How My Parents Helped Me to Have Great Births

Above, left to right: Me, Dad, Mom, and my twin brother, Jack

It’s my birthday in a few days. Father’s Day, too.

In 1971, the year my twin brother and I were born, Father’s Day fell on June 20. Mom’s labor with us began on Father’s Day, and we born early the next morning, at 2:09 and 2:18 a.m., on June 21.

So this time of year I think about my parents and my birth a lot. This year, I’m thinking about them in the midst of writing a book on birth and postpartum, and today I made a connection. In today’s post I acknowledge both my parents for their positive influence on my births.

Like everyone else who has access to any form of media, I was taught the story that birth is grueling, painful, and dangerous. While I believed it on one level, my parents gave me two particular experiences in childhood that helped me to overcome that programming and have great births.

Mom’s Gift.

Mom’s gift is two-fold: the facts of her birth with us, and her attitude about it.

First, the facts: Mom gave birth naturally to twins, one of them breech. She hadn’t meant to, necessarily, but the birth happened so fast. It was almost over before she knew it. My mom’s experience gave the lie to the widespread notion that twin births and breech births were dangerous. “If she can do it, so can I,” I reckoned.

Just as important as the facts of her easy birth was the way she spoke about it: with awe and exhilaration. She never mentioned pain. I even asked her, and she seemed to scan her memory banks and come up blank. She shook her head and shrugged: “You came out so fast the doctor almost dropped you!” she said.

Furthermore, she celebrates the details of her labor and birth every year with us.  The day before our birthday she’ll call and say, “Daddy was massaging my back right now,” however many years ago it was. Or, “I was just about to leave for the hospital right now.” If she can she’ll call us each on the minute of our births and sing us “Happy Birthday.”

Her positive feelings about labor and birth went into me much deeper than any fearful programming from TV or literature, and I’m certain contributed to the relative ease of my births. Thank you, Mom.

Dad’s Gift.

Dad’s gift was believing in me in a moment when I was frightened and in pain.

I was six years old. I had been playing Tarzan on a vine that hung from a palm tree. Swinging on the vine dislodged a spine-covered palm frond from the tree. It crashed onto my head and rolled on to my arm, leaving me woozy and full of pine needles. When my parents, who were normally untroubled by childhood injuries, saw my wounds, they blanched – even my dad! Now I was worried.

But they were brilliant. The lay me down on Dad’s napping sofa and hovered over me to administer first aid. I fixed my eyes on their faces as Dad carefully removed the needles and Mom swabbed the blood with hydrogen peroxide. I saw and heard them tell each other repeatedly how brave I was. Dad said, “I can’t believe her pain tolerance.”

When he said that, two things happened. First, I flushed with pride, and from then on I believed myself to be a person with a high pain tolerance.

The second thing that happened when he said that is my injuries stopped hurting. I looked down at my arm, where he was removing needles, and I felt pressure but no pain. There was only the thought, “I have a high pain tolerance.”

I learned that I was tough and that things that looked scary or were supposed to be painful didn’t have to be that bad. I’m certain this belief in myself and my pain tolerance contributed to the relative comfort of my births.  Thanks, Dad.

These lessons were instrumental in my births, but of course they’ve influenced me well beyond birth.  Having parents who celebrated me and saw my strengths has had an incalculable effect on my life.  Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it.

An Independent Midwife Teaches Me How Birth Can Be

Above: It really can be like that.

Joanne came out to meet us as we were pulling up in the driveway and parking. By the time I emerged from the car, she was at my side.

“Hello,” she said and smiled warmly. She turned her body to walk in the direction of the birth center and put her hand on the small of my back. Wordlessly, she guided me to the room she had prepared: the blinds were closed, the curtains were open, the linens on the double bed were turned down and the pillows – four of them – were fluffed. I slipped into the cool, soft sheets.

She stood back, beside my husband, and whispered to him, “Isn’t she beautiful? I wish all our mothers were this relaxed.”

Hearing this after all the other signs of her care and respect – the way she met me, her warm smile, the way she guided me, prepared my room, kept quiet, and didn’t immediately ask to examine me – my body leapt with joy. I knew I was safe here.

I was deep in labor with my second child. Joanne was my midwife. I’d had a midwife, too, for the birth of my daughter two years before, but it was in a hospital. I wanted a softer experience for my son’s birth – a home-away-from-home feeling – and relished the opportunity to be cared for at an independent birth center.

But it wasn’t until I was all the way through the experience that I really understood just what a difference the context makes: it shapes the practice of the provider, and it shapes the mother’s experience, which affects the outcome.

According to the CDC, 98% of American women give birth in hospital. Hospital is therefore the default context for birth. We unconsciously accept its terms: that birth is a medical event which is best managed by the hospital machinery; that our desire for a great birth is at odds with our need for a “safe delivery”; and that the pain will be so great that we’ll need the medical relief only the hospital can provide.

Labor and birth are affected by a multiplicity of factors, and I acknowledge that plain old luck may be one of them. Still, my two experiences showed me that, when you get the context right, it’s possible for birth to take care of itself: that it can unfold organically, not mechanically; that the more loved and supported we feel during labor, the more physically comfortable and actually safe we are.

The departure point for my comparison of the independent birth center context and the hospital context is the moment of arrival at each facility. I phoned both places from home to tell them I was coming. Both times, I arrived in advanced labor, 10 cm dilated. It’s worth noting that while I labored at home, I was comfortable – working very hard, yes, but not in pain.

At the birth center, Joanne welcomes me in the parking lot and, in about the time it takes to walk from the street to your front door, I am in a comfortable bed in a quiet, dim room that was readied just for me. My midwife is warm, quiet, respectful, and whispers that I’m wonderful. I love her.

I give birth within 45 minutes. It only hurt a little at the very end.

At the hospital, the vast parking structure is stuffed with cars. Something about that hits me hard. I am daunted by the sheer volume of humanity here. I feel that we are just one little family among all these others, and upon entering the hospital I will become a number. For the first time since my labor began, I am afraid.

