From time to time a weary mother plops down on the couch in my office looking like something the cat dragged in. I soon discover that she has been running on fumes. She sleeps five hours a night if she’s lucky, and her slumber is usually interrupted by a child visitor climbing into her bed and thrashing about, making peaceful sleep something she can only dream about. For sustenance, she nibbles the remains of her children’s unfinished meals as she hustles around the kitchen, never sitting down for a proper meal. She laughs when I ask about the last time she read a book and can’t remember what it feels like to engage in a meaningful adult conversation with anyone other than her partner, with whom she discusses…the kids.
I have been known to send this type of client away after a few minutes in my office, asking her to follow some instructions for at least one week, after which she is free to come back for a session. “I would like you to drink water the minute you notice you feel thirsty, eat something nutritious within a few minutes of realizing you are hungry (while sitting down), pee as soon as you feel the urge (many have gotten used to holding it until it’s unbearable), and rest with your feet up and your eyes closed — even for three minutes — when you feel tired.”
My client usually thinks I’m joking and laughs a little nervously. She quickly finds out that I’m serious. I tell her, “Until you begin taking care of yourself, whatever work we do together with regard to your children or family is irrelevant.”
Now, mind you, I don’t do this very often; while most of the parents I work with fall short in some way when it comes to self-care, what I have described is extreme. But when I have parents — yes, they are usually women — who have thoroughly abandoned any sense of loving care toward their body and spirit, I send them home. (In fact, at times I tell them to just go and have a rest in their car since someone is looking after their kids for at least as long as they were meant to be in session with me!) I want them to understand that unless they shift their attitude and behavior toward meeting their own most basic needs, they will not be up to the task of being the Captain of the ship with their children.
PARENTING WITH PRESCENCE
It is simply impossible to parent in ones or twos and not feel frayed at the edges, if not outright exhausted. We are not supposed to raise kids on our own; we are meant to do it as part of a tribe.
Parents — build yourselves a tribe. Not only is it essential to your sanity and health, but it is an essential ingredient for raising a confident, conscious, caring adult. It is virtually impossible for one or two parents to raise a child alone. We require propping up, and time to ourselves. And when we have challenging children, it is vital that we receive extra guidance, support, and simply — a break. A woman I know who has cancer said, “If you’re there for my kids, you’re there for me.” Please, expand your network.
In addition to the support and camaraderie that our tribe can provide us as parents, it is also important that our children develop healthy attachments with other trustworthy adults. In one of the tribes we visited in Tanzania, little ones wanting comfort or a cuddle simply grabbed onto the leg of the nearest mother. The laughter among the women was easy and relaxed. Kids wandered, big and small mixing together. In New Zealand I spent time at a tiny country school, where the children played barefooted soccer — five-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds happily tumbling around together. “They have to get along,” the headmaster told me. “They’re all they’ve each got.”
Children who feel they are part of a community grow up feeling anchored. I urge you to look around for a group of like-minded, like-hearted parents with kids reasonably close in age to your own. Plan ways to spend more time together, as friends and partners in raising children, offering one another support, respite, and time to recharge.
Excerpted from the book Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids ©2015 by Susan Stiffelman. Reprinted with permission of New World Library.
Susan Stiffelman, mft is the bestselling author of Parenting with Presence and Parenting without Power Struggles. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a credentialed teacher, and the Huffington Post’s weekly “Parent Coach” advice columnist. She lives in Malibu, California where she is an aspiring banjo player, a determined tap-dancer, and an optimistic gardener. Visit her online at ParentingWithoutPowerStruggles