This past weekend, I had a customer service experience with a manager so appalling that the assistant manager felt the need to step in and say apologetically (and by way of explanation), “She’s had a really rough night.” My husband said later, only half-jokingly, “Doesn’t that manager know you reserve that stuff for those closest to you?”
Now that the holiday season is in full swing, a lot of people are feeling the stress. So much to get done, and the sense that it’s supposed to look effortless, coupled with the belief that we should be happy and grateful for our bounties. That often leads to irritability, and who’s the lucky beneficiary of that? Those closest to us.
My baby is the most decisive person I know. She’ll grab the book out of your hand, turn it over for one final moment of contemplation, and toss it high in the air. Done. Decision made. No regrets.
A minute later, I might reintroduce the book. She’ll consider, but as if she’s never seen it before. It may receive attention, or a lob. What’s notable is that it seems to be an entirely new decision for her, and one that she’ll make easily.
Babies are entirely in the moment. My daughter never steps back and wonders what’ll happen if she’s wrong. She’s got no past and no future, no to-do lists, no reprisals or reflection. She feels her feelings with abandon. They gust through her, and then pass like a storm. She communicates like no other. She doesn’t say, “Maybe I need to sleep now,” or, “Perhaps I’m hungry.” No, she knows exactly what she needs.
I envy her.
“I deserve to be happy,” says one client with a tear-stained face.
“I don’t deserve to be treated this way,” says another.
“He doesn’t deserve me,” wails a third.
In a sense, all three are right. Yet none of them is happy in their relationships, or with their overall lives. And with Thanksgiving upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on why that might be, and see if anything instructive can be found.
Last weekend, my husband and I had a night away from the baby for the first time (she’s just past ten months). Some parents have told me that seems so soon; for others, it seems incredibly late. If we had local family, I’m sure it would have happened for us sooner.
In fact, we’d arranged an overnight trip four or five months ago during a visit from my mother, but our baby wound up making other plans: She caught a virus that caused her to spend four nights in the pediatric ICU (the PICU.) We were never given any reason to believe she would die, though it was still a frightening and emotional experience. To have some perspective: Our daughter was in the PICU, but she was far and away the healthiest baby there.
“I should be happy.”
“I should be having a great time.”
“I should have been appreciating the moment with my daughter. Instead, my mind was on the laundry that needed to get done, and how to get her down for her nap, and…”
These are thoughts expressed by some of my clients. I’ve also had them myself. Not that “shoulds” are relegated to parents alone, but I know that for me, they’ve gotten a lot louder since I had a baby. And the “shoulds” are toxic to mental health.
In a moment of narcissism, I googled “Bonding Time Blog.” I guess I just wanted to see my name up in lights. What I found was the Family “Bond”ing Time blog, which chronicles the lives of Nathan and Elisa Bond, 38 and 36 years old respectively, who were diagnosed with Stage III rectal cancer (Nathan) and Stage IV breast cancer (Elisa) within months of each other. They have an 18-month-old daughter Sadie.
The blog recounts their experiences, replete with MRIs, brain scans, chemo, and days on the playground with Sadie. Some entries are moving; some are funny; some are instructional without being pedantic: how to balance living like there’s no tomorrow, with living like there’s absolutely going to be a tomorrow.
“I know I shouldn’t attack him,” my client–let’s call her Amanda–sobs. ”Sometimes I just feel so scared that I’m going to lose him, and so alone. I try to grab onto him but it pushes him away. It’s because I love him so much.”
I nod encouragingly, trying to keep the tears from my own eyes. In the world of emotionally focused therapy (EFT), we’ve hit pay dirt. This is it, what we’ve been working toward for several months.
It’s called a bonding event. After one partner lets go of the angry defenses and expresses his or her deepest needs in a vulnerable way and the other partner is receptive and emotionally available, the relationship begins its transformation from insecure to secure.
Except this particular bonding event is not going according to plan.
“I never used to be this anxious of a person,” my client said. “At least, I don’t think I was.”
She was in her early forties, a stay-home mom, surprised to find that she couldn’t entirely remember her earlier self. She was that person not very long ago, after all, her baby being only six months old.
“New motherhood can feel like a vortex,” I said. I had only emerged from it myself two months prior, when I returned to work part-time.
Like all parents, I’d like to keep my child as distress-free as possible. That’s not exactly the same as happy. I mean, I’d like perpetually happy, who wouldn’t, but I’m willing to negotiate. I’ll take non-crying.
The truth is, after almost ten months of hearing my baby cry, my tolerance for her distress remains surprisingly low. That leads me to do all sorts of ridiculous things.
Case in point: Sometimes she sits in her high chair like an empress on her throne and I mince around like Jim Carrey circa 2000 for her amusement. While I take a shower, she’s in her car seat just outside the fogged glass, and I regal her with stories, songs, and all manner of vocal calisthenics, alert for her every whinny and whimper, all to stave off discomfort. Hers or mine? I’m not always entirely sure.
I didn’t know it would be this way. More specifically, I didn’t know I would be this way. Sometimes I feel like a hostage to my love for her.
I’ve got this great young couple, newly married, and they’re sweet and funny and in love. They’re not remotely on the rocks. But I could see it getting there, and so could they, and that’s why they’ve started therapy.
Here’s the dynamic: She gets critical (sometimes loudly so), he feels verbally attacked, he shuts down and is distant, she spends the night feeling lonely and scared and trying to figure out what’s gone wrong. He fears that in the long run, he’ll become more and more resentful; she fears what will happen when kids enter the equation.
On one level, it’s about communication style. We all fall somewhere along the continuum from aggressive at one end to passive on the other. The healthiest communication style is in the middle, an assertive style where we can express our feelings respectfully. In the couple I’ve described, each partner is too far to one side. So theoretically, I could teach them some skills and get them on their way.
But that’s not what creates lasting change. I’m actually interested in the feelings underneath. I want them to learn emotional awareness and trust. I want them to know what they’re feeling and trust that if they express it to the other person vulnerably, they’ll be met with understanding and concern. That’s what makes a secure bond.