Family traits and our parenting

  
How we parent our children is strongly influenced by our childhood experience and our parents become role models (for good and bad) for our own parenting. 
Some of us might hate the way our parents treated us in certain situations, or we may even have really bad memories of the childhood in general. We will then promise ourselves that we won’t be doing this to our children. We will be different! However we all find ourselves resembling our parents in some way. We might hear critical voice or angry voice of our father or mother, pouring out of our mouth when we are stressed. If we stop and think we know precisely where is it coming from: ‘this is exactly what I used to hear from him/her’. 
Our first relationships influence our life in the sense that we learn from them about relationships in general. We gather experience and we learn: what happens when someone’s gets angry, what happens if I do something wrong? how does it look like in the eyes of my mother when I am sad? How does it feel to be loved? How does my father show warmth towards me?

The way our parents deal with their own emotions and our emotions as children is the very thing which shapes our future relationships – among others – relationship with our own children. Some of these patterns are available to us and we can easily see them – for example: ‘I get angry when my child disobeys me. I remember my parents getting angry in the same way’. Some of them are unconscious hence more difficult to deal with; it’s then a matter of self reflection to discover them – for example: ‘I realised that I can’t say ‘no’ to my child even if I know I should – I feel hopeless in the same way I do with my mother. I can’t say ‘no’ to her either’.  

But we are not condemned to our past. Moreover, our task as parents is to learn from what we experienced as children and adapt differently. For example – talking about boundaries – it might be the case that someone used to be a teenager ‘crying out’ for boundaries and not getting them from parents, no matter what he/she was doing (extreme risk behaviour, abusing alcohol, breaking any rules, abandoning school, etc.). Later on when a parent, this person might find him/herself in the same position as his/her parents – using similar methods, maybe even resembling parents’ tone of voice or repeating the same set of sentences and messages, while speaking to own children: the feelings of hopelessness and worrying for the child overpower the parent and he/she is not able to be firm and strict with the child; sends mixed massages about rules and expectations, etc. 

How can we stop these repetitions and start doing things our own way?

The major task here is to recognise two things.

Needs 

Firstly, we need to recognise our needs, which weren’t met when we were children, and how this pattern repeats itself in our present behaviour. These might be the very needs which we now have to meet when relating to our children (for example by creating boundaries and providing sense of safety). 

This is the place from which we can develop our own way of doing things, make changes and go beyond the generational cycle. 

Priorities 

Secondly we need to prioritise our parenting. We can laugh at some patterns of our parenting. It may be frustrating to us, that we behave like our parents, but this is not harmful to our children’s development. Whereas other patterns can have big consequences. We need to make sure we don’t focus on the small things and ignore the big ones, because dealing with them seems much more difficult. 
We become who we are through relations with others, it is the nature of our development. It’s good to remember that in parent-child relationship it is mutual – children influence their parents too. We don’t have a full control over this process and accepting it gives us the opportunity to learn from the experience.

First published on herfamily.ie
Photo: http://www.welearntoday.com

‘Down to Earth’ toddlers group: on nature and connectedness

  

Last month we went to the Brigit’s Garden in Pollagh in Galway for the open day of a Toddler group. It was a bright spring day that brought the forest to life. The sun was peeking through the trees and was catching the children’s faces. It is at moments like this that I understand why it is so important to bring children to nature.
I was brought straight back to my childhood. My happiest memories are from being outdoors and around nature. The Swiss knife as treasure tool, old clothes to get dirty, the endless space in my aunt’s cottage yard, granddad’s mountain enclave and the surrounding forest. Today I saw a pencil made from wood and my heart felt warm remembering that I once owned one too. I shared baked potatoes with my children and I was taken back to sitting with my cousins by the bonfire, cutting through a hot spud and crushing salt onto the melted butter.
My children had a lovely time, playing with all the precious things that were made by the leaders of the group. Beautiful, natural, handmade objects. Swings made of knotted ropes, wooden jewellery and instruments. The children used leaves, mud and water to cook in their imaginary kitchen.

Nature exposes us to the concepts of continuity and connectedness. In today’s fast changing and fragmented world, it is difficult to feel it on day to day basis. It’s difficult to capture our experience and keep it safe – photos in the cloud, letters lost in the mailbox, luggage with childhood memories left behind after moving house again. We are just going with the flow, the years passing by. We wear new clothes, because the old ones remind us that we too are getting old.

We live half of our lives online. We travel, change places, learn languages and fly far away from our childhood homes to build a new ones and sometimes never return. The world is transforming and with that comes great developments and fantastic new inventions, but we as humans inherently desire those feelings of connectedness and continuity. We still need to understand our roots, to know where we came from and what needs to be respected.
Experiencing nature can help us with remembering what’s important and who we are. It helps us to get in touch with ourselves and appreciate all the gifts of the earth. Encouraging our children to interact with nature is an important part of their long term development and helps to teach them to nurture what’s already theirs.

What does it mean to be a confident parent

 
I have a confession to make.
I don’t think parents need much guidance and advice on the matter of their parenting skills. What they really need is reassurance and support in becoming more confident in their parenting.

