The Emotional Requirements of Parenthood

Downton Abbey“One forgets about parenthood. The on and on-ness of it.” –Violet, the Dowager Countess.

I know I’m a little late to the game, but I’ve been catching up on Downton Abbey before too many spoilers unwittingly come my way. We know Maggie Smith gets to deliver the best, most humorous lines, but this one left me virtually rolling on the floor the other night. (Season 3, episode 8)

It pretty much sums up exactly how I’m feeling these days, navigating the waters of middle school education and taking on extra work as a substitute (no, not much has changed about the life as a sub since you remember those days from your own schooling, except now there are cell phones), especially when I combine that work with the parenting challenges I’m facing.

There were great things about being an only child, and I’m firmly convinced that there is no perfect type of family. But daily I’m experiencing in my parenting life something I rarely encountered growing up as an only: sibling rivalry. It’s compounded by a day spent listening to my young students vocalize the same complaints: “She’s bugging me!” “He took the book I was reading!”

Aarrrgh!  It just keeps going!

I’m learning a lot personally this year as I navigate these discipline stressors.  I’m amazed at how often I’m required to be emotionally centered. Or, at any rate, how often I have to find the balance within myself to generate the emotional intelligence to deliver an appropriate, adult response.  The teenager still living inside me wants to roll my eyes and mouth off some sarcastic response like, “Oh, yeah? Well, you’re ALL bugging ME!” But the adult in me knows that this isn’t really going to help anything, and it may make it worse.

Instead, I have to take a few deep breaths and engage some empathy. Do I know what it is to feel like life is unfair, even if the details differ? (Hello, yes, I’m writing a whole blog post here about how tough it is to manage all the child development jobs I have right now.) Can I remember how frustrating it was to sit in school with kids I just didn’t like? (Yes. . . [shudders]) Are there times when I feel just plain tired or frustrated and all I want is for people to be patient and loving with me?

Pretty much, all the time.

Dr. John Gottman is a psychology professor emeritus.  His work centers around helping us understanding our emotions—how to develop, as he calls it, emotional intelligence, and then how to use specific skills to channel those emotions in the painful times, especially in family and marriage relationships.  He says, ““Much of today’s popular advice to parents ignores emotion. . . Instead it relies on child-rearing theories that address children’s misbehavior, but disregards the feelings that underlie that misbehavior. The ultimate goal of raising children should not be simply to have an obedient and compliant child. Most parents hope for much more for their children.”

Georgia Anderson, a Gottman trained Educator, will bring some of these skills to our Kindermusik studio on April 21 at 6:30, specifically focusing on the language of encouragement. You can see the steps on her blog (describe situations using facts, share your feelings and effects of the situation, and show gratitude in meaningful ways), but the best part of coming to a coaching session is the time we get to practice these skills so they become our first responses to parenting challenges rather than the “wish I coulda done that differently” thoughts after-the-fact.

Yes, at Song of the Heart, we have Kindermusik classes.  We encourage ongoing musical lessons through ukulele lessons and we continually broaden your child’s interests through other programs, like Spanish classes this summer. But we are in the business of educating the whole child, and guiding you on your parenting journey is one way we can do this. Can’t wait to see you there!

Being Enough


“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”

Maya Angelou

For as wonderful as the holiday season is, it does not come without its challenges for me (and many others). Earlier in the year, I had convinced my family to take a trip to San Diego with our gift money, so that I could escape the shopping and the hassle of decorating. However, as it turns out, our trailer needed some repairs to make it road-worthy in a storm, and it wasn’t something we were going to have time to do. So now, the kids are excited that there will be presents, my husband is excited that he doesn’t have to drive anywhere or fix a trailer. And I’m so not-excited, as the all the things I was hoping to avoid are inevitably falling back in my lap. Le sigh.

I knew it was December 1 on Monday, because my insomnia kicked in and my eye started twitching. I’ve got all these people telling me to keep it simple, but I also have my daughter who erupts into tears every time I suggest that I need to eat breakfast before I can help decorate the house. It is a difficult balance, for sure, and requires regular patience.

Yesterday morning I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, as I was on the way to work, and also making other big decisions this week (because, that’s the way to simplify life, right? Adding, “make other big decisions about things” to the to-do list, right next to “eat breakfast” or “take a shower”).

I was getting ready to meditate and came across this clip from Pema Chodron and Oprah Winfrey:

It was transformational for me yesterday, and helped me find the patience I needed to get me through the challenges of the day. It is part of the human experience that we pass through periods of suffering—on large scales (with death, illness, and major life transitions), and on small scales (can’t find a parking spot, the clerk at the store wasn’t helpful, have to shovel the walks). And so, with that in mind, I pass on a message that I hope may be healing to anyone in our Song of the Heart community who may be suffering: You are enough.