In the parking structure, we walk and walk to the elevator, then walk some more to the hospital entrance, and then walk more down brightly lit and noisy corridors, before finally arriving at the Labor & Delivery Reception. I have made it! But the nurse on duty does not reward me with even eye contact.

Instead, she challenges my husband, “She doesn’t seem like she’s in labor.” Somehow he and the doula convince her that I am. Her eyes flick over to me and she tilts her head toward a seat in the waiting room, where a TV is on.

“They’ll call you in a few minutes,” she says, as I sit in a white plastic chair and wait with the others. I am soon escorted to a triage room, where my labor is summarily confirmed with a cervical check, and I am left alone to wait for a room is ready for me. I notice my contractions weaken and slow.

An hour later, I am taken to my room and then attended to in a flurry of activity. Lights on, two nurses on either side of me – one doing my vitals and the other struggling to place an IV line (“just in case”) – chatting to one another as if I’m not even there. I ask for water and they give me ice chips (“just in case you need a C-section”). They finish their work and walk out without a backward glance, switching off the lights as they go. I feel uncared for, a stranger in a strange land. Labor begins to feel interminable, a mean trick, and I doubt my ability to do it.

Five hours after pulling into the parking structure, after being threatened with Pitocin and a c-section, and with tremendous effort, I give birth.

My doula thinks that maybe all that pre-admission walking moved my labor along, and that the hospital’s threats focused my efforts and gave me a surge of adrenaline at the right time. Maybe she’s right.

But I’ll never forget the way I felt when my care provider treated me with respect and admiration, rather than with clinical indifference. It felt like joy – relief, relief, release, strength, power, groundedness, profound safety, love.

And, as it happens, a much shorter and vastly more comfortable birthing phase.

Same end. Different journey. You do have a choice. Which would you choose?

Begin Before You’re Ready

Above: The terror that just precedes greatness.

When I was six years old, my mom took my brother and me to a late show screening of A Star Is Born at the drive-in movie theater. Well, it was take us or miss it altogether, so she made a plan: put the kids in pajamas, tuck them up with pillows and blankets into the wide backseat of her Cadillac, and they’ll sleep through it.

But do you know the story? Barbra Streisand plays Esther Hoffman, a struggling singer, and Kris Kristofferson plays John Norman Howard, a rock star. He is burned out but freshly inspired by her. They fall in love. He promotes her, there’s amazing singing, and her star rises! But alas, his falls. (This was my first education in the rule of Barbra Streisand films: she gets the guy but doesn’t get to keep him).

Who could sleep through that? Not me, not even at the tender age of 6. I was mesmerized.

My favorite scene is the moment that John Norman introduces Esther, impromptu, to the world. He’s shows up late to a sold out stadium and starts to play, but his heart is not in it, and he just stops, mid-song! Now the crowd is really mad, and John Norman goes to the wings and drags a terrified Esther onto the stage. “Here’s a friend of mine,” he says, and leaves her alone, center stage.

Here’s what happened:

Begin Before You’re Ready.

Last weekend I was sat down with my production partner, Jon, to develop the content for a new video on postpartum. Jon is a photographer and videographer but also a dad and has great ideas. I told him the story of why I wanted to do the video, what I wanted to cover, and how I wanted it to be fun and free on YouTube, rather than for purchase on Udemy.

“Great. Let’s do it,” he said. “Right now.”

I protested. “I’m not ready!”

“Yes, you are,” he said. “You just told me a great story and you nailed the content, so let’s do it now.”

It was the last thing I wanted to do. I had wanted to script it, time it out, make it perfect – and then, only then, could I carefully dishevel it to make it “fun.”

Ugh! “Perfect”? “Careful dishevelment”? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just go for it? I wanted to, but I was full of fear.

I thought of a brilliant client of mine, who has tons of experience in her field and is now expanding her practice in a complementary direction. But she is paralyzed by the idea that, in this new direction, she is not an expert. She is focused on how much she does not know, on what she does not have, and wants to have everything figured out perfectly before she begins.

“You are so much more ready than you realize,” I tell her.

Ah! My own words indict me! I am more ready than I realize.

So I do it. I begin filming the new video right then and there. Fifteen minutes start to finish. Here it is:

You can see that at the beginning I’m nervous. The pitch of my voice is all over the place. My story is not as coherent as I wanted it to be, and I repeat myself. But at about minute 5:13, I relax. You can see it. I find my groove and the rest of the video I’m just doing my thing.

And, just because I love to make grandiose comparisons, you see a similar arc in Esther’s performance. She begins unconfidently (to be fair, people are booing her). Then she’s a little mad, kind of demanding that the audience listen to her. That seems to give her confidence. And around minute 1:45 you can see, she remembers who she is: a singer, and she belts it out. By the end of the song, she’s triumphant, and the audience is on its feet cheering!

Be Bold and Mighty Forces Will Come to Your Aid.

That’s what happens when you begin before you’re ready.

Okay, sometimes you fall on your face! Or not even that. Maybe you just embarrass yourself a little. But let’s talk odds:

Chance that you’ll get a standing ovation for staying where you are and waiting for perfect?

Zilch.

Chance that in the course of taking a risk you will:

  • Learn something?
  • Build your confidence?
  • Diminish your fear?
  • Even possibly, as Goethe said, find that mighty forces come to your aid?

Sky high, all!

What do you want, friend? Goose your intention by taking a risk. Just take a step, one step, towards center stage – or allow yourself to be pushed! Begin singing, or walking and talking, or make that phone call, pitch that idea, and who knows? Maybe a star will be born.

Hide and I’ll Seek

“Stop laughing at me! I don’t like it!” We were riding our bikes on a beautiful, breezy morning, but Elliot was in a mood.

She was right. I was laughing at her, but gently, I thought. I didn’t know what had set her off exactly, but I could see her frustrations mounting. I was trying to jolly her out of it.

But she is twelve and takes her moods very seriously. She was having none of my gentle mockery and rode off quickly away from me toward some trees.

