A Case for a New Family Leave Policy

Above, from “Stretched”: That’s a 3-week baby she’s driving to day care.

Have you seen the new NPR series, “Stretched”?

The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have a national maternity/paternity leave policy. “Stretched” explores the effects these policies have on nations and families, and, specifically, the consequences to American families who lack new family leave.

A new entitlement program can be a hard sell in the U.S., which strongly values freedom for individuals and businesses and often distrusts government regulation. We’ve seen that in recent decades in the struggle to create an entitlement to health care. It’s also true that American families are finding ways to manage without it.

Even so, the world is changing, our knowledge is evolving, and all signs point to Americans wanting to change with the times. It’s time for America to create a new family leave policy.

“It’s Too Expensive” Is a Value Judgment, Not a Fact.

When pressed, some policy makers base their objection to paid new family leave on a belief that it would be too expensive.

Putting aside the fact that state policies in California, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island  – not to mention the rest of the developed world  – are proving that it can be done with a net benefit to the economy, I want to ask a more fundamental question: What is the economy for?

Do people exist for benefit of the economy? Or does the economy exist for the benefit of people?

The expense argument puts the economy ahead of families. I think when we recognize that, we immediately see that that is not in alignment with our true values. If families fail to thrive, America withers. When they flourish, America grows. As a society, we have a vested interest in the health and wellbeing of every family. What we value, we support. Even if it’s “expensive,” we find a way.

The Science of Flourishing

In recent decades, science (physiological and social) has developed its understanding of how mothers and infants thrive. Our policies should reflect these understandings:

The newborn is vulnerable. All newborn care is not created equal. Infants thrive on continual contact with the parents, who are known to him from before the moment of birth. Newborns also thrive with frequent breastfeeding, which has short- and long-term health benefits for the child and therefore the parents and therefore society.

New mothers are vulnerable. Pregnancy and birth push the mother’s body to its limits. Before she’s even had time to recover, the needs of the newborn push an already stressed mother even further. The good news, as I’ve written in “The Physiology of Postpartum Thriving,” is that continual contact with the infant and frequent breastfeeding also help the mother to thrive. They are associated with better rest, greater satisfaction with caregiving, and lower rates of postpartum depression.

The new family is vulnerable. New parenthood can be a stressful time for couples. (See my article, “The Right Way to Fight With Your Spouse,” for proven tips on re-building intimacy with your partner). Shared childcare responsibility, made possible by new family leave policies that benefit fathers as well as mothers, increases empathy between parents and for the child. Shared financial responsibility, facilitated by paid family leave, increases respect and equality between parents.

New Family Leave Would Benefit 61% of American Families.

After World War II, when Europe was rebuilding and needed women in the work force, it began crafting maternity leave policies. American women, by contrast, left the war mobilization factories and returned home, and there was no need for new family leave policies.

Nowadays, most – 61%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – American families rely on incomes from both parents. Parents save up vacation and sick days, they save up money, but when new family leave is unpaid, they take less of it than is optimal for the wellbeing of both the child and the parents. Employers can end up paying for this short-changing in loss of employee productivity, poor morale, and, often loss of female participation in the work force, according to Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute.

We can do better.

Because I am progressive, not conservative, I believe in doing better, in growing and changing with the times. Life in the United States is much different from what it was the 1940’s, when the United States was choosing not to create a new family leave policy as Europe was. We also know more about the physiology of infants and new mothers than we did then, and we expect to thrive, not just to survive. It is time for the U.S. to make this crucial investment in its new families and create a maternity/paternity leave policy.

 

P.S. Since I posted this blog, two more excellent segments were published. Please check out the latest on what the military is offering service members, and what a pediatrician thinks of paid parental leave.

Nature’s Design for Postpartum Ease

Inspired by my friend’s recent birth journey, I’ve been writing about how we can make birth easier by planning and preparing to support the mother’s natural birthing hormones. Could postpartum be easier, too, if we let Nature lead?

As a birth educator, I’d always been impressed by Nature’s perfect economy of sexual reproduction: that the same hormones, oxytocin and endorphins, that helped get you pregnant would also help you birth your baby, bond with her, and feed her.