Breathing Arms

In my teaching job as a Spanish teacher, I teach all 9 grades at my school (K-8). I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a secondary educator by formal education training, and so I am relying heavily on my background as a Kindermuisk instructor to help me with the younger grades. The first graders come to class right after recess, just after I’ve said goodbye to my fifth graders. It is quite the switch.

At first, I was overwhelmed with the frenetic energy they brought to the room. With only 25 minutes to help them learn Spanish, spending 10 trying to get them to calm down was proving to be problematic. About 3 days into the job, I attended Kindermusik with my daughter and as I entered class to meet with her and Ms. Carol, we did some “breathing arms.” Of course, I have known about breathing arms for many years, but on this day, I noticed the immediate change in energy of the Kindermusik class—for both the kids and the grownups. In addition to providing us with a little routine that said, “Time to stop talking with your little ones/grown-ups and focus on class together,” it immediately relieved my own level of stress. The next day I implemented breathing arms with my first graders when they come in for recess (I could probably do it with everyone), and the difference was remarkable. They are much calmer before they even come into class and our time together is more relaxed, effective and enjoyable.

I’m not surprised to find science to back-up my claims. NPR cites research by Esther Sternberg, physician and National Institute of Mental Health researcher:

“(Breathing exercises) can be used as a method to train the body’s reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones,” Gretchen Cuda writes. Who doesn’t need a reduction of stress these days?

Jon Kabbat-Zinn is one of my favorite people. He created the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and his work has influenced me tremendously in recent years. If you have 3 minutes today, especially if you are overwhelmed with the day-to-day challenges of balancing life and laundry and childcare, this little breathing meditation is awesome:


Gotta Do More

The last couple of weeks of my life have been really hard.  Not in any life-threatening or debilitating way—I’ve had those weeks (or months or years), and I’d rather take the stress that I’m under right now, thankyouverymuch.  Still, a bunch of things have piled on top of me and the background noise of “gotta do more, gotta BE MORE!” is taking its toll.  Not that this is something I take joy in admitting, but I’m hoping that in sharing I can connect with the other parents who also feel somewhat overwhelmed, trying not to blow it.

A couple of years ago, I had a life changing experience, and I found myself meeting people who had parenting challenges far greater than my own.  When my kids were babies, there were lots of things that worried me.  I’ll never forget the moment that my first baby spit up, hours after being home from the hospital.  Yes, we called the on-call pediatrician at 11 pm.  I hope he got some extra karma points for being patient with us.  Still, talking with these parents, I realized that as my kids get bigger the things that I worry about won’t get any easier for me (after all, I sincerely was in a panic that night with my baby!).  Instead of the worry about a little bit of spit-up, however, it may become a worry about the consequences of a binge-drinking episode.  (Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks about this from time to time!) Of course, I’ve seen some of my friends deal with big crises with their little ones, so I’m not trying to suggest that our babies can’t be in situations that are deadly or very serious.  Just, as I sat with those parents, I realized that the love I have for my kids, and the vulnerability I feel when I realize that those joyful moments are fragile—those emotions aren’t going away any time soon.

Like most parents, I imagine, what I want for my kids is to take care of themselves.  I want them to deal with their stress without resorting to activities that will do more harm than good—please, don’t let them think that underage drinking will be the solution to their problems! (Sitting in a cave reading poetry: OK.  Smoking a pipe: Not OK) I want my kids to love their bodies so that they eat healthily and exercise.  I want them to have lots of practice making small decisions so that, when faced with a choice of getting into a car with a drunk driver, they can predict the consequences of their decisions.  And I want for them to know and understand their feelings so that they can deal with them in a way that works best for them, coming to me for help if they need it.

Still, sitting with those parents, I also learned that I can’t give my kids what I don’t have.  If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t teach them to take care of themselves.  We know that one of the most powerful ways we have of learning, especially as we’re growing, is through observing others.  So, if my kids see me indulge in the ice cream rather than go for a run as a way to negotiate some frustration, that’s what they will most likely learn (this part of parenting can really stink at times!).  Additionally, if I’m taking care of myself, I will be less likely to cause additional problems for them.  I know, for instance, f I’m uptight about some problem I’m having, I’m much more inclined to lose patience with them or yell, shaping their nurturing environment in toxic ways.  Finally, if I don’t take care of myself, things could go south in a really serious way—the very last thing I want is for my kids to lose their mom.