We all have a fundamental need to be seen for who we are and to be unconditionally accepted. Unconditional acceptance means that our mistakes and dark moods are allowed and do not take away from our essential lovability. It means, “With me, you’re safe,” and allows for communication and intimacy.

Usually mothers provide this for children. But usually mothers are not perfect at this, and our children have to offer the lesson again and again!

Wait. I’ll back up and speak just for myself: my children have faithfully taught me how to give unconditional acceptance to them. But this morning I was offered another lesson in how to recognize the need for unconditional acceptance when my daughter hid from me.

Seeing Elliot head away from me and toward the trees this morning reminded of the first time she ever ran away. I was putting her baby brother down for a nap and, when I returned, two-year old Elliot was gone and the back door was open. Beyond the backyard were the woods.

Panicked, I enlisted the neighbors. As we called for her I felt sick with worry and guilt. The truth was, it was not an easy time for our relationship. Her brother’s arrival was very upsetting to her and I found her very challenging.

As we searched I was vividly reminded me of a time I hid from my grandmother. She had, I believed, been giving my twin brother too much attention. My brother was so good, so cute and sweet and sunshiny . . . in fact, he still is, and I adore him. But at the time it was painful to me to be, at best, just “one of the twins,” but usually the overlooked one. [Mom, if you’re reading this, I have no idea if this was objectively true! It was my perception and belief, so I was always looking for evidence of it].

So I hid from my grandmother. At first I enjoyed watching her look for me. It was proof that she was thinking of me and that she valued me. But as her worry increased, I felt naughty and came out of hiding. She simply fell down on her knees and hugged me tight!

I thought I was going to be punished! I had wanted to punish her! But she didn’t punish me. She forgave me, instantly, and I was humbled and grateful. Though I did not have words for it at the time, I felt unconditional acceptance in that moment.

After about ten minutes of searching for toddler Elliot, I returned to the house to see if she’d come back on her own. As I approached the back door, I saw her smiling little face peeking out of it. I fell on my knees and embraced her. If she was testing my love, my answer was as unequivocal as my grandmother’s had been!

Still, it took me years more for that lesson of unconditional acceptance to fully sink in. Until I learned it, Elliot continued to put me to the test.

She had tantrums every day until she was almost six years old. I believed her tantrums were expressions of defiance, so I would leave her to cry alone. When she was “ready to be social” she could come find me, and I would welcome her back. After almost four years of it, with no glimmer of change, I was worn to a frazzle and admitted defeat. At a friend’s suggestion I tried unconditional acceptance.

Friend, it worked in five minutes. (I tell that story here.)

Elliot stopped having tantrums, but she does occasionally still put my love to the test, like this morning.

But once I figured out that each time she tests me she is fundamentally asking for the same thing – the same thing that I asked my grandmother that day: to be seen and to be loved – I could respond effectively. Yes, there is always a topic that needs to be addressed, some subject on which she wants to be heard. But before we can get to that, she has to know that she’s unconditionally accepted. Only then does she feel safe enough to reveal her hurt or worry. If she does not feel safe, she’ll run away first.

When she rode away from me this morning I was annoyed, and carried on my own way. But in a flash of grace, I remembered how this works. She wants to be looked for. She wants to be found.

I turned around. I found her bike on its side by the trees and Elliot sitting on the ground nearby, knees to chest.

“You okay?” I asked, with compassion this time, instead of mockery.

She looked at me and nodded slowly. A small smile crept over her mouth and spread gently to her eyes. Whatever had been bothering her, she was over it.

“Ready to go for a ride?” I asked.

“Yes.”

She climbed on her bike and rode up beside me.

Motherhood is a long game. We’re only half way through it (the children-under-18 part, that is) but I am so glad I discovered unconditional acceptance when I did. I’m so glad Elliot never gave up trying to teach me. It shows me how to let go of my pride as a mother and listen to my children with an open heart.

“I love you,” she said. In other words, Thank you – for looking for her, for finding her and accepting her unconditionally, every time.

 

When your child runs away, do you look for her? How do you greet her when you find her? How does your child teach you how to give unconditional acceptance?

 

 

 

 

 

The Raw Story of How I Learned to Align Action With Desire

Wow. I had a good year.”

Said by a client who reviewed her Facebook profile for the year she had postpartum depression.

 

The cultivated profile. That’s what we’re surrounded with on social media. There’s nothing raw: no unfiltered photos of drool on the pillow, yelling at children, crying off your mascara, or of the empty package of chips you mindlessly binged on in a moment of self-doubt. So intellectually you know it’s not the whole story. But the sheer volume of beautiful selfies, adorable children, gorgeous meals, ironic detachment and self-aware, philosophical humor overpowers our critical thinking. We believe all of it anyway, sometimes even fooling ourselves like the client I quoted above.

Last week I shared five simple steps for aligning your action with your desire. I may have given you the highly-cultivated, 800 word final product, but I want you to know that every step in that process was hard-won. I can write knowledgeably on the subject of aligning action with desire because for years I failed to do just that.

I was in such pain about failing to accomplish my dream of a thriving life coaching practice that I tried to give up on it. I thought I had really good, rational reasons for quitting and moving on. But what happened next changed my perspective completely. Instead of feeling relief at quitting, I hurt more. That fresh pain was my signal that I was on the wrong path. Investigating it got me on the right one. I will share with you my raw story of discovering the steps I shared with you last week: how confusion, shame, quitting and pain led to true clarity.

In September 2010 I began Martha Beck’s Life Coach Training. I loved it. Coaching felt the perfect expression of my passions, interests and gifts. My dream was to integrate childbirth education and coaching to create a practice that empowered mothers and mothers-to-be. I would help change how we think about birth, postpartum and motherhood: we would transform from “just moms” to the heroines of our own journeys!

I coached anyone who wanted coaching. I told all my HypnoBirthing clients about my group course, designed just for them. I hosted a postpartum mothers’ group in person and online. I offered a free book club for new moms. I spoke in my community. I blogged (inconsistently, as I confessed last week). Despite positive feedback on my coaching, after two years I was down to one client and out of ideas for growing my practice. I was very discouraged.