But in my research for Becoming a Mother (the book – coming in 2017) I learned about prolactin. I had known it as the hormone of lacto-genesis, or milk production, but it is so much more.

Embedded in these three hormones is a design for postpartum ease that – like birth ease – deserves to be more widely known.

Oxytocin is the hormone of love and bonding. It is released with sexual arousal, peaks with orgasm and facilitates bonding. Oxytocin also initiates and drives labor, its release peaking with the baby’s birth, and continuing as you hold baby skin-to-skin. It is also released with the nipple stimulation of baby’s rooting and suckling and causes the milk to let down. If you’ve ever held a loved one close, experienced sexual arousal and release, or nursed a baby, you know how oxytocin feels: delicious, tingly, pleasurably spaced out.

Endorphins, the feel-good hormones, are part of all these reproductive experiences, too. They are well known for being released during physical exertion and to soothe pain. But they are always released with oxytocin, which means they help makes sex feel good and help labor feel better and nursing and cuddling so pleasurable. To know how endorphins feel, it may help to know that the name is a mash-up of the words “endogenous,” meaning “originating from within the body,” and “morphine,” the opiate. Thus endorphins are your body’s own morphine, producing both analgesia and euphoria.

Prolactin was the revelation to me. In her wonderful book Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, Dr. Sarah J. Buckley says there are “more than three hundred known bodily effects of prolactin,” collectively called the “maternal subroutine.” Among other effects, prolactin stimulates the mother’s appetite and grooming of theinfant, dampens the stress response, stimulates the release of oxytocin and endorphins and increases REM sleep. It is a hormone of surrender, helping new mothers to put baby’s needs first for a while (pp. 108-9).

Surrender. Baby grooming. Sleepiness. A suppressed stress response. The bliss of oxytocin and endorphins. Can you visualize this mother? Buckley tells us that, during lactation, “prolactin levels are directly related to suckling intensity, duration and frequency” (108). In other words, the more baby nurses, the more prolactin is released, in a virtuous cycle of what she calls “positive addiction.”

I am struck by this fact: to the powerful – and powerfully pleasurable – hormones of reproduction, oxytocin and endorphins, Nature adds a third, prolactin, after the baby is born.

Oxytocin + Endorphins + Prolactin = Thriving

Why would Nature up the hormonal support after birth?

Why does Nature do anything? So that your genes will succeed. Put another way: Nature wants your baby to thrive. For baby to thrive, mother needs to thrive, too. Nature will support your thriving if you follow her cues.

This understanding nudged me to re-evaluate my own postpartum experiences: my first child did not breastfeed, my second did.

While I loved my first baby fiercely, nothing was easy. I felt clueless and anxious so much of the time. She wasn’t like the babies in the parenting books, nor was I the “natural” mother I’d imagined I’d be. I held us both to a very high standard, as if I should be able to carry on my life as before, only with her as some kind of accessory, like a TV baby. I feared there was something wrong with both of us.

Without prolactin to guide me, I had to rely on cultural values of what a good baby and mom were.

It made me a little crazy.

My second child, in contrast, nursed readily. Eager to encourage him, I followed advice and allowed him to be at the breast as much and as often as he wanted, which was most of the time. For example, when he was four days old he nursed five hours straight through the night. By six weeks old he was nursing about eight hours a day – a full time job.

The effect of his being at the breast so much of the time was that I sat around a lot. I watched him, watched my daughter play on the floor, read. At some point I noticed how I happy I was – and how little I cared about anything other than keeping my sweet little ones and myself fed and clean. I didn’t mind about the shower I couldn’t manage to take, the errands I couldn’t manage to run, the dishes I couldn’t manage to wash. I was just deeply happy.

With prolactin to guide me, I didn’t care at all about our cultural values of what a good baby and mom were. It made me crazy in the best way: surrendered, relaxed, feeding, grooming, eating, baby-addicted and blissed-out.

It made postpartum easy.

Let It Be Easy

Nature prompts the behavior it wants to encourage: in postpartum that means continual contact and unrestricted breastfeeding. When you follow its lead Nature rewards with ease and pleasure. What a different picture of postpartum than the culturally-dominant one of struggle and pain.

