At certain moments there is a chasm between what I know and what I feel about being a mother. These moments centre around anxiety. They are the times when my children are struggling with whatever is in front of them, when they aren’t easily negotiating the twists and turns of their paths. As a parenting coach, I know that these struggles are not only necessary but good. Children learn to be resilient when they fall down, get up, brush themselves off and start again. As a person, I know that the best parts of my life rose from the ashes of ruined dreams. Yet, as a mother, my certainty in the power of struggle weakens. My “protect my young at all costs” drive revs up into fifth gear.
Knowing what I do about development and the brain help me to construct mantras to repeat over and over. “Stay calm” I tell myself. “It will all turn out as it should.” Nonetheless, the worry and concern take their seat at the table of my internal dialogue. They are persistent and vocal and passionate in their beliefs. They shout, whisper and cajole, in an attempt to get the floor. “What if he won’t ever learn this lesson?” “Maybe this impediment will prove too big!” “Some of your relatives gave up, maybe your kids aren’t made of tougher fibre.”
These thoughts careen around inside my head and their effect on me and my parenting is never good. I become reactive and panicky if I listen to my doubts too attentively. I risk rushing to the rescue as I imagine myself as the knight in shining armour, who rides in to pick up her child and provide her with an arsenal large enough to assure victory. At that point, an internal argument ensues because my rational brain knows that I cannot do that without creating other problems. We do know that children who have been rescued all their lives crumble when the impediment cannot be overcome even with Mum and Dad’s help. Picking yourself up for the first time at age 23 is much harder than at 6 or 12. The rescuing that seems helpful actually conveys to the child that he isn’t up to the challenge and that failure is a fate too horrible to contemplate. What sort of parent would I be if my children were not prepared to meet this complex world head on?
Everyone likes to say that parenting is the toughest job in the world and in this regard I will agree. Learning to contain my anxiety when my children are hurting is a mammoth mountain to climb. Yet is is absolutely what must be done. Fears of heights, getting lost or of being uncomfortable must be conquered. When my child is up against a force that may or may not defeat her, I can best help by keeping a steady watch, ready with open ears and open arms to catch whatever needs to be off-loaded. When I am calm and certain, I can surround my child with a positive energy that will be a source of comfort, offering some respite from her struggles. My composure communicates that no matter what happens I know that she will be able to deal with it.
When I am calm it is also much easier to access my higher brain where the seat of my abilities to creatively problem solve lies. From that place I am better able to offer constructive suggestions to assist my child in her problem solving endeavours. Staying calm is the only good choice. When I am calm I can listen instead of offering up loads of unasked for and unhelpful advice. I am able to listen for my child’s feelings because my own feelings have been asked to sit quietly in the corner for the time being. When I reflect her feelings back to her she can gain clarity on her dilemma.
I find it helps to make friends with these feelings. I give them names and thank them for bringing their concerns to my attention. After all, they are doing what they were born to do - trying to keep me safe. Our feelings are drives that exist to help us to pursue life-giving activities and avoid life-threatening ones. Luckily we also have a partner brain that is very good at thinking and potentially balancing logic against those drives. Just like I did with my children, I work hard to help my two brains get along and collaborate. “Take turns - each of you will have her say.” “I know you two can work this out. “You each have a valid point.”
I use the same phrases in my internal dialogue that I used with my kids when they fought as small children. I begin by listening to what each has to say but then use the evidence and my knowledge to keep my worrying brain in check. If nothing else, orchestrating this internal conversation keeps me from worrying. And when I don’t worry, we all do better.