Things came to a head as we planned our move from Japan to Hawaii. I had begun home schooling my kids (I wrote about that decision here, here and here). Would I carry on with it in Hawaii, which has notorious public schools, or pay for them to go to a private school?

Enter the voice of shame: If you were actually making money, you could pay for them to go. But your earnings don’t come close! You may have helped people, but face facts. You don’t have a business. You have a hobby. Your family needs you now. If you can’t contribute financially, the least you can do is educate the kids. Sorry, Chickie, but this is life. You failed. Move on.

That voice preyed on every fear I had about myself: that I was not enough; that being a stay-home mom was not enough; that I needed to prove myself and financial earnings were proof of value; that if I could not earn money, that I had to be an uber-mom; that I was a dilettante and despite my dreams I would never make anything of myself; that what I optimistically called slow progress was actually failure.

Right. No more Pollyanna shit. I failed. Move on. I resolved to take a hiatus from my work to home school my children in Hawaii. I tried to be open-minded but my heart was heavy.

When I saw my parents at Christmas, though, they were not convinced that I was doing the right thing. I found myself completely inarticulate as I attempted to persuade them. And angry. I took myself on a long walk to calm down and sort out my thoughts.

Why was I so angry? Clearly they’d struck a nerve. They didn’t believe me – did I believe me? My anger dissipated, but now I was just lost. What did I want?

I went back inside and saw my mom puttering around the house. She has always been there, in the house, at the ready for when her family needs her. And I know she has some regrets about not pursuing a career after my brother and I were grown. I wanted her perspective on my dilemma.

“Mom, what would you do?” I asked her straight-out. My voice was demanding but plaintive, almost a whine – the sound of someone who believes she’s trapped and powerless.

She looked up at me, startled. I do not usually ask her advice. She has a gorgeous habit of telling me, “You’re so clever. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” But today I didn’t want encouragement, I wanted an answer.

She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and said, “I think you should find a great school for the children so you can keep working.”

I immediately replied, “Well that would be ideal, but. . .”

That would be ideal? I heard myself. Really heard myself. I was not lost. I knew exactly what I wanted! I was stuck because of my belief that I did not deserve it.

The experience of feeling the pain of trying to give it up showed me that deserving had nothing to do with it. My dream was bigger than my fears. Not only did I have a dream, it had me. I was the one it tapped. Who was I not to see it through?

I felt such relief! I thanked my mom, kissed her, and started that moment looking online for a school for the kids as well as for some kind of business training or coach mentoring for myself. I was going to try again!

Once I was clear about Question Two, “Do you believe you deserve it?” things really lined up to support me. The highlights:

  • The school we selected, Ho’ala, has been brilliant for the kids. It has been a more healing experience for my son, in particular, than home schooling ever was. They are both thriving. We consider the school a great value.
  • I decided to deal with my shame around money and found Nona Jordan’s “Get Right With Money” course. It was life changing. Not only are we able to pay the kids’ tuition, we are saving 40% of our income on top of that for long-term priorities. By doing that course, I have effectively “earned” thousands of dollars.
  • In a moment of inspiration, I received the idea for the flagship course I am now developing. Becoming A Mother integrates childbirth education and coaching in the way I have always dreamed, and which, I believe, is unique in the world. I am turtle-stepping each day to bring that course to life and on track to launch it in the New Year.

When I’m no longer afraid that I’m not enough, I have nothing to prove and unchain myself from my desk, the kitchen, the home schooling table. When I’m no longer afraid that I don’t deserve what I want, my dreams and desires become a priority, instead of something I subconsciously push to the sidelines. I go to the gym. I learn to surf. I ride bikes with the kids and help them with homework. I read. I clean the house. I practice French. I go the Farmer’s Market. I have friends over. And I show up for my work and find that I am more productive than I’ve ever been.

But I’m not fooling myself. Though I have cultivated a new peace, I have no doubt things will get raw and messy again! After all, growth isn’t linear, moving in a straight line of continual progress. It’s more of a slowly rising spiral: you learn something, get a bit better, forget it and learn it anew, going a bit further each time. It may seem like you’re not getting anywhere, but take the long view and a different picture emerges.

If you are in the midst of a crisis of faith or feel a raw mess looming on the horizon, I hope this story encourages you. Please remind me of it when I need encouragement, too!

 

 

 

Align Your Action With Your Heart’s Desire

(The above image is Diana Nyad emerging from the water onto the Florida shore.  At the age of 64, on her fifth attempt, she became the first woman to swim without a shark tank from Cuba to Florida.)

Last week I wrote about doing the Work on the thought, “I haven’t gotten anything done.” In addition to being objectively untrue, we discovered that the thought was damaging and self-fulfilling. Rather than motivating, it kept me stuck and unproductive. The Work allowed me to shift my focus from lack to accomplishment, and that opened the doors to creativity and productivity.

But what if you can admit that you are productive, but you’re still unhappy? There’s something underneath “I haven’t gotten anything done.” It’s that you’re not getting done something that’s important to you.

It is important to acknowledge your accomplishments. It’s also important to align your action with your true heart’s desire. Here’s how in five simple steps.

Get clear about what you want.

1.  Are you sure you want it?

We usually get what we want deep down. If you lack what you think you want, are you sure you want it? Is it possible you feel that you should want it, but you really don’t?

For example, a few years ago I decided I should blog. I have always thought of myself as a writer. I had a childbirth education and coaching practice that kept me busy, but there was definitely room to grow. Blogging seemed the perfect next step to share what I had to offer with a wider audience.

I wrote in “free” moments. It took ages to finish a first draft and ages more of editing before finally posting. This wasn’t anything like the blogs I admired and wanted for my practice. Why?

Because a part of me didn’t want anything to change! My children were growing up fast. I felt more driven to be completely there for them – especially with a Naval officer husband who deployed – than I felt to grow my business. When I wasn’t comparing myself negatively to other, more prosperous coaches, I noticed that I was happy with the life and practice that I had.