The good news is we can change our culture. Let’s let birth and postpartum be easier than our culture expects by following Nature’s prompts and enjoying the rewards.

 What if Nature were always guiding us toward thriving through subtle prompts of the body and rewards of ease and pleasure? How would that change your mothering? Your relationship with your children? Your marriage? Please share in the comments!

Is “Empowered Birth” a Feminist Fantasy?

Above: Lost in self-evaluation?

 

Did you have a good birth?

What thoughts and images come to mind when I ask that question? If your answer is yes, do you feel proud? If your answer is no, do you feel guilt?

For ten years now my work has been to help mothers “prepare for a great birth.” But a new essay by Sarah Blackwood has me questioning whether morality – judgment of what is right or good – belongs in birth at all.

Her essay is titled, “Monstrous Births: Pushing back against empowerment in childbirth.” My first thought was, “Who could be against empowerment?” and I deleted it. But it gnawed at me, so I retrieved the essay from the trash, read it, and have been wrestling with it ever since.

When Blackwood, now a mother of two, was pregnant for the first time, she was “seduced by these feminist ideals about childbirth and thought that the way I went about it would be representative of something about me and my strength.”

Her first birth, however, was traumatizing: a four-day induction ending in a c-section and life-threatening hemorrhage. She attempted a VBAC for her second birth, but nothing went to plan, and she had a second emergency c-section and complications from the surgery.

Since then, she says, “I prefer to hear, tell, and read stories about childbirth that give the lie to contemporary fantasies about empowerment. Birth is a monstrous thing, and it has no moral component.” I take “monstrous” to mean other, existing outside of the binary of good or bad, as well as potentially terrorizing.

In contrast, I was so moved by my own “good” births that I abandoned a career I loved in order to teach expectant mothers how to have them! Birth is influenced by so many factors. I have taught women and their partners the factors that encourage or hinder the natural progress of birth, as well as techniques for managing the fear and pain that often accompany it. Do these things, I say, and chances are very good that you’ll have the natural vaginal birth that you desire.

“There are no guarantees, however,” I caution. “Natural birth is wild, not tame, organic, not mechanistic. It can be influenced but not controlled.” But after the hours I spend teaching them how to maximize their chances for a “good” birth, this caveat is easily, unconsciously, brushed aside by these hopeful and excited parents. Rarely is it enough to prevent them second-guessing themselves, even feeling guilty, if they do not have the natural vaginal birth they desire – or worse, if they feel traumatized by their experience, as in Blackwood’s case.

To avoid the potential guilt associated with an unwanted outcome, Blackwood would have us say there is no good or bad in birth. But that is too radical. Not only does it invalidate all the good experiences, like mine and my clients’, it cannot inure us to disappointment. There must be a middle path.

I propose we talk about birth outcomes as healthy or unhealthy and allow space for luck.

From “good” birth to “healthy” birth. The body is supposed to work. We call it “health” when the body works. When it does not, we call it illness. Very often “good” personal choices, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, contribute to health. Whereas, “bad” personal choices, such as smoking and not managing stress, often contribute to illness.

But sometimes there is no moral component at all: non-smokers get lung cancer, while a two-pack-a-day-er dies at 97 of old age. So we are humble in the face of these calamities, whispering to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We make room for being lucky or unlucky.

Birth is a natural process of the body, and it’s supposed to work, too. That means it is supposed to begin, proceed, and end in a way that is healthy to both mother and baby. As with our health at other times, the choices we make can contribute to healthy outcomes or unhealthy ones.

However, we make a mistake when we give all the credit for health, or all the blame for illness, to our personal choices. My births went well, and I gave all the credit to my preparation: the team I assembled, my relaxation skills, etc. I jumped to the conclusion that if I could do it, anyone could, if they followed my playbook. Maybe. Maybe I was also really lucky.

Blackwood’s births went badly, despite responsible preparation. To absolve herself of intolerable feelings of failure, she concluded that birth could not be anything more or less than a “chaotic biological experience.” Maybe there were choices she could have made to have a better outcome. Maybe not. Maybe she was just really unlucky.

