needed, and wanted to do, which was exactly what I wanted her to do too. When I abandoned the conditions about how that should happen, the effect was immediate in both of us.

Doh! It’s always so damn obvious after the fact: “Get out of the way mum! I can’t work like this!”

It is easily done. Parents often get stuck in ideas about how things should be, when actually they just need to look at how things are. Parents are often advised to take control over their children: ‘They won’t like it, but it’s for their own good’. There is a difference though, in helping them to establish good habits, and in trying to force them to conform to an ideal. It is important to have faith that children can guide themselves too. To consider that they sometimes know what they need better than we do. With faith, there can be rapport and partnership.

I can’t say that I see the more enlightened path every time it presents itself. However, I can see how much less there really is to do and to worry about than it would sometimes appear. Looking at the web, you can see that normal everyday things like ‘baby sleep’ have become, not just issues, but industries. There are so many sites devoted to discussions, queries, forums, techniques, so much advice. It’s easy to believe that all this struggle must be really important, vital even, to your wellbeing and your kids’. Especially when you feel tired and depleted, it is easy to buy into the apparent ‘big dealness’ of hitting milestones, and getting your offspring to conform to particular expectations.

Children are working on growing up all the time, so what we have to do is support them. There is not nearly so much worry about kids developing the ‘pincer grip’ between thumb and forefinger, which they become able to do in the second half of the first year. This is a huge milestone in terms of being a human baby, but it is barely noticed because little collective attention is given to it. No one talks about teaching babies how to do it. My goodness, they actually do this on their own when left their own devices!

So, in my humble experience, I have to wonder whether working to ‘teach’ babies how to sleep, is worth the effort. Do you expend more energy getting some sleep any way you can, and not worrying about it too much, but waking up more often, or by putting a regime in place and sticking to it no matter what, through tears and determination? I imagine the answer is different for different individuals, with different babies, in different places. That’s cool with me. I am not here to judge.

For anyone who feels that they are struggling, there is a real alternative to the battlefield. That is acceptance and presence. To stop caring so much about how many hours of sleep, how many wakings, how much time spent in your own bed. To not let the word ‘milestone’ get attached to a number or a date. To just go with the moment, and see what happens. Do a reality check now and again to see if your kid is actually more capable of doing it themselves than you are giving them credit for.

In assuming that kids should set the pace of their upbringing, my workload feels much lighter. All I have to do is listen to them and be prepared to step off the battlefield. When you stop trying to teach and just help them learn, everything feels easier. I hope they feel that too. I love witnessing their pride when they master something, and you never know when something will just fall into place.

There is no need to focus on established routines or future consequences, only to stay with the moment and examine the possibilities that open up. When you stop thinking about the past and future, and focus on NOW, the battle disappears, because the problem cannot survive without some kind of time reference.

Life in general feels much less hard work when you also get off the battlefield with yourself. If you stop struggling with what you want to become or achieve, and the fear that you won’t, this allows the best in you to rise. That is a good old fashioned, everyday spiritual experience. Perhaps there is hope for me and inner peace after all.

What battle can you stop fighting today?

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A Simple Epiphany for An Overtired Parent

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It’s been a quiet few months on Mums Are Made. A big reason for this is that the Hubster has just spent three months teaching at the University of Durham. I had an exhilarating few weeks looking after the three kids on my own in Portugal, headed to my Mum and Dad’s house in the UK, then returned with them for another few weeks back home again. On the plus side I have spent a lot of time hanging with the little ones, seeing old friends, and visiting favourite childhood haunts. I had a night or two OUT, which was extremely welcome. The only snag was that, while I have been lucky enough to have outstanding help and support from friends and family, I have felt quite overwhelmed with the responsibilities and practicalities of being the only full-time parent on hand. I can’t remember ever feeling so exhausted.

Actually, I still feel tired, but much less anguished, thanks to some very simple changes to my thinking.

I will return to that in a minute.

First, a typical source of anguish.

One of the things that I get worked about is Miss just turned 1’s sleeping habits. The issue of baby sleep has become one of the most contentious topics on parenting websites, forums, and the topic of various research endeavours. Thanks to the mighty net, each of us has a plethora analyses and advice, not just the word of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, perhaps the odd baby book, but also forums and Facebook groups, ‘parenting experts’, and scientists. There are loads of books and ebooks to choose from too depending on your chosen approach.

