I was such a good parent before I ever had kids. The best, really. I remember seeing easily flustered parents and genuinely wondering what they were doing wrong. I wondered why they always seemed to lack patience and rarely looked like they were having fun. If you were the mom with the kid laid out on the floor screaming in Target, I'm so sorry. I really imagined I that I knew how to handle it better than you did. If you were the one feeding your kid candy while grocery shopping or letting them watch a show on your phone, my apologies to you as well. I really sort of thought you were just being careless. Maybe even a bit lazy.
I think back to that naive version of myself and I half cringe, while the other half knows that there's just no way I could have known. Nothing could have ever prepared me for having children of my own. One of my most favorite sayings, something I have been saying for years, is that you will always be on both sides of what you judge. I have found this phrase more applicable to parenting than just about anything else in my life. And here's the irony...I still judge. Often. I try my best not to, but I think as human beings we are just sort of wired that way.
When I became a parent this funny thing happened. Suddenly, I became extra concerned about what you were thinking about me as a parent. I could dish the judgment but really disliked taking it. And because God has a sense of humor, I was given a child that provided me plenty of opportunity to work this out. She was hard. And I had met my match. And she didn't sleep, which ultimately brought me face to face with my harshest criticism of all - parents who let their babies 'cry it out'.
Before I move on, the answer is yes....I read the literature about the effects of crying on a baby's brain. Five times over. And then a few more times for good measure. Yes, I read and attempted every non-invasive, no-cry, gentle sleep solution book known to man. I even paid a 'sleep consultant' $200 to craft a personalized sleep plan for my baby. And I'll tell you what...it didn't work. None of it did.
One night, on her typical sixth waking between the hours of 8pm and midnight, I had a flash of insight that forever changed me. In all of my exhaustion and frustration, I became present to a feeling that I had never remembered experiencing before. I felt rage. And it was toward my seven month old baby. Which is embarrassing to say out loud. I wish I could tell you that during those groundhog days of frequent waking, I swooped her up and embraced every opportunity to bond with her and nurse her. I wish I could tell you that instead of feeling angry, I thought about the fact that these sweet days would one day soon be gone. And I did, for the first few months of it. But as time passed and deep exhaustion set in, I just didn't anymore. My nerves were frayed and I was at my breaking point. What became very clear was the fact that there was no way my baby couldn't feel this anger. And I really felt that this had to be more toxic and corrosive than crying it out.
I was standing at a crossroads. I was looking in the face of something that I had held so much contempt for, but also at the possibility of finding some peace. So we threw caution to the wind and went for it. It wasn't an easy choice. But it was way less difficult than what we had just endured for the past several months. Oh, and it worked. Quite magically, really. We all slept better and each of us softened in our own ways. Our relationships became so much better for it.
This experience became a powerful teaching for me that more important than caring what you thought of me, or being influenced by friends and what they did with their babies, more important than what the literature said, was the need to trust myself and honor my own True North.
There's actually a term for this act of bravery. It's called differentiation, or the ability to separate ourselves from the tendency to think and act in ways that seek approval of others. It's about dropping the need to conform so that we can avoid judgment. It's also about finding the ability (or perhaps the comfort with) untangling ourselves from others, so that we can be true to ourselves. Some of us find ourselves doing this most with our families of origin, some more so within our social circles, others within our marriages, and many of us fit nicely into the 'all of the above' category. It's not unusual. It's something most of us learn to do very early on in our lives. To a certain degree it may even have served a useful purpose at some point.
I know with certainty that I have lived most of my life on the unhealthy fringes of being influenced by others. It's hard to stand behind what you believe in, when you don't even really know what that is. But the more awareness I create, the better able I am to listen to myself so I can become present to what that is.
This listening is about noticing that what we need might not always match up to what others like or want. And yet we go for it anyway. Even if it's a flop. Even if it takes us further away from where we thought we were going. So long as we are following our True North, we will always end up exactly where we are supposed to be.
So that all seems easy enough right? Honor ourselves, trust our intuition, stop caring so much what people think about us. Well, here's where it takes a fun turn.
We'll call it Differentiation 2.0.
Differentiation also means allowing other people to be who they are and not needing them to conform with you and your way of doing things.
And this is where I currently tap out, because this kind of control is woven into the fabric of my existence. It's who I am. I've created my entire life and identity around this sense of control.
This is something my husband and I have been working on in therapy. Correction. This is something I am working on in the therapy he happens to be a part of. I am trying hard to create more awareness around my need to control, well, everything really. What he says when we're around friends, what he wears, how things look, how he parents, and on and on. I'm quite a master in this arena. I've been doing it for years. My younger brother recently reminded me of a time when I was nine and he was seven. We were walking to school and talking about a lunch he would be attending for winning a principal's award. I made sure to tell him that he needed to 'eat everything on his plate and say thank you.' It should come as no surprise that I do the same with my kids as well. Only it doesn't work very well on them. The tighter I clamp down, the worse they become. And the harder it becomes for me. And here I am, on the other side of that judgment, with the kid laid out on the floor screaming in Target.
So here's what I have become more present to, which to some of you, may seem so simple. But to others of us who speak the language of control, may not be so obvious or easy:
The more I set others free from my control, the easier it becomes to set myself free from my control. It's a package deal. If I don't like being under my own control, why would anyone else? The small taste I have had of letting go is really quite nice.
My happiness grows in direct response to my ability to stop caring what other people think, as well as allowing others to be who it is that they need to be. So simple, yet not easy at all. It is a daily, sometimes hourly, practice for me.
The process of differentiation is a vulnerable one. Letting go is hard. It's like tugging on that string of the sweater and being ok with the possibility that the whole thing could unravel. As it turns out, this might not be a such a bad thing. We might finally get to custom knit the sweater we've always wanted.
We don't necessarily end up with the children (or spouse, or family, or friends, or co-workers) that are easy...we end up with the ones we need. Every single person in our experience - especially those closest to us - are perfectly placed in our lives to grow us and to teach us more about ourselves than we could have ever imagined.
Sometimes I think it would be so much easier not to be aware of this kind of stuff. Staying present isn't always the easy path to walk - and trust me, I don't always do it well, if at all (I'm screaming at my kid as I write this to SAY PLEASE when he asks me for his waffles). But what I know is that it's the noble path. The courageous one. So for now, this is where I'll stay.