She and I make the same mistake in universalizing and generalizing our births to make meaning for everyone. Birth, like health, is too idiosyncratic. We must do our best and, humbly, make room for luck.

What about you? What do you feel contributed to or determined your birth experience? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

 

What Gets Results?

Above:  Take a page from her playbook.

Happy New Year! Have you made any resolutions?

If you groaned or laughed nervously at that question, is it because you used to make them, but they never seemed to stick, and so the only result of your resolution was to feel even worse about yourself?

Oh my god, me, too!

I finally became really curious about the phenomenon of the chronically unrealized desire: the dress size I could reach but never maintain; the French I never brushed up on; the savings plan I never started.

My best thinking had not helped me. In fact, something about it seemed to be keeping me stuck. So I turned to an example of effortless achievement through non-thinking: babies.

Learning to be a life coach as I was learning to be a mother was a happy combination! Together they have taught me how to approach areas of dissatisfaction in ways that can create lasting change.

Step One: Recognize That You Are Already Perfect.

My teacher, Martha Beck, begins with the premise you are already perfect; it’s the painful, limiting beliefs you hold about yourself and the world that keep you from fully grasping that essential fact and living with freedom and joy. So, rather than helping you to change, life coaching helps you become more you.

Earlier in my life, I might have argued with her (and centuries of Eastern thought) about that. I had so much proof of my own imperfection! But now I had children, whose perfection was obvious, inborn, and – I saw with a mother’s eyes – general to all new life.

So take a deep breath and look at yourself with a mother’s eyes: Perfection is your natural state. What gets added in this life can obscure that but not ever take it away.

Step Two: What Is Obscuring Your Natural Brightness?

How many times have you heard a mother excuse a crying child on the basis of fatigue or hunger? We know our children are usually happy! If they aren’t, it’s almost always because they are, in the words of my favorite parenting coach, Bonnie Harris, “Having a problem, not being a problem.” Something is obscuring their natural brightness.

Beginning from the premise that you are already perfect and don’t need to change in order to be enough, keep looking at yourself with a mother’s eyes: what is obscuring your brightness? Is it fatigue – of the body, because you aren’t getting enough sleep, or of the spirit, because you are working too much? Is it hunger – of the body, because you are eating too few greens and too many of your child’s leftovers, or of the spirit, because you’ve had too much screen time and not enough nature?

If you think you don’t know, you’re wrong. Get quiet: breathe deeply; consciously relax your muscles from top to toes; center yourself in your body until you feel your own energy. Now ask: “What is obscuring my brightness? What do I need more of? What do I need less of?”

Step Three: Let Desire Lead

Babies and children don’t know “should.”

I noticed that if I took care of my children’s basic needs for food, sleep, warmth, and love – to be seen with a mother’s eyes – they were happy. When they were happy, their curiosity took over and led them to develop in all the ways humans do. I didn’t have to teach them anything. They learned by watching me and by following their own desire for mastery.

If you let desire lead, it will take you where you want to go. You will act at the right time – when desire prompts, instead of forcing something you aren’t ready for. Desire will give you energy and focus – you won’t have to drag yourself through the motions. It will encourage consistent – rather than surge-and-stall – action. And it will guide your ambition – not too big to overwhelm, not too small to go unnoticed, just right. Observe any child at play and you’ll notice this leads to achievement.

A Note About Coaches.

You may turn to a coach to help you achieve your resolution. That’s great. Just remember how it is for the child who turns to a parent for help in the course of achieving mastery. The coach, like the parent, can only guide, they can’t do the work for you. If they do, there’s no achievement and resentment on both sides.

Step Four: Focus on Now.

Children live completely in the now and are only ever motivated by how fun something is. It turns out that approach is the one that fuels longevity.

The New York Times reported a study comparing the effectiveness of different motivations for maintaining exercise habits.

Researchers found that people who focused on the immediate rewards of exercise – feeling good, better mood and focus – were the ones who stuck with it. Those who said they were motivated by vague and future-oriented goals, such as health and weight loss, didn’t.

Don’t imagine this change you’re making will be once and for all. Completion is a painful myth. The nature of life is change. Focus on how it feels to be doing this now, and let the future take care of itself.