I figured out what I really wanted then. Earlier this year, I was ready to take my practice to another level. (That’s a story for another time!) Before I did, I had to ask myself the next question:

2.  Do you believe you deserve it?

In my case, did I deserve to move a little deeper into my work and ask my family to be more independent?

Don’t make this a referendum on your self-worth. Allow it to be simple. You deserve it not because of what you’ve done, but because of who you are: a human being. The world needs every one of our unique creative energies! Who are you not to?

My family completely supported me. Once I freed myself from the question of whether I deserved to have a fuller work life separate from my family, I was free to focus on the next, practical question:

3.  What are you willing to give up in order to get what you want?

In my case, this is still a work in progress. In order for my family to be more independent, I have to let go and share the household responsibilities. It also happens to be good for my kids to learn to do things for themselves. I love a win-win!

Maybe you want your partner to help more around the house. Are you willing to let him screw it up not micromanage  and let him figure out his own way to do it?

 

How to have it.

4.  Take turtle steps each day.

To human eyes turtles move laughably slowly. Watch a turtle for two minutes and you cannot imagine how he gets anywhere. But don’t be like the hare in the fable who underestimates him. Slow and steady really does win the race.

Any task can be broken down into steps. The mistake we make is trying to take steps that are too big and overwhelm us, so we break down mid-step or stop before we begin. So make your steps small. Then smaller. Smaller! Until you’re laughing at the ridiculous do-ability of the step. Then do it and acknowledge your accomplishment.

Repeat these turtle steps at a pace that feels easy to you. You undermine yourself if you put too many turtle steps on your daily to-do list. That’s a hare’s leap in turtle clothing! The key is that each step feel doable and the pace feel easy.

In coach training, Martha Beck, who originated this tool, told us that she wrote her PhD dissertation in turtle steps. She had no choice: she was in excruciating pain from fibromyalgia and caring for her three children under five – including one with special needs. If it worked for her. . . .

As for me, I gave myself permission to “just write.” I would start with a topic, but if I veered off the trail that was great! I just started a new document and continued until another idea popped in, etc. I wrote as long as the writing was easy, even if that was just 100 words. Then I switched to the next easy idea. In between writing, those unfinished ideas would develop in my mind, so that when I next sat down, there was more easy writing at the ready.

5.  Do the important thing first.

Here’s the thing: your day can be full of accomplishments, but it will feel like nothing if the thing that matters most to you remains undone.

In my case, I set aside every weekday afternoon from 2 – 4 for writing.   Though technically I wasn’t doing it “first,” I made that time sacrosanct. Regardless of the other claims on my time, writing took precedence in those hours.

 

This approach has helped me to be more productive and content than I have been in years. What is your important thing? Take a moment to imagine how it will feel when you make time for it every day.  When you feel that way, what kind of mother will you be? What kind of partner? Friend? When mama’s happy, everyone is happy!

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Storms: the Unconditional Acceptance Challenge

I found myself reading up on ADHD.  I was in the library, reading up on home schooling, trying to decide whether to continue or to send my son back to school in the fall.  But the chapters on ADHD were what grabbed my attention.

Oh, no.  That sounds like him, I thought with a sinking feeling as I read the clinical indications of the disorder.

On the heels of that thought came images of my son playing Legos, for hours, mind focused, body soft and relaxed.  And more:  setting up elaborate train tracks and choo-chooing them round and round; building a blanket fort and reading inside of it; seconding that same fort as a redoubt in a Nerf war; climbing a tree and watching the world go by underneath.

I scanned ahead.   It turns out that clinicians are now diagnosing “situational ADHD”; that is, there are children who can pay attention everywhere but in school.  Curious.

I shut the book, feeling slightly ashamed for trying to diagnose my son’s behavior as pathological.  I sat back as another image, a memory, slid into focus.  Oh. I’ve been here before.

It was five years ago.  I was in despair over my daughter, who was still having tantrums every day.  They had begun at the confluence of two milestones, turning two and her younger brother’s birth.  But three years later they still hadn’t stopped.  It wasn’t just the tantrums.  She was devious.  She bullied a playmate.  She snarled at me more often than she smiled.  I seemed to have no influence over her except to make her angry.  One mournful night I found myself Googling “oppositional,” “defiant,” “antisocial.”  The next day I paid a babysitter so I could pour, uninterrupted, over child psychology books in the library.  It was good news/bad news:  she was way too young to diagnose a mental illness; that meant the problem must be with my mothering.  If there was pathology, it was mine.

Alone again, naturally.  Wasn’t I?  I didn’t see anyone else struggling as I was.  I must be the only one.  I was ashamed, and so I confided in no one.  This cut me off from help and advice (I shouldn’t need it) and from sympathy (I don’t want pity).  Being cut off also encased me in the painful belief that everyone else knew what they were doing.  Motherhood looks so easy.  I was an intelligent, educated woman.  Why did I find it so hard?  Why did I seem to be failing at this apparently simple job?  Simple, yes.  Easy?  Hardly.

Help, advice and sympathy did come, in the form of my friend Alicia.  Alicia was a full time mom of three who also happened to be a psychologist.  She seemed confident and organized – exactly the kind of person I typically avoided exposing myself to.  But I was in crisis, and her professional credentials gave me hope that she could help and would not think (too much) less of me.  She agreed to meet me for coffee.

Under cover of clanking cutlery and boisterous conversations at the communal tables of a Pain Quotidien, I poured my heart out to her.  I held nothing back.  I allowed myself to reveal my darkest feelings.  Even in the din, I found myself dropping into a whisper as I admitted my resentment at my daughter for being as she was.  I surprised even myself.  My God, I wasn’t just worried for her.  I was angry!  You could say I was having a tantrum right there:  a respectable, educated, thirty-something, stay-home mommy, having the respectable, educated, thirty-something version of a tantrum for not getting her way with her five year old.

My dear friend listened to it all without judgment.  She didn’t flinch.  She didn’t change the subject.  She was not embarrassed.  She affirmed that it was hard, motherhood.  She admitted that she felt anger, too (Even she?)  She told me that sometimes her children made her cry, too (Those perfect children?).