Now, of course, being woken repeatedly throughout the night does tend to be tiring. On top of this though, is a list of niggles and anxieties: I am not intervening enough; not setting good enough routines; exacerbating her waking by co-sleeping; in danger of losing more sleep if I stop co- sleeping; night weaning might get me more sleep, but there are some benefits for Miss 1 if she carries on feeding at night; I don’t want to wean completely because I am enjoying the extended breastfeeding relationship and this is likely the last time I will be doing this; perhaps I should be prepared to do almost anything if it guarantees more sleep; perhaps I should have sleep trained after all; consulting literature reveals that there are pros and cons to sleep training, so either way I have probably done stuff wrong; perhaps I am doing the kids a disservice by being tired and grumpy too much of the time; maybe if I …..and on and on and on.

And Miss 1’s sleep is but one of many things that I am find tough! Throw in Mr almost 3’s concept of safety, Miss 5’s independence dependence dance, and the other random concerns that crop up on a daily basis. Then there is the wellbeing of Husband and I.

Fortunately, there is hope out there for chronic over thinkers, worriers, and control freaks:

Enter Nicola Bird, Life Coach, and Wise Lady Entrepreneuress. I had the opportunity to spend an hour with her last week as part of her 100 Conversations Project, and she helped me out with a simple insight:

It’s not the circumstances of my life that are overwhelming, it is the way I think about them which makes me feel overwhelmed.

At any given moment, I am constructing my perception of reality through my thoughts. Thoughts arrive unbidden in my mind on a constant basis and tell me stories about what is happening in my life. Such as why Miss 1 doesn’t sleep through the night, and the devastation it will cause because, clearly, she is never, ever, going to.

Nicola used an analogy involving TV newsreels to make me more aware of my thought patterns:

Imagine that your thoughts are a ticker-tape playing across a TV screen; one of those strips at the bottom of the TV, which keeps you abreast of incoming news items. The ticker-tape stories are played out in greater detail on the screen above.

As we move through our daily life, the ticker-tape flashes up responses to what is going on. For example, it reports on our behaviour and that of others. The story we connect to these behaviours appears in technicolour on the screen evoking emotional reactions.

The more that we pay attention to a particular story, the more vivid it gets. The story starts to feel more and more real. We start to make it real, even though it started out as pure imagination. The real fun happens when you start to try and pay attention to every story on the ticker-tape and begin to make them ALL real at once. This saps energy and leaves no room for what is actually going on in the present moment. We start to live in our heads. We smother our own personal resources. We start to feel less than well.

The bad news is that you can’t just switch the TV off. It is always there in the background. It is part of us.

On the other hand, we can just turn the TV round. Put it in a corner. Pay less attention to it. Take it less seriously.

I commented that I thought this idea would be useful.

‘It’s not just useful, it’s liberating’ said Nicola.

She was not wrong.

Another helpful idea she talked about was that peace of mind is not something which we need to cultivate through yoga or self- improvement. It is there all the time within us, but when we are wound up by our thoughts it gets obscured.

Buried beneath all that thought is the innate wisdom which says ‘Hey now, you know what to do and you’re fine. You love your kids and your husband and you know how to look after these people, and nurture these relationships. You know how to take care of yourself too’. If I let up with the analysis and strategising it can shine through. If I stop suffocating myself by overthinking, deep down I am calm. If I step outside the thought storm I can be receptive to new ideas.

So, I hereby give myself permission to not bother with a whole load of unhelpful thoughts and the attendant feelings they create in my brain and body. I cannot stop having them, and I do not need to change them. I can choose not to get caught up in my thoughts. To stop piling meaning onto events, which simply are what they are and no more.

I have been doing this for a week now and it is helping me so much. For instance,

Miss 1 is so very far from sleeping through the night that the very idea of ever sleeping again seems laughable at times. Like I said above, I react to this in various ways. I have spent untold amounts of time thinking about strategies to help her sleep longer, and still more wondering what, if anything, I did wrong. I start worrying about the long term effects of poor sleeping on my mental and physical health. I get jealous and resentful towards hubster because he is not up as often as me. I get frustrated with her because, to be honest, I expected a bit more sleeping to be happening by now. I see this stretching into the distance for months and years to come with no end point in sight.