 

Think of all that babies and children manage to learn and do without an ounce self-loathing or willpower! Once their basic needs are met, desire takes over – at just the right time, at just the right pace and with the focus required – and leads them to accomplishment. And then to the next goal, and the next . . . .

 

What do you feel inspired to bring into your life this year? What are you ready to release?

 

Natural Birth: So What?

 

“How did you deliver?” he asks.

“I didn’t ‘deliver,’ I gave birth,” I correct. Using the word “deliver” to mean “birth” is a pet peeve of mine. I never let it go. I’m also attempting to assert myself a little.

When he asks the question, you see, I’m flat on my back in a paper hospital gown, legs spread wide in stirrups, bottom at the edge of the exam table. The questioner is a male doctor with gloves on at the business end. We’re making small talk to help us pretend that this – politely called the “pelvic exam” – isn’t incredibly awkward.

“Natural – no drugs,” I clarify.

That prompts no comment, so I go bold. “It was amazing, actually.”

“You women,” he says with an eye roll. “Deliver. ‘Give birth.’ Drugs. ‘Natural’ [I can hear his air quotes.] So what?”

So what, indeed.

Putting aside his arrogance while I was in such a vulnerable position, what is so special about natural birth? Why is it held up as an ideal by so many women, while it is, at the same time, treated with an eye roll by others, particularly obstetricians and labor and delivery nurses – people who ought to know?

This isn’t an abstract question. It’s personal. Why did I find myself utterly transformed by natural birth, seeing the world with new eyes, while others see birth as a medical transaction with no inherent meaning, let alone an accomplishment to be celebrated when achieved – as my doctor put it, a so what?

For that condescending doctor and the naysayers in your life, here’s my answer.

Come on. Of course it’s a big deal. When someone has run a marathon do we call that a ‘so what’? When someone climbs a mountain, do we call that a ‘so what’? No! We cheer them! Why would we be so blasé about a similarly huge physical, mental, emotional and spiritual achievement that is more than taking on an endurance challenge; it is giving birth to new life through your body?

Thou dost protest too much, methinks. The ‘so what’ attitude is a pretense. Why do we pretend?

‘So what’ is a hedge. To try to protect the feelings of mothers didn’t have the natural birth they dreamed of, for whatever reason, we pretend birth is not a big deal at all. “What matters is that you have your baby” is the battle cry of the hedge.

Pretending something isn’t a big deal, however, does not actually make it not a big deal anymore. Telling someone they shouldn’t feel their feelings is not consoling, it’s crazy-making. Acknowledging a loss is what helps people to move on. It’s more helpful to say to women who wanted a natural birth but did not have one, “That stinks. I’m sorry. What do you want to tell me?” and then listening to them tell their story.

‘So what’ represents the medical perspective, which is limited. The word obstetric literally defines its perspective. It’s formed from the Latin:

 ob (opposite) + stare (to stand) = to stand opposite to.

Thus obstetrics represents the perspective of the watcher of birth, not the perspective of the one giving birth.  (For the record, midwife comes from middle English:  mid (with) + wife (woman) = the perspective of one going through it by your side).

The thing about watching labor, though, is that it usually doesn’t look like much. The surges are happening, and – this may not be true for you, though it was true for me and for many of the women I’ve worked with over the years – the birthing mother finds that the best way to work with them is to breathe and relax very deeply. The drama is not visible.

Unless you’re on TV. Or your helpers are ignoring you. Then you have to represent.

For example, when I arrived at the hospital to give birth to my daughter, the obstetric care providers did not believe I was in labor. I convinced them to examine me anyway, and they found that I was 10 cm opened! These trained observers could not recognize an advanced labor.

So, observation can tell you something about birth but far from all there is to know.

‘So what’ serves the medical perspective. If a doctor tells you that it doesn’t matter how you give birth, it’s easier for them to do things to you. I don’t believe that doctors have malign intentions, but they are socialized to do something – to anticipate pathology, to intervene the second it shows up, to rescue the patient(s) from it.