Children need confident parents, because this sets an example for them and helps them go through life, making their own judgements and grow into emotionally mature adults.

Here is what’s worth remembering when practicing confident parenting:
1. The majority is not always right. 
Parents face immense social pressure to do things the way it’s perceived best by ‘general opinion’, fashion, major media. The fear of being rejected by the group and facing our child being not accepted pushes us into the arms of group thinking, which is unfortunately far from rational reasoning and even further away from caring, what’s best for our children. 

Don’t worry about others so much – think what is best for you and your family and act accordingly. If it happens to be against the mainstream, then well, so be it. People who you care about will respect you for being honest and authentic. Being outside the norm can be uncomfortable but often in years ahead, these people have shown us the way. For example I have a friend who brought his child up as a vegetarian many years ago, when it was very unusual. Today, many people realise the benefits of a much healthier non-meat diet, and you can get vegetarian food everywhere. Todays outsiders are often tomorrows leaders! 

2. Experts are not always right

It’s important to listen to experts – especially when they talk interestingly. But we have to apply their advice with caution, you need to think critically about what they say. Does it apply to your context? Does it fit with your system of values? Does it make you feel incompetent and uncertain (because the experts seem to have answer for every question which even didn’t come to your mind?). If so, stop listening and summarise what you know from your experience. Remember that you know your child and you are capable of making decisions and the most important judgement: what’s the best for your child. Also experts argue – there is often one expert proving this by research and another proving the opposite by different research. So we have to find a way through the mass data presented to us. At the centre of this should be our own common sense and thoughtful reflections.   

3. Reach out for Support

Social and family support are very important aspects of being a parent. Don’t fell guilty or inadequate when not knowing what to do. You have right to feel vulnerable and to seek help. In every crisis there is a potential for finding better, more creative ways of doing things (it is often through crisis that our children achieve next stages of development). Just think, who can help you to figure it out. Having a trusted person outside the immediate family who will give you helpful feedback – that can challenge your thinking without blaming you is really important. Can you be a like this for your friends too? 

4. Let your children be themselves

Children can be great teachers of authenticity if only we let them express themselves the way they feel like, rather than expect that they’ll perform the image of the perfect child we or others carry in their heads. This particularly applies to gender – we often try to get boys to perform like boys should and girls to perform like girls should – what about letting them just play as they want to play?

5. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Vast majority of parents are doing fantastic work, taking care of their children. When things get tough don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t judge yourself too much. Parenting is demanding and joyful at the same time. No parent is perfect, we all do the best to our ability. The best we can do is keep giving love, providing emotional containment (link to post about containment) and staying in touch with reality, prioritising what is best for your children, and observe your confidence growing!

First published on herfamily.ie

The Fathers as we see them (through the lens of our culture) 

  
Lego started to recognise the changing role of fathers in our culture. We have now Lego figurines with happy fathers pushing buggies and staying at home with the children. And it’s great, the message sent by main players on the market is heard by many families and it does have an impact on our perception of social norms. Role playing toys are powerful medium through which our children receive hints on what are the accepted ways of doing things in our society. 

But do we really know what we expect from fathers these days?
I think fathers have several reasons to feel confused about their role in the family.

Stupid jokes

The thing which strikes me each time I come across it in social media, is circulation of insensitive jokes about fathers. Fathers are patronised, pictured as incompetent, silly people, who seek woman’s help in all the tasks concerning children. I recently saw a joke-chart on FB saying mummy is the one answering all sorts of questions children might have and father who is presented with the only single question: where is mummy? Other example is an image of a family bed, where father sleeps uninterrupted on ‘his half’ of the bed, while mother is awake on her side, having have to accommodate the children (and the dog and the cat) there; and obviously – doesn’t get any sleep at all. It might put a smile on someone’s tired face when after many sleepless nights. It can be viewed as a sort of acting out-frustrations joke. But in fact this enhances the false picture of fathers as those uninvolved and disinterested parents. Whereas in every single family I know, fathers take a big part in minding small babies at night (even when they have to get up the earliest and go to work).
I understand these jokes as displacement of anger and frustration onto fathers (husbands, partners). These difficult emotions are completely normal and understandable, but dealing with these feelings through partners and leaving them look incompetent and selfish is not fair.

Segregation

Fathers face contradictory expectations regarding their participation in bringing up children. The question I often heard when our first child was born, was: “Is your partner helping?”. I didn’t feel word ‘helping’ was accurate description of our arrangement. It wasn’t him helping with the child, it was us bringing up the new baby together; each of us bonding with our daughter in our ways. It wasn’t me giving him access to the child for the time of ‘helping’ or him thinking: ‘I’d better help out a bit here’.
But the most vivid example of fathers being expected to get involved but in some special, father-like way is a gender segregated parenting. Parent-toddlers groups are mainly attended by mothers from obvious reason – they are still main care givers – staying at home parents, who seek for social support and company for their children; it’s mainly mother-toddlers group we are speaking about. 