So, I woke up this morning with still far too many items on my to-do list.  Realistically, I can shift some of them around a bit, and I recognize that in a couple of months some of these deadlines will have passed and my schedule will loosen up.  But, through my meditation practice, I’ve also learned that I can tell myself one of two stories.  I can keep telling myself that there isn’t enough time, and I can’t do it all, and life will fall apart if I don’t get an A in my class and I’m a failure because I didn’t get to the guitar to practice, and I’ll probably make a fool out of myself next time I play (there you go—the thought patterns of a perfectionist).  Or, I can tell myself that I’m using my time as best I can, and that even a getting a B in class means that I’ve passed, and that slowly and surely wins the race, and even if I don’t get everything done, I’m still worthy of love (the thought patterns I’m trying to develop as a recovering perfectionist).  When I work on the second script, even though my to-do’s haven’t changed, the way I carry that list does.  (Well, “write blog for Kindermusik” is now off the list,” so it’s changed a little bit, anway.)

At any rate, the reason for this blog post is to remind myself that slowing down, being mindful, and taking care of myself need to be at the top of the list today.  Everything else will wait.  If you’re having one of those days, I challenge you to do the same.

Just Breathe

I am here in the Kindermusik studio, having arrived late for what I thought was an 11:30 class.  But arriving at 11:35 for a class that actually started at 11 wasn’t my proudest parenting moment, as my daughter was very disappointed to spend all of 3 minutes with Ms. Carol.  Fortunately, she actually belongs in the 12:30 class, so we in fact arrived early.  A lot early.  I guess this means I’ll have time to run up to the store and get toilet paper (because, though we might need other things in our house, our toilet paper supply has reached critical status).

This, on top of everything else I’m trying to get done.  I found out yesterday that one of my cousins died, so I’m headed to San Francisco in 2 days.  Which means that all that time that I was counting on to practice my guitar for our band’s gig next week, plus plan my son’s birthday party, has quickly vanished.

Meanwhile, someone keeps getting all the dishes in my house dirty (oh, right!  That would be me and the kids!) and the laundry keeps piling up.

There is nothing like death, however, to help me think about life—I’d bet this is probably a universal reaction to such news.  We contemplate how we spend our time, about how quickly it may be over.  Or even about how, from one phone call to the next, our lives can change on a dime.  And do I really want to spend the time that I have, stressed about laundry or getting to the right Kindermusik class for the first week of the new year?  Maybe it’s OK that my daughter is wearing a nightgown today (her choice), because in the grand scheme of things it’s just not that important to worry about my preschooler’s clothes.

One of the most powerful tools I’ve learned to help me deal with stress is the art and practice of being mindful.  I probably don’t sound very relaxed today, but if I had written this blog a year ago, you would have seen a difference.

I have learned that when I spend my time thinking about the past, in an obsessive sort of way, I waste away the only moment that I actually have (now).  And I can spend my time in anxiety, worrying about what might happen in the future.  But even that’s a pretty good waste of the immediate present, since thinking about what  might happen means I will probably miss what’s actually happening right now.

Steering my thoughts towards things I can’t control will ensure that the moments that carry me through any tragedy will be wasted.  The joy of looking at the sunflowers as my girl and I drive in the car to get here, or the time that I take from writing this post to read a few words to her (she now patiently awaits the 12:30 class) bring meaning to my life.  Especially since my life is made up of moments, if I’m not aware of the soap on my hands as I wash dishes or the feel of the sheets on my skin as I lay down to bed (at least every once in awhile), I find myself unaware of much of my own life.

For me, one of the best ways to practice mindfulness is to spend some time in meditation thinking about my breathing.  Jon Kabbat-Zinn teaches, “Breathing is central to every aspect of meditation training. It’s a wonderful place to focus in training the mind to be calm and concentrated.”  Or, my favorite quote of his, “Remember as long as you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you,” though that seems sort of dark to include today.

Have you noticed, if you have an older child in Kindermusik, that we start doing some breathing arms?  Ms. Carol always says, “OK, friends, let’s do some breathing arms.  Breathing arms up. . . . breathing arms down.”  I love that we can take this moment at the start of class to simply exist for a moment.  It sets our children in the frame of mind to learn, to be present in class.  Since one of my favorite reasons to come to Kindermusik is that it allows us to spend time just being with our kids (without worrying about the laundry), it seems appropriate that we start class this way.

Merely noticing our breathing slows it down and allows us to breathe more deeply.  It reduces stress, and, especially when kids are super-upset, helps stabilize their emotions.  There are so many benefits, you can check more out here.

May you enjoy the moments that present themselves today, and use one or two of them to give hugs to those you love.