When you’re really in trouble, such expertise is heroic. When you’re healthy, though, as most birthing mothers are, interventions are counterproductive. I have a theory that doctors have (unconsciously) gotten around healthy labors by making pain a kind of pathology. Medical pain relief, however, often causes healthy labors to become dysfunctional and babies to go into distress, which gives doctors something legitimate to do.

I hate the disingenuousness of this, though. So many women who’ve had dysfunctional, painful labors and distressed babies believe dysfunction, pain and distress are simply the nature of birth. It’s more true to say that medical interventions and the hospital environment create dysfunction, pain and distress more often than they cure it – a cruel phenomenon I’ve written about here.

It would be like swearing off of love because you had a really bad boyfriend once.

Doctors and hospitals don’t see this, though, because they so steeped in their own belief system. . . the same, I suppose, could be said about me! I do have strong beliefs. But mine are steeped in first-hand experience. I’m not an observer of birth. I’m a giver of birth. I’ve experienced birth that was undisturbed by medicine. It worked perfectly, it didn’t hurt and my babies stayed strong throughout.

The ‘so what’ perspective, then, doesn’t hold up. It’s a pretense that represents only the perspective of non-birthing people.

Birth is important. But does it follow that natural birth is important, too? Does it have inherent, objective worth?

I could wax poetic – and I do – about how much my birth experiences have meant to me. But the fact that I think about them every day turned me on to what is special about natural birth:

Birth teaches you everything you need to know about becoming a mother. I would have missed out on those lessons had I not experienced natural birth.

Of course – of course – if you did not have a natural birth, that doesn’t mean you don’t know how to be a mother! There is no contradiction in honoring the birth experience of every mother and in honoring the unique, not exclusive, value of natural birth.

What lessons did natural birth teach me? Breathe. Relax. Trust. Phases pass and make you stronger. You can do hard things. During the challenges of motherhood, I have thought back to my births and asked myself, What did I do then to get through the hard parts? What did I know? These are some of the answers.

(I wrote an entire prenatal coaching course on this subject. If you’d like to read more about it, please go here).

Natural birth is a rite of passage, then – marking an important transitional period in a woman’s life and involving activities and teachings designed to strip her of her original role and prepare her for her new role.

Birth has been that for me in spades. Fundamentally, until I experienced natural birth, I had no idea how strong I was. I had no idea how many inner resources I had, or how trustworthy my body was. Now I do know, and I can never forget. That awareness is priceless.

There you have it, Dr. Whatsyourname! Natural birth is not a ‘so what.’ It is precious preparation for becoming a mother. I don’t expect to change your opinion, but I do hope your wife is reading this and getting ideas!

 

Motherly Love, Disentangled

My daughter, my teacher.  Here she is today, nearly 12, next to the pile of trash she collected from the beach.

 

Motherly love can flourish when you recognize your child as separate from you.

This may sound obvious, but in practice things can get really tangled.

Who gets the dirty look when a baby cries on a plane or when the toddler screams in a restaurant? Who is blamed when teens and young adults go bad? In all these situations, who worries the most about the child?

Mothers. Of course.

We are so intimately connected to our children and so influential that we can, unconsciously, believe them to be extensions of ourselves, instead of their own people. When we do that, challenging behavior becomes a judgment of our mothering. A child’s unhappiness becomes a problem the mother must solve.

If we see them as separate people, however, their behavior becomes communication, and we listen with curiosity and openness. Their moods become events we recognize with fellow-feeling, and we become better able to lead them through, or simply sit with them, compassionately.

Last week I wrote about how my first-born, my daughter, Elliot, taught me to give her unconditional acceptance. (To remind you, it took almost four years of daily tantrums until I got the message, and then the tantrums stopped, pretty much the minute I offered it to her).

This is the season of her birthday – she turns 12 at the end of the month – so I am thinking about her a lot these days. Today I share the story of how she taught me that she was not an extension of me, but her own person, with her own ideas. After I learned that lesson, our relationship changed completely.

Before I begin, though, I need to tell you that I didn’t have a name for any of this when I was going through it.  I began to understand what happened when I read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, a few years later. I understood even more when I read Bonnie Harris’s When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. I recommend both books highly.