What a relief!  To be heard and validated allowed me to relax.  I felt normal again, and feeling normal gave me hope that our problems could be solved.

In a nutshell, my friend had modeled the solution she proposed for us: unconditional acceptance.  She said that my daughter needed help and was expressing it the only way she could, with her behavior.  She needed me to see past her behavior to the feelings underneath, accept her feelings, and then help her with her problem.  Years later I would come across this idea in Bonnie Harris’s Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids:  “Your child,” she says, “is having a problem, not being a problem.”

Sitting in the hushed library in the present day, I wondered if that’s where I’d gotten off track with my son.  What unmet need was his behavior signaling?  When he acted out, was I paying attention to him or to his misbehavior?  Did I pause from my busy-ness long enough to really listen to him, or was I too focused on being annoyed?  Did my response help him, as Alicia’s helped me, to feel normal – not alone! – and hopeful.

Unconditional acceptance certainly helped my daughter.  She noticed the change in me immediately.  When I responded with curiosity, instead of censure, to her tantrum that afternoon, it actually stopped the tantrum before it started.  Confusion flickered across her little face.  She smiled.  She started laughing.  Then she hugged me.  I know it sounds like an after-school special, but it really did happen that way.  Within a week – one week – she was a happy girl again, and she remains a happy girl still.  Would my son’s response be as dramatic?

 

*     *     *

 

I have struggled over this blog post for the past few weeks because the answer is no.  I had wanted a “happy ending” – or at least a neat one – for this post, but I don’t have one.  I’ve seen some response from him to my attempts at unconditional acceptance, but it hasn’t been as dramatic.

I think I understand why.  I can’t give what I don’t have.   That is, I struggle to accept myself unconditionally.  I beat myself up for my mistakes.  I can’t believe I haven’t figured it all out yet!  I think, If I’m good enough, we will all be happy all the time!  Perfectionism, with its happy, neat endings and discomfort with messiness of any kind, is kind of the opposite of unconditional acceptance.  If that’s what I practice, why would he believe my preaching otherwise?

On my morning walk, I notice the weather and evidence of the changing season.  Today it is more humid than yesterday, but noticeably cooler than one week ago.  I’ve just heard there may be a tropical storm this weekend.  The high winds and rain will be very dramatic.  Certainly many leaves, their grips on the trees grown fragile as summer winds down, will be blown from the trees.  Some trees may even be uprooted.  None of this is good or bad.  It is simply Nature.

When I am lost, as I feel now, my daily walks remind me of the larger perspective.  As Nature is in a constant state of change, so is all of life.  That includes my son, and it includes me, too.  In Nature, death not only makes room for birth, it feeds the new life!  You can’t have sunshine all the time.  You – he – Ican’t be happy all the time.  Or always know what to do.  The transitions happen, and sometimes they are violent and uproot things.  But I’m lost only if I forget that after the storm, the sun will come out again and the weather will be easy.  Until next time.

by Allison Evans, August 30, 2013.

What storm are you going through right now?  Do you tend to fight them, too?  What do you think would happen if you didn’t this time?

Trust

A "practice home school" day.

A “practice home school” day.

 

For me the question at the heart of the decision to home school is, “Who or what should be trusted?”  Should my child be trusted?  Should Nature be trusted?  Should I be trusted?  Or should the institution of conventional education be trusted?  I write “or” because it seems to me that when a child does not fit in conventional education, it’s an “either/or” proposition.  If you put your trust in conventional education, you bend the child to it, making him fit through coercion or drugs. If put your trust in the child and opt out of the institution, you are trusting in his natural curiosity and desire for mastery.  You also must trust yourselves as his parents to facilitate his education at home.

 

As a childbirth educator and life coach, I help my clients learn to trust themselves and Nature’s design for birth.  Now my son has forced me to consider extending that trust to his education.  Once I stopped resisting, my heart was easily won over.  Here are the reasons my head needed:

 

Nature is trustworthy.  Nature drives processes so complex and beautiful that even the best scientific minds are humbled by it.  Looking at the development of a child, Nature conceives, nurtures and births with very little conscious participation by the parents.  It directs the child’s early, astonishing development – of gross and fine motor skills, of language and abstract thought.  Nature plants in the child an insatiable curiosity to understand his world and to master his environment.  Is this same Nature sufficient to prepare an adult in the modern world?  Honestly I cannot be certain; the pace of change is dizzying.  But I have no evidence that it cannot.  And I have more faith in Nature’s processes of curiosity and play to adapt to novelty than I do in those of institutions.

 

My child is trustworthy.  There is no argument to make; it is an article of faith.  From my first days as a mother, the voices – be they found in books or in conversation – that resonated with me were the ones who encouraged me to trust my child.  If he cries, you can trust that something is upsetting him, and it’s your job to find out what.  He isn’t crying to manipulate; he cries from a need that he cannot meet alone.  Bonnie Harris, my favorite parenting coach, lists as her first two Principles of Confident Parenting: “My Child Wants to Be Successful” and “Behavior Is My Clue.”  The most that can be said as argument is – as I said of Nature – that I have no evidence that he is not.  In fact, when I manage to remember and apply these principles when he and I disagree, I find that our disagreements dissolve.  This is as close as I believe we can get to “proof.”

 

I am trustworthy.  This is the piece I have struggled with!  Can what I offer him be at least equal to what conventional education offers him?  I think the answer is “yes,” and it isn’t because I was a classroom teacher before becoming a mother.  It is because I am curious, open-minded and I love to learn.  The best compliment I ever received in the classroom from one of my students was, “Mrs. Evans, you’re such a geek!”  He was responding to my enthusiasm for our subject.  I am conventionally educated, but I am also mostly self-taught in my chosen professional field of birth and life coaching.  My educational philosophy is simple:  read what interests you; ask questions; write about it or practice it; modify as experience and new information lead you.  When the subject is difficult, break into smaller chunks and get advice.  Experience tells me this is the only way to assimilate new information, it is the only way it “sticks.”  Classroom teachers have a lot of skills and tricks, but they’re for marching a large group of children through a prescribed curriculum.  (and by the way, how much of that do you actually remember?)  Learning at home can be more simple and more reliably interesting.

 

Conventional education is . . . okay.  How well it works depends upon the child, the parents and the school.  It works well for my daughter, for example.  When she was four and her brother was two, I put her in a Montessori nursery school.  She was a challenging child at that age, and I felt stretched thin by the demands of early childhood.  My husband worked away from home all day, and I was desperate to share more of the responsibility for raising her.  When I visited the Montessori preschool near our home, I was certain it would be a better place than home for my daughter to spend the day.  And it was!  She thrived, and I got the good help I needed.  Our relationship improved and so did our home life.  It was the right school for the right girl for the right parents.  She has remained in school and it continues to work well for her by every measure.

 

But her brother has had a very different experience.  He is an intelligent, imaginative and easy-going child, but he has never thrived in any of the schools he has attended.  Instead, school seems to make him smaller, more anxious, less sure of himself.  He has endured school as a sad reality of life, but for the past year his stoic resignation has crumbled.  It has forced me to look critically at conventional education and ask, “What is its real value?”  In other words, what is he really learning there and what could he learn outside of it?

 

There is ample criticism of conventional education, produced by people more knowledgeable than I, so I won’t rehash those arguments here.  Suffice it to say that I am convinced that the emotional content of conventional education is not beneficial for my son.  As for me, I have grown in confidence as a mother as my children have grown.  They are now eight and ten:  independent, capable, and able to read and write.  We have all changed since the day we decided that school was the best thing for everyone.  I know that now I can provide a more suitable emotional environment for him to learn in.

 

In conclusion, we are going for it!  Hearts and heads aligned, his last day of school will be later this month.  (I actually suggested an earlier date, but he wanted to finish a project his class is doing.)  I am nervous about the unknown, but excited, too.  He, in contrast, is serenely joyful.  He has responded to our trust in him by being more responsible, cooperative and cheerful – in a word, more trustworthy.  I freely admit this is an experiment, but I like the odds.

On the Bridge: Feelings Are Trustworthy Guides

Taken five years ago.  Even then they were leading me over bridges.

Taken five years ago. Even then they were leading me over bridges.

“I’ve been on this bridge before.”

I realize this while I’m walking the dog, which is when I have some of my best insights.  I happen to be crossing a bridge as I have this thought, but I don’t mean the literal bridge.  I mean a metaphoric one: the bridge as a metaphor for transitions.  Transitions are my work so obviously they fascinate me.  But so do bridges.  I have pictures of them all over the house.  It’s funny because bridges frighten me a little, especially the high ones that you can’t see the other side of.  That’s how I feel now: excited and a little bit scared as I think about home schooling my children.

The recognition that I’m on a bridge – that is, in transition – soothes me.  It reminds me of the other bridges I’ve crossed after initial resistance.  Not only did I cross safely, I crossed into a space better than I could have imagined if I’d been entirely in control.  And every time feelings were trustworthy guides.

I think about falling in love with my husband on our first date, marrying him six months later, and the unexpectedly rocky road that was our first two years of marriage.  Conventional wisdom might have told me that we’d made a mistake, leapt too quickly. I thought of turning back.  But what kept me turning toward him instead was how it felt when I did.  When I turned back in my mind – insisted on my way, believed in my righteous indignation – it hurt.  My pride was cold comfort.  But when I let go of my pride and turned toward him – listened to him, opened myself to seeing things differently – it felt . . . better.  Lighter. Good.  Resistance hurt. Surrender felt better, and it led to a deeper, more mutually nourishing marriage.  Feelings, I learned, were trustworthy guides.

I think about labor and birth.  Labor with my first child began gently.  But a few hours into it, I felt a strong surge come on, and I got frightened.  “Oh, no!” I thought. I braced myself against the surge by tensing my body and holding my breath.  When I did that, the feedback from my body was immediate.  It hurt!  It was then that I remembered the overarching lesson of my HypnoBirthing  course:  the only way through labor was to surrender to it.  So the next time I felt a surge coming, I did not resist it.  Instead, I smiled, welcoming it.  I let my body go limp.  I gave the surge all my breath – long, slow and deep.  The difference was night and day.  It felt better.  It didn’t hurt any more.  After initial resistance to crossing the bridge that is labor and birth, I surrendered to it. My feelings were my trustworthy guides.

My teacher Martha Beck talks about the Body Compass  as every person’s infallible guide to his or her right life.  As it happens, it’s what I used instinctively when I signed up for her course. I was considering a Master’s program in psychology. The idea of doing some kind of counseling work was very attractive. When I thought about actually being in graduate school again, however, I felt heaviness in my body. An image of a dusty skeleton in a cold attic came to mind.  Then I remembered Martha, whose columns in O mag  I had been devouring for years. I thought, “I’ll bet she trains life coaches.” One lightening fast Google search proved that she did. As I perused her website, my body felt unmistakably warm and tingly.  It was saying yes. I signed up immediately and – like marrying my husband and giving birth naturally – it’s  one of the best things I ever did.

I wrote last week about my resistance to home schooling my son.  Through coaching, I have come to know pain as “an alarm bell” that wakes me up to my own resistance.  Once the resistance is noticed, I can question it.  Last week I questioned the thought, “I need him to be in school.”  After questioning I felt “soft” and so relaxed that I fell asleep.  I woke up “light hearted and unafraid.”  In other words, I felt better.  Good.  My body was saying yes.

Since then I have been trying to catch my head up with my body.  Am I really up for this?  Is our whole family?  Is he, really?  Looking wider: what are the outcomes for home schooled kids?  Let’s see the cautionary tales.  What regulations pertain to us?  There are many questions, but I notice that no anxiety attaches to any of them.  My body feels relaxed.  I research with curiosity and look ahead to home schooling with excitement!  I may not know how long this bridge is, how high, or where it will take us.  But I have been here before and been led to good things.  I can trust my feelings.

On the Other Side of Resistance: Possibility

See those intricate Lego creations? This boy has no trouble concentrating.

See those intricate Lego creations? This boy has no trouble concentrating.

 

“But I hate school!  I’ll never go back!”

His tears were copious. He was weeping.  Weeping.  Christmas vacation was on its last legs.  School resumed in three days and my eight-year old son was inconsolable.

He has a powerful imagination, and it was hurting him – imagining his return to school – so I asked him what his ideal school would be, if he were in charge.

“There would be no school!” he cried.

Hm.  Not the direction I’d hoped for.  I persisted.  “But that’s cheating,” I said. “In this game you think of how to make it great, not go away.”

“The only great school is no school!  I want to be home schooled!”

I winced.  There it was, the demand I dreaded. Home school.  My best friend and many others of my friends homeschool and I think they’re amazing!  I think it’s ideal if you can do it.  But me?  No, it’s not for me.  I’ve said so countless times to my husband, my friends, my kids, and to strangers who don’t even ask.  I want to do my work, and I need them at school in order to do it.

I walked away from my sobbing child. Maybe he would calm down if he had no audience.

Ten minutes later. . .  No. Still crying.  Inside, I cried, too.  But my cries were more for myself than compassion for his pain.  I do not want to home school!  I need him to go to school!

My mind flashed back to when he was an infant.  He was the sweetest baby.  He slept, he ate, he played and smiled, and then he slept some more.  He never cried!  Well, except when we were in the car.  When he was strapped into his hard plastic car seat and facing away from me in the back seat for indefinite periods of time, he would wail.  And I would let him.  I had places to go!  He needed to get used to it! I couldn’t put my entire life on hold for him, could I?  It wasn’t until my best friend came for a visit and was distressed by his wailing that I realized how much I had hardened my heart to his cries when they were inconvenient.  “Shouldn’t we at least stop the car?” she said.  “What’s the hurry anyway?”

I look at him now, eight years old and curled in the fetal position on my bed – mine, not his own – with fresh eyes.  He is the sweetest boy.  He is playful, imaginative and bright.  He makes us laugh and is good company.  He used to be more easy going, though.  He started to be more emotional and prone to anger around four.  It occurs to me that that’s about the time he started his first all-day school.  He enjoyed nursery school and Kindergarten well enough, but since first grade he has found it hard to concentrate and get his worksheets done on time. Don’t get him started on homework! He has been asking to be home schooled for at least a year now, but I have resisted. I believe I need him to go to school.

Oh. I hear it now: I need him to go to school.  Is it true?  I ask myself the first question of The Work of Byron Katie, the method of questioning painful thoughts.  It is, to me, a miraculous method.  I use it whenever I notice that I’m believing a thought that is causing me pain; in other words, every day.  She and many other spiritual teachers teach that it’s our thoughts about our circumstances that cause us pain, not the circumstances themselves.  Reality is always kinder, she says, than our thoughts about it.

So: Capture the thought and question it.  Is it true that I need him to go to school?  Can I be absolutely certain that I need him to be in school?  No.  I can’t be absolutely certain.  If I can’t be absolutely certain that I’m right about that, then the possibility that he is right – that he actually should be home – opens up.  I remember other times – there are so many! – that he and his sister have taught me things. The times I resisted what they wanted or needed, then gave in out of exhaustion and found that they led us to a sweeter spot than I could have imagined!

How do I react when I believe the thought (that I need him to be in school and he desperately wants to be home)?  Well, I fight him. I harden my heart. I am the hard plastic car seat that faces his soft little body away from everything he loves (me).  Shouldn’t we at least stop the car? What’s the hurry anyway? 

Who would I be without the thought? Open. Curious. Soft. I would stop the car, stop driving to a destination, which I believe is Best and Important, and listen to what he is telling me.

Turn the thought around.  I don’t need him to go to school.  I need him to be home.  Could those turnarounds be as true or truer than my original, painful thoughts?  Well, for starters, they feel good when I say them.  My body feels looser and lighter.  It isn’t until I feel the physical and psychic freedom of this turnaround that I notice how violently I had been resisting!

I need me to go to school.  Maybe having him home would teach me something I need to learn.  I have been consciously resisting this for so many years.  In all those years of resistance and having both my children in school so that I could work unfettered, the business that I was sure I’d build just. . . hasn’t happened.  I have not built it yet.  Could it be that dropping my resistance to having them home and incorporating them into my work life could shift something?  Could leaning into home schooling create not just happier kids but a more robust professional life for myself?

Softened to the point of porousness from The Work, I curl my soft body around his and we fall asleep together.  I wake up lighthearted and unafraid.  I hadn’t realized I was afraid, but the absence of it is noticeable.  It is proof that I’m on to something good.

He doesn’t mention his dread of school again until the night before school resumes.  I haven’t told him of my new openness to home schooling or my decision to work the month of January as if I’m already homeschooling.  I want to prove to myself that I can be more productive in less time.  I say nothing, yet he seems to feel that something is different, because he does not cry.  He is nervous but no longer desperate.

“I don’t want to go back tomorrow,” he says Sunday night.

I say, “Is there some way we can make it better?  Maybe a special breakfast or special lunch? Or we could plan some fun for after school?” I notice I’m curious about what he’ll say, no longer needing a particular answer or speedy closure.

“Will you wake me up early so there’s time to play before school?” he suggests.

“I’d be delighted to! What a neat idea,” I reply, and I mean it.

“And would you consider maybe possibly letting me have Wednesdays off from school?” he ventures. Wednesdays are short days.

“I think I’d like that,” I reply, and I mean it.

He smiles then is thoughtful.  “Well, maybe just every three weeks,” he says.  “We don’t want to go crazy.”

We both smile and start laughing.  We hug each other and he gives me a dozen kisses.  Will I home school?  Maybe.  I don’t want to go crazy!  Dropping my resistance to it, though, is the first step on a journey toward something better than I previously imagined.  Of that I’m sure.

Do you home school?  If not, have you ever been tempted — or begged?  What did you do? Do you have an experience with finding exciting possibilities after dropping resistance? Please comment below!