Nevertheless, there are stay-at-home-fathers and single fathers, who would also benefit from attending toddler groups. It is much more difficult for fathers to make an appearance in such groups. When fathers enter a toddler group it’s like they invade the space reserved for mothers. It seems to be uncomfortable for both mothers and fathers. A few times I experienced weekend meet ups, where few fathers turned up. They usually ended up half hidden, in the corner of the room, or squeezed between two mothers turned back, chatting with someone else. Latter on, those fathers, who made it to the meeting was labelled as ‘brave’. There was also a suggestion, that fathers should have their own, fathers’ meeting set up. 

Why is it brave to attend a meeting, which should be a joint pleasure – an occasion to see a child interacting with other children? Why isn’t it ‘normal’ to meet and talk about parenting (or something else, for that matter), in a mixed – mothers and fathers group?
The reason might be our deeply rooted traditional way of thinking about parenting. It is not necessarily helpful these days, but it’s there, as an artefact of the old order.

On the other hand, it preserves the importance of mothers’ role and gives them power to lead and dictate the conditions in the world of bringing up children. 
All parties: children, mothers and fathers are benefiting from shifting power relations and more engagement of fathers and mothers in family life. Change isn’t easy and some fathers might need more encouragement in taking up the roles which traditionally belonged to women, and mothers might need to find ways to be more open to change too.

What Fathers definitely don’t need is a prejudice attitude that comes from the past and is often unconscious, that pushes them to the sidelines. This isn’t good for fathers or mothers, but most importantly it isn’t good for our children.
Photo source

New mum joins the club – getting support from the group

  
BBC Radio4 broadcasted an interesting interview with sociologist Dr Jennie Bristow and editor-in-chief of Netmums Anne-Marie O’Leary about supportive role of friendship during early stages of motherhood. (Woman’s hour on BBC4 podcast, interview starts at app.33 min of the program http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06z255x). They spoke of early parenthood as one of these times in life when we need friends the most. This brought also questions of what is friendship, to what extent we can expect friends to be answering our needs and what kind of friends do we look for, over the course of life. The toddlers groups were mentioned as very valuable source of social support from people who are going through similar challenges.
In my experience as a stay-at-home mother, the various toddlers’ groups me and my children attend are indeed a great way to socialise and meet new interesting people. It helps me to remain active (and sane). It’s very rewarding to see my children playing with others. Going to groups makes me feel part of a wider community.
On the other hand, I find that groups can be sometimes a bit overwhelming and that they do have an unspoken, more difficult side which can make this group experience somehow stressful. This can be a reason for some mums who are feeling vulnerable, for whatever reason, to stay at home, rather than reach out for help and face the Group. 

Unfortunately, when we need the groups support most, we may find it most difficult to attend.  

Why is a toddler group a challenge?
As a group facilitator, I work with people who come to my classes with specific expectations. They want to be part of learning experience which will help them better understand themselves as parents and resolve their issues. This is the first, visible and spoken reason for joining the group. 
But when we form groups of any type, group dynamics are unleashed that we have to cope with. * These processes are powerful and not always easy to deal with, especially when we are not fully aware of them. When becoming part of a group, we tend to take up certain roles; sometimes we benefit from them, at other times, they make our experience very difficult. Common group dynamics evoke our competitiveness, our defence mechanisms, and trigger our deep emotional issues. .

Competition
Some of us have strong desire to compete with others and perceive competition as a fight for the badge “I’m the best”. This can provoke tensions between group members, make some people feel inferior or excluded. Sometimes the competition becomes a main figure of the meeting and dominant group feelings are that of tension and hostility; in these cases group no longer serves as a support group or safe haven. 

Defence Mechanisms
To understand the way we relate to the group, we need to go back to our own-early-childhood experience. The first group we are born into is the family group, and we learn about the world from relating to others: initially from our first care givers and our siblings. In relation to others we define who we are and what is important to us. We need others to see ourselves in their eyes, to figure out who we are from the way they react to us. What is more, we often need them to deal with our emotions. Early in life, we develop mechanisms which help us avoid emotions, which are too overwhelming. For example, children split the world into good and bad, and in this way they don’t have to deal with ambivalence and mixed feelings e.g. Mummy is all good, or all bad, pending on the mood the infant is in. Over the course of life we are expected to learn more mature ways of dealing with emotions. We as grown ups, should be able to face and process the fact that our parents can be right at some points, and completely wrong at others. Mature people should be able to accept the fact that sometimes they get angry, they experience envy and that is part of who they are. But even if we are capable of this kind of ‘mature’ emotional processes, we sometimes still turn to our defence mechanisms and use them to avoid some feelings. We might for instance project our feeling of sadness onto someone else. When we do this, we really can see evidences of the person being very sad and we intensely focus on this other person’s sadness. While doing this, we don’t acknowledge our own sadness. These mechanisms operate in groups. They can become very powerful, when group as a whole starts using them and prevents its members from embracing what they feel and who they are. Projections often hit the most vulnerable people in the room. Single parents for example can easily become ‘objects’ for projecting our own feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, dislocation. Group may be focusing on expressing pity and sorrow over one person, who starts feeling overwhelmed by the emotions, which belong to other people.  

Roles
In this way people play different roles in the group. Our life situation and personality are