Before Elliot was born, I had longed for a child. It took us three years and the help of a fertility clinic to conceive her. The pregnancy was healthy, though at the end I became enormously swollen and my providers were concerned that she was “too big.” My labor with her was not the triumph of natural birth I had dreamed of, but rather snatched at the last minute from the jaws of a threatened c-section for “second stage labor dystocia.”

I loved her from the start, yet I did not feel the elation I expected after her birth. Then, to my desperate disappointment, she wouldn’t breastfeed. We tried for five weeks, with specialist help, but she never did latch on.

It was a poor start because feeding the newborn dominates a new mother’s consciousness. It set the stage for me to see her as inscrutable and perhaps even finding some fundamental fault in me – the same fault, perhaps, that prevented me from getting pregnant naturally.

When she didn’t nap as the baby book said she ought to, again I felt there must be something wrong with me – Why couldn’t I figure out something so simple? Or with her – Why wasn’t she like the babies in the book?

Fortunately, by three months old she was sleeping through the night, napping regularly during the day and taking her bottles like a champ. Once she became “organized,” as the books called it, that sense I had of being found wanting eased, and I was able to delight in my baby. Finally, I had proof that I was a good mom.

That was all put to the test when we moved from San Diego to Maryland. We had taken a month to cross the country, and by the time we arrived at our new home my previously organized baby had become very disorganized! She didn’t sleep through the night anymore. She didn’t nap predictably anymore. She refused to eat. I was tired and demoralized. Once again, my child had become inscrutable to me. My sense of myself as a good mother was being threatened.

One morning at breakfast we were having our by-now usual battle over eating. I kept trying to shove the food in her mouth, and she moved her head from side to side to avoid the spoon. I was angry! Why was she being so difficult?

In a moment of clarity, I saw myself: a grown woman fighting with an infant – with my own, beloved daughter. I saw how absurd it was. I set down the spoon. I relaxed back into my chair. I laughed! I looked at my baby girl in the high chair in front of me, looking back at me with her nickel eyes, and I said, “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. It’s okay. You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to. I trust you.”

She sat there, looking right into my eyes for several beats. Then she calmly picked up the spoon. And fed herself.

She never took another bite of food from me. She has fed herself – and well – ever since.

In that moment, I learned to see her as her own person: a person who knew her own mind and body and who could be trusted. Once that was clear to me, I stopped seeing everything she did as a reflection of me, but rather an attempt at communication.

As I said, it wasn’t smooth sailing always and forever after that. But that understanding allowed me to become a much more relaxed mother and to enjoy her much more. It paved the way for a pretty blissful postpartum experience with her little brother, who came about a year later. If I could trust Elliot, it stood to reason I could trust Baby Nathan, too. So I followed his cues, rather than trying to shoehorn him into my own preconceived notions, and we had a good and easy time of it.

Eleven years on, that understanding continues to inform my mothering. When I find myself in pain over something my children feel or have done, it is a signal that I am forgetting that they are not me. I take a step back and look at them as their own people, on their own journey. This reminds me of their strength and trustworthiness. I believe in them, and my heart overflows.

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Hey, friends!  I’m GIVING AWAY Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star, my go-to book for finding clarity.  To enter the drawing, SUBSCRIBE to the newsletter by filling in the box below.  If you’re already subscribed, FORWARD your copy of the latest newsletter to a friend — be sure to copy me in the e-mail so I know you’ve done it.  I’ll announce the winner in the Monday, October 13, newsletter.  Yay, giveaways! xo

“I haven’t gotten anything done!”

Look at the time! I haven’t gotten anything done today!

– Me, five minutes ago

 

Do you ever say that to yourself? What impulse is it that causes us to focus on what we lack instead of on what we have, on what’s undone instead of on what’s accomplished?

While I’m not sure why we do this, I am sure it’s possible to shift our focus and that it’s a worthwhile effort. To do so is kind, it’s a good model for your child, and it actually will make you more productive. This post will show you how to shift your focus using a process called the Work, which was originated by a woman called Byron Katie.

The next time you catch yourself thinking, “I haven’t gotten anything done”:

 

1.  Ask yourself, “Is it true?”

Go ahead, inventory your day right now. I’ll wait.