Well, none of these thoughts are helping in any way and this is actually interfering with my ability to deal with the present moment. The stories I am telling myself about the future simply haven’t happened yet, so they can go. The strategies I have read about, heard about, thought up, whirl around my head, but they don’t quite fit today, my baby, my current situation, me. Get rid of them all. It’s just clutter. The theories about how this came about. The expectations about little one reaching milestones. Out you go. Good riddance. Oh, and the beating myself up for getting cranky and impatient. I will lose that, because I am only human after all.

Now, with that out of the way I find that the night-waking is not such a huge problem. I can see that she is sleeping better than she was, if not so well as her siblings were at the same age. She is also in her own room now, albeit taking me with her for a chunk of the night. That is not such a big deal because her bed is a mattress which is big enough for the both of us. I can see my beautiful baby girl will eventually sleep. There may come a point where it feels right to try and intervene a bit more, but I don’t need to worry about that today. I have confidence in own ability to be in this situation as it unfolds and figure it out as I go along. After all, success and failure are retrospective diagnoses and no one knows for sure what will work.

Take for example, what worked for helping Mr almost 3 sleep through. He had transferred to his own room in a cot reasonably well, but then separation anxiety peaked and he started waking frequently and crying at top volume. I used to go in to him, try and settle him, cuddle him to sleep and transfer him to his bed to no avail. 20 minutes after dropping off he would be yelling again. What worked in the end was Husband climbing into the cot with Mr almost 3 and holding him until he dropped off. When settled like this, by his dad, he didn’t return to his frantic waking and began to sleep much better. Then he just seemed to grow out of it for the most part.

So, what turned out to solve the problem of how to calm Mr almost 3 was not strategy or routine. We didn’t follow a plan from a baby book. We didn’t consult any forums. We didn’t discuss it, and if we had I would have expressed doubt about the cot’s ability to accommodate them both. Hubster came up with the right idea for that moment, in the moment, which happened to do the trick. Then Mr almost 3 grew ready to sleep without us.

Control is so very tempting, but it is not the answer. Surrendering to our human limitations is the answer. Letting ourselves and our families be themselves is the answer. Working with our innate common sense is the answer. Knowing that we can come up with the right idea at the right moment is the answer. Even if sometimes we get it wrong or are at a loss. Such is the nature of human creativity. Not to mention the unpredictability of cheeky wee bairns.

I really needed reminding that thoughts are just stories. Stories which tell me about what I fear and desire, not stories which predict what will happen in my own or my kids lives. Stories which have the power to shape my family’s lives, but only because of the effect I allow them to have on my own feelings. Paying untold attention to my thoughts sends me in circles, repeating the same stories to myself, when there are no answers here to resolve my feelings of overwhelm. In fact, these thoughts are creating that feeling of overwhelm.

If I let go of these stories I can open up a space for new ideas to flow in and creativity to flow out. Instead of expending huge amounts of energy thinking these thoughts I can put that energy into the business of living in the present moment.

I’m not saying that suddenly everything is easy, but It feels more straightforward. Just by giving less credence to a whole heap of thoughts on a daily basis has made me feel more sane, deal better with sleep deprivation, be more loving to my husband and kids. I feel like a perfect example of an ordinary human mum with good moments, bad moments, strengths, weaknesses, and a tendency to worry about stuff.

What are the stories you tell yourself? What do you listen to? What do you want to be liberated from?

I would love to know, so answers on a postcard/comments box. Sending lots of love to all my fellow worriers xxxx

Find out more about Nicola Bird and The Simplicity Project here

Regression Frustration: Being Compassionate about Learning Setbacks

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

I’ve been dwelling on the topic of regression. Baby Evie had been sleeping for longer stretches, even approaching five hours some nights. The four month old ‘awakening to the world’ phase began and Bam! Suddenly two hours unbroken sleep seemed like a luxury. Over the last two years, Rosie has been having months of successful toilet learning, where she goes dry panted for weeks. Each time we breathe a sigh of relief to have this potty stuff sorted out. Then the accidents start up, often to the point we run out of clothes to put on her. A general welling up of frustration over regression has been a familiar sensation these past few years. Especially with Sam, who according to some websites, had a bad case of four, five, seven, nine, and ten month sleep regression.

The concept of regression rankles with me. It suggests that we learn skills in a linear fashion, in isolation. We pretty much begin as newborns, and go from A to B to C to D with sleep, toilet learning, driving, and so on, until we have all we need to function as adults. The regression comes in when we get ‘stuck’ at point C and need to return to B before we can progress again to D.

I tend to prefer a more holistic view of behaviour and abilities: that when and how we learn one skill is affected by our mastery of others, and that what appears to be an isolated ability can be broken down into a matrix of sub skills. Learning is not like creating lonely footpaths, but building a sprawling metropolis where the new gets built around and on top of the antiquated, and it’s all connected by various transport systems.

I don’t need to look very far to find articles which support this latter idea, such as this excellent one by Jean Mercer.

As Mercer states, regression is often cited as a consequence of psychological struggle, even trauma. This means, there is an inevitable hammering on the parental guilt button when your kid seems to be backtracking in an area of development. Happily, regression can also be seen as a consequence of developmental progress. In which case, you can embrace apparent potholes in the road to success as a sign of your child working out how to do something better.

As long as your child is as happy as a 4 month old baby at 3 in the morning (Let’s play Mum!Look! I have feet!), your main worry is that unless you take action of some sort the ‘regressive behaviour’ will  be with you forever. There is much to be gained from acceptance that you cannot make your child sleep or urinate on cue, and that attempts to try will be, at best, futile; at worst, detrimental to your child’s eventual success. At times, it is possible that mums and dads struggle because we need to go through some sort of development in the way we parent, rather than attempt to change our child’s behaviour.

Mercer concludes that it is best to relax about regression. There is no real back and forth going on. We should accept what our child is doing or not doing at the present moment and leave it at that. It is easy to forget this advice when you are told that your baby will not learn to sleep unless you do X, Y, Z, or that your child will still wet herself when she’s 20, because you didn’t start potty training at 8 months (ok, that’s a mild exaggeration).

An encouraging point that Mercer makes is that when children learn to control bodily functions, such as sleep or urination, they can only master them by learning to a) let go when they are in the correct place to wee or sleep, and b) to hold their urges when it is the wrong time to wee or sleep. These are two separate skills and when it seems they cannot control their urges, they may well be practicing the art of the sudden release. A baby must learn how to override the urge to sleep, just as a child learns to override the urge to wee. However, the baby must be able to fall into slumber, as a child must open the floodgates when the time comes. It’s no wonder it takes them a while to sort it all out.

If your child is not a happy little sunbeam at the time of regression, then it tends to be more worrying. However, the scientists who wrote the bestselling book, The Wonder Weeks report that development spurts in young infants have a consistent form: a fussy, clingy phase in which the baby needs a lot of support, is followed by a some kind of new leap in development and a period of comparative ease. I love this book, because now I can see that these changing phases are normal and more importantly, not my fault. Being reminded that, no matter what I do, ease and difficulty are temporary is a comforting thought, in that it makes me appreciate the good moments and know that the bad ones will not last. When Evie is wailing for no apparent reason, there’s a puddle on the floor, and we’re headed into some sort of toddler/ older child meltdown contest, it helps.

In my experience, these ideas apply to grown ups too. When I regress in my ability to do something, there is a related struggle involved, and often a frayed temper: My yoga practice is not what it was. On the one hand, I’m less flexible and carrying some extra baby weight. I have bigger boobs from breastfeeding that never seem to be in the right place. On the other hand, my arms are stronger from lifting infants, and I am more grounded in my body after going through pregnancy and birth several times. One challenge is that I need to find a new way of doing yoga, which is in tune with the mind and body I have now. The main reason I’ve let my yoga slide though, is that I have been too busy learning to balance life with a baby and two older children, to find the time and energy for working out. I find my mood is far from soft-focussed calm and part of me resists even trying to change that because it seems like too much effort! Now that things are settling down a bit, I can get back to a regular practice and banish the urge to sit on the sofa and eat chocolate instead.

Mercer says that children’s development is more like weather than a path: sometimes parents get to bask in the sunshine of our child’s facility, and sometimes we hang onto the coattails of their personal whirlwind. I think we can apply this to the ups and downs of our own lives too.

So, the best thing we can do for our kids and ourselves is to be compassionate about setbacks. To see them as a natural part of a learning process. Hell, of a living process. Be kind to yourself and others. Take a deep, resolute breath, and know that the only way is, not forwards or back, but up and down and up again. Except for wee. Always encourage your child to wee downwards.

Having said all this- I would welcome any tips and hints for helping kids learn to conquer the loo once and for all! What can parents do to empower their children in acquiring new skills?

Sent from my iPad