My niece and nephew weren’t happy with each other and it showed. I was at a family function years ago with my first son, still a toddler, and my sister’s children were fighting. One child ended up scratching the other, on purpose, and they both ran crying to their mom. As I sat next to my sister on the couch in my parents’ house, holding my toddler son on my lap, I asked my sister why she didn’t just set a rule for her kids of no violence.
Looking back, I am amazed that my sister didn’t haul off and hit me.
I’ve learned something important since that family dinner more than 10 years ago: There are no rules when it comes to parenting.
This, at times, can be exciting. You can’t make a mistake if there are no rules. There’s not just one way to diaper your baby, toilet train your toddler, or discipline your tween.
But no rules can be no fun, especially if you’re like me and you happen to like rules. As my parents would attest (along with my husband and anyone else who knows me), I do not like other people’s rules. This is why I’m happily self-employed. The rules that I’m referring to are the ones I’ve created, the ones that I’ve developed over a lifetime of accumulating self knowledge, discovering step-by-step what works best for me. In my BC (before children) life, my personal rules added up to comforting cause and effect equations, like these:
• When I get seven hours of solid sleep, I am productive and happy.
• When I spend quality time with my husband, our relationship feels deep and meaningful.
• When I see my girlfriends and family regularly, I feel connected.
• When I work on art projects regularly where I can dip into flow consciousness, then I feel peaceful, creative, and inspired.
• When I give myself lots of time to lose myself in a good book, I feel relaxed.
The moment that my first son was born, my cause and effect rules vanished in a bittersweet second. I no longer got seven hours of sleep, even including the times I fell asleep by accident, like while nursing my son or riding in the car. I had no quality time with my husband, family or friends. Art projects? Flow? Reading? Instead of enjoying my comfortable and predictable cause and effect life, I was faced with endless hypotheses that required regular testing.
When we put the baby down at 8:00 at night, he will sleep until 4:00.
Data does not support this hypothesis.
When we put the baby down at 8:00 and dreamfeed at 11:00, he will sleep until 3:00.
Data does not support this hypothesis either.
When we put the baby down at 11:00 and dreamfeed at 1:00, then he’ll sleep until 3:00, be awake for at least an hour, go back to sleep at 4:00, wake at 6:00 and be done with sleep until he falls asleep for his nap, which will happen just before it’s time to leave the house for the co-op nursery school class that we’ve missed twice in the last month.
And on it goes. Creating hypotheses, testing them, retesting. Adjusting. Testing some more. And just when you think you’ve settled on a nice, predictable routine, the parameters change - teething starts, you go on vacation to visit family, your in-laws come to stay for a few weeks and the guest room is the baby’s room so the baby is back in bed with you and your husband - and you start all over from scratch.
A quote from Pema Chodron recently posted on Facebook states, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, and a Harvard trained scientist, retrained her brain after a massive stroke at age 37. She describes the chemical process of how our emotions rise and fall like a wave which lasts 90 seconds. If we allow ourselves to truly notice, experience, and sink into what we really feel, the emotions go over us like a wave that crests and then recedes. Sometimes the emotion rises again for another 90 seconds, allowing us to truly feel the hurt, disappointment, and pain before the emotion disappears. Clean pain - the pain that comes from whatever it is that has hurt us - dissipates, leaving us feeling lighter and less burdened than before.
“We can all learn that we can take full responsibility for what thoughts we are thinking and what emotional circuitry we are feeling,” writes Taylor. “Knowing this and acting on this can lead us into feeling a wonderful sense of well-being and peacefulness. Whether it is my fear circuitry or my anger circuitry or even my joy circuitry – it is really hard to hold a good belly laugh for more than 90 seconds naturally. The 90-second rule is totally empowering. That means for 90 seconds, I can watch this happen, I can feel this happen and I can watch it go away. After that, if I continue to feel that fear or feel that anger, I need to look at the thoughts I am thinking that are re-stimulating that circuitry that is resulting in me having this physiology over and over again.”
What keeps us in the pit of despair, in the same room with resentment, and holding hands with unhappiness, are the stories that we make up about our emotions. For example, feeling frustrated, you tell yourself that everyone else’s child is sleeping more than yours and convince yourself that you’re doing something wrong. The stories we tell ourselves create dirty pain that stays with us. If we can let go of our stories and get comfortable with our emotional discomfort - which rises and falls within us like a perfect wave - the way to peace becomes a lot more clear.
A dear mentoring client wrote me a brief but beautiful email this morning:
“My daughter woke up at 5:30 this morning and I settled her and immediately started getting worked up about how I wouldn't fall back asleep and I would be grumpy and the kids would be whiny and it would be a miserable day. I realized that I was telling myself a story and thought let’s just relax and see what happens. I went back to sleep for 45 minutes. Then today I washed the windows, did laundry, vacuumed the garage, had a friend of my daughter’s over for a play date and made dinner. I had a lot more energy than I usually do and just felt very motivated to be doing the things I was doing, not thinking too much about the next ten things on the list. Not a bad day at all.”
So how do you shift from drowning in your storytelling to riding the 90-second wave? Here are a few suggestions:
Grieve your clean pain. Sometimes it’s not enough to replace a thought that’s not working for you with a more positive one. That can be like slapping a happy face band-aid on a deep wound if you still have more grieving to do. Can you identify loss that you haven’t been able to fully express? It can be anything from the death of a beloved friend to the loss of your independence once you became a mother.
Soften your expectations of yourself. You might have the thought that you shouldn’t be unhappy because you have everything you’ve ever wished for or the belief that feeling resentment towards your children means that you’re a bad mom. Try to let go of these self judgments so that you can fully experience your deeper emotions.
Choose one unresolved clean pain situation and give yourself time to experience the wave of your emotions. Your emotions may feel overwhelming and that’s okay. Allow them to pass over you like a wave, give in, and watch the anger, grief, or fear recede.
Become aware of any dirty pain story that you are creating which will prolong your discomfort. Dirty pain can show up in thoughts like, “I’m such a bad mom,” “I’m never going to get another job,” or “It’s going to be this exhausting forever.” Notice that what you’re telling yourself is just a story and step away from it.
Our brains are constantly searching for evidence to support our thoughts. Try it. If your thought is that the world sucks, I’m sure you can come up with a dozen or more examples of how that thought is completely true. In the same way, if your thought is more positive and supportive, you can gather ample evidence to back up that belief, too. For example, if your thought is “My life is blessed,” what comes up? For me, it’s healthy kids, a roof over our heads that only sometimes leaks, grandparents who are excited about taking the kids for a couple of overnights this month, to name just a few. Happy or sad? Peaceful or pissed? Really, the choice is yours.
Come join me for Saturday Sanctuary for Moms on July 12th. Together we'll find ways to let go of the thoughts that are creating dirty pain and find 90-second windows that will open the way to peace. Spend a few hours with me and head home happier.
I'm a mother of two incredible boys, wife to Bill White of Happy Baby Signs, author of the books The Well-Crafted Mom and Signs of a Happy Baby, and an intuitive life coach. I like to blog about my adventures with my family and the life lessons I'm learning along the way. I hope you'll join me on this journey.
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