So, it really is not true, is it?

For the record, this was my day before I said it to myself: Up at 5. Empty dishwasher. Prepare lunch for husband and children – peel veggies, cut fruit, make sandwiches, package snacks, fill water bottles. Prepare breakfast for all of us – more veg and fruit for fresh juice and frozen smoothies, heat sausages. Wake children. Fold laundry so children have clean uniforms. Wake children again. Set out breakfast, eat, tidy up kitchen. Get self dressed and us out the door by 7, take trash out on way to car, pick up carpool passenger, drive children to school (1:15 hour round trip). Walk dog, feed dog. Coaching call. Work out at gym. Shower. Lunch.

Would you say it to me? Be as kind to yourself as you would be to me.

If you ask the question and the answer was, “Yes, it’s true.” Then ask yourself, “Are you certain it’s true?” This causes you to look a little deeper and perhaps acknowledge that you don’t know everything there is to know.

 

2.  Ask yourself, “How do I react when I believe it’s true?”

In other words, what does that thought cause you to feel and notice? In my case, I feel heavy in my body. I slouch. I feel stuck, unsure which way to turn. I also notice that this belief, that I haven’t gotten anything done, also spawns other, equally painful thoughts: What’s wrong with you? You waste so much time. You’ll never make anything of yourself. My future looks bleak.

Then I notice that this thought, which I’ve already noticed is not really true, is paralyzing me. When I believe it, I’m so stuck in bleakness that I actually don’t get anything done! It is not helpful or motivational. It is self-fulfilling!

 

3.  Ask yourself, “Who would I be without this thought?”

In other words, what would be different about this moment if you did not believe the thought that you had gotten nothing done? Take a deep breath before you answer this one. Breathing deeply facilitates creative thinking, which helps with this question.

It also helps if you have a young child in the house, because young children are not burdened with self-judgment! It’s one of reasons they are so magnetic. Your child does not believe the thought that she hasn’t gotten anything done today; what does that look like in her? Does it make her less productive?

She also does not judge you. Look at yourself with your child’s eyes. What does she see?

In my case, I notice that without the thought I smile. I relax. My shoulders drop back so that I stand taller. Like my children, I simply think, “What would feel good to do now?” An image of writing comes to mind, so I move to my laptop and sit in a comfortable spot with a good view. Why not? I feel I deserve it.

 

4.  Turn the thought around to its opposite. Find three ways that this “turned around” thought could be just as true, if not truer, than the original thought.

“I have gotten things done” is the turnaround.

What is the proof? The inventory of my morning! I helped my family, helped another family through the carpool, exercised my body – even employed a fitness instructor – and I’ve coached. It’s possible that even when I wasn’t “working” something I said or the way I treated someone was influencing them for good.

As my mind looks for proof, I cement the new belief. The mind is always searching for proof of what it already believes, and in this way you make it work for you, not against you.

 

Now that I’ve shifted my perspective, how I feel has also changed. Where I had felt heavy and stuck, I am now relaxed and open. Ideas flow more freely and I am much more productive than I was when I was stuck in the thought that I was unproductive. I also am more patient with my children, who are now home from school. I am willing to be interrupted by them, willing to help them with homework, and I have the mental space to listen with interest to stories of their days.

So you see how this kindness to yourself is so much more. It positively impacts everyone in your world. It is a model that you would be delighted to see your children copy. It also facilitates productivity.

The Work will not stop you from having thoughts that cause you pain, such as “I haven’t gotten anything done.” But it will help you start to notice your thoughts. You’ll notice them because you’ll become more aware of how you feel in your body. A frown, a feeling of heaviness or tension or recoiling, these all are signals that you are thinking a painful thought. Notice the body, then notice the thought, then question it. Freedom, creativity and productivity await you on the other side.

 

If you are interested in learning more about the Work, I’m giving Katie’s book Loving What Is away this week!  If you are already subscribed to the newsletter, please enter a comment on this blog below.  If you are not already subscribed, subscribe to the newsletter on this website.  

All names will be entered into a drawing.  I will announce a winner in next week’s newsletter.

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?