Musings on (Working) Motherhood: What if you could first connect?
I’ve been doing a lot of internal work these last few months, especially in the last month or so with taking up the practice of mindfulness. Becoming more aware of my inner world and how I need to look after myself has been immensely helpful. But I still struggle with many aspects of parenting and relationships. One is that I have become that mum – the one who is always pointing out the imagined dangers of every single situation. “Don’t touch that! You’ll get germs. Don’t run around with a pencil! You might poke it in your eye. Get down from the couch! You might fall on your head!” I am constantly scanning the environment for potential dangers – I am like a robot waving my arms around going “Danger!! Danger!! Danger!!!!” And I am so very sick of this, but until recently I had no idea how to get rid of Super Annoying Mum. It all came to a head when my four-year-old was playing with a lightshow, you know, one of those that projects a visual of teddy bears and stars on the ceiling while playing a lullabye. She had cloistered herself in her room and then came running out excitedly saying “Mum!! Come and look!” The room was dark, and the lightshow was playing. All I said was “Don’t shine that light in your eyes. It will spoil them”. And walked away.
Yeah, talk about a buzzkill! What an amazingly fun mum I have become. NOT.
Yet I know you will all empathise with me in some way – us mums seem programmed to warn of the constant dangers in our childrens’ lives as they explore the environment, and who can blame us – we are constantly bombarded with media reports of injuries to small children from toys, everyday objects… We’re so fearful of something awful happening that we stop connecting with our children and sharing their joy and excitement. Instead, all we can see is the thing that could go wrong, even if the risk is remote.
I’m reading a book called “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Dan Siegel, and came across a chapter on connecting with your child. I had a sudden lightbulb moment. I realised I wasn’t connecting with my daughter – at all. In that moment, all I could see was the danger, and I was missing what she saw – the beauty, the fun, the enjoyment. I realised I didn’t need to let go of my internal alarm. All I needed to do was first connect with her. Perhaps the lightshow incident might have gone like this:
Star: “Mum! Come and see!”
Me: “Oh wow! Isn’t that beautiful! You used to really love this lightshow when you were a baby. *insert appropriate non-verbal behaviour like smiles, hugs…** Now promise me you’ll be careful and don’t point it straight in your eyes ok? Because that would spoil your eyes, it’s dangerous. On the ceiling is fine, ok?”
Yeah, perfect Mummy with practice, huh? Looking back there are so many moments that I wish I could do over. And even after this lightbulb moment, I am still finding it hard to first connect and share the experience, and leave the teaching for the second part. But I am aware of it and am trying.
Dr Siegel describes this emotional connection, the moment when a parent shares a child’s feelings of joy, sadness, anger, hurt, excitement etc as an important opportunity for a child to know that he is “good”. When a parent shows a child that he or she “gets” him or her, the child builds an innate sense that he or she is “good”. This connection is forged not through logic and language (the talking, which I am unfortunately VERY good at and prone to) but through non-verbal language (tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, hugs etc). This is the second thing I am struggling with and which I need practice with. I’ve become someone who goes “bla bla bla” a lot to my four-year-old, and I am sure all she is hearing is “bla bla bla” and none of it is going in – because I am failing to make that connection with her first. Instead of acknowledging and sharing her emotions, which can be very big (e.g. separating from me at bedtime or kindy dropoff) I sweep these away and tell her all the logical things like she’ll see me again at the end of the day, she’ll have fun with her friends, etc. Which don’t work because I have completely missed connecting with her and simply acknowledging the big emotions. I become a bit like Spock from Star Trek – all left brain and no emotional connection, because it’s easier and less painful than dealing with the distress she is experiencing.
I’m going to try, and I know it will be hard at first, but I also know it will get easier. I know now that our brains change with practice, and our neurons form new connections all the time. All it takes is repetition – being consistent, and not getting discouraged with the initial discomfort of trying something new. I’ll have to practise being pro-active and not reactive, and will have to be aware of my own feelings as well. All very challenging stuff, but I want to eventually be the kind of mum that “gets” my children. I know this will become harder as they get older. I don’t have to let go of boundaries, but I can connect with them in a meaningful, sincere way as well as teach them about safety and social etiquette. So the next time something happens that requires me to make a connection, I’ll zip my lip and reach out to my children first. And do the “bla bla bla” afterwards.