Since we’re mere hours from the new year, I thought I’d count down the life lessons from my first year as a mother.
Being a marriage and family therapist as well as a new mom, there were lots of things I knew intellectually. I’ve worked with women experiencing postpartum depression, and with couples and new families under stress. But this year, I learned the difference between knowing and knowing.
For my Top Ten List–a la Dick Clark, or David Letterman, if you prefer–read on!
Last week, I was meeting with a couple fresh off a really damaging fight. She had gotten angry and threatening; he had shut down; she had continued to escalate in the hopes of getting a response. The escalation had led to some ugly comments, from which they were still recovering.
It’s a fairly common pattern. When we want to be heard, it seems logical to speak louder, maybe even to yell. But I’ve found in my therapy practice and in my life that speaking softly, from the deepest emotion, is what works.
My baby is approaching one year old, so this is her first Christmas out of utero. That meant her first Christmas party, this past Saturday night. Being out at night, falling asleep in a strange environment–I wasn’t sure how it would all come together. Once you’re a parent, you really know what happens to the best-laid plans.
My husband and I gathered all sorts of objects intended for play and soothing and sleep, hoping my daughter would let us have these few hours. On some level, I was thinking, How do I enjoy myself at this party of adults despite being a mother?
That’s an aspect of parenthood that I still feel we’re not supposed to acknowledge in polite company. That it can be a drain. That it can be boring. That it can be, simply, not what we feel like doing. We do not feel like taking care of a baby tonight. We feel like being our old selves. We feel like partying.
We teach children not to fear monsters. ”Look,” we say, “I’ll show you there’s no one hiding in your closet or under your bed.” But as adults, after collectively witnessing something like the Sandy Hook tragedy, we might find that we believe in monsters, too.
Here’s the problem with that: Some people do commit monstrous acts. But if we simply dismiss people as monsters, we might miss the opportunity to give them treatment. We might miss a chance at prevention.
On my ride to work today, I had the misfortune to hear the executive director of the NRA speaking out in response to the tragedy. He led with talk about the monsters that walk among us, and how nothing can stop them. Nothing, that is, except for more violence. ”The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun,” he said, “is a good man with a gun.”
The source of the trouble, in his view, is the glamorization of violence through video games and movies, and the media that makes celebrities out of killers, and most importantly, fails to look deeply at an issue and instead vilifies the gun. ”When,” he asked, “did the word ‘gun’ automatically become a bad word?”
Now, the speech has been widely criticized by folks on the left and the right. Even some NRA members are outraged. The leadership of the NRA has an agenda: They want us to put more armed guards in the schools and who, by coincidence, happens to have the best training programs for armed guards? Why, that’s the NRA!
But while the speech seemed extreme, a recent poll found that a majority of Americans said they’re in favor of armed guards in schools. And I wonder if that’s in part because of all the talk about monsters. The director of the NRA is deflecting because he doesn’t want us to look at the number of rounds a monster is able to fire every second without having to reload. But there are a lot of people who think of Adam Lanza and those like him as monsters, and in …
Since the Newtown shootings, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, and how to prevent it. I’ve been thinking about why some people become enraged to the point of harming others. I’m not talking about only the Newtown shootings, but about smaller, seemingly more comprehensible acts of violence. Why do some people have self-control, even when they’re in great personal pain, and other don’t?
I don’t think anyone could hear about the elementary school shooting without feeling shock and horror. That’s the first response, and it’ll probably be the second and third and fourth as more information unfolds in the coming days.
But once that begins to subside, hopefully it won’t be replaced by despair, or worse, numbness. I hope that it will be replaced by a collective sense of resolve. Because we, as Americans, need to recognize that there are ways that our society is broken. We need to think about how to begin to fix it.
My baby’s pushing a year old, and she’s not the most physical kid you ever saw. She can get around by rolling, but her attempts at crawling look like she’s trying to do the breast stroke. She’s generally content to sit in one place with toys strewn around her.
So we were a little surprised when she came home from daycare with a shiner. She’d rolled herself into a corner and tried to get out face-first. And every time I look at that sweet, gorgeous, bruised face, I want to hold her close and never let her go. It’s an impulse I can’t give in to, for both of our sakes.
I’m obsessed with trade-offs. If you ask me, “What’s life about?”, I’d answer, in a heartbeat, “Trade-offs.” If you say, “Can people have it all?”, I’d respond, “They can have a lot, if they’re realistic in their expectations, and make the right trade-offs.” It’s an imperfect world. There’s a finite amount of time.
My theory of trade-offs, which I rely on in my personal and professional life, is this: You have to explicitly recognize the choices you’re making and the impact they have on what you value most (yourself, your relationships, your work, etc.), and realize that you’ll have to sacrifice or cut corners somewhere. The work is figuring out where the give is. What’s left is the best life for you.
My inaugural blog post was called Personal Disclosures. And in my post Tale of Two Rookie Moms, I wrote about my therapy work with a stay-home mom who was struggling emotionally. I told her how hard maternity leave was for me, and how I felt so much more myself, so much more balanced, so much more capable as a mother, by going back to work. My client seemed grateful that I’d been so self-revealing. It seemed to free her to consider all her options, and choose her own path.
That’s what personal disclosures by a therapist are supposed to do for clients. But I’ve always shied away from inserting my own experiences in the therapy session. Nowadays, that’s much harder to do.
New parents hear it all the time: “It’s not about you anymore; now it’s all about the kids.” Selflessness is in. Selfishness is out. Got it.
What’s always struck me is that there’s no word in the English language for maintaining a healthy self. I’d propose one: Self-ness. After all, if one end of the continuum is selfishness, and the other is selflessness, shouldn’t there be some middle ground? Perhaps self-ness is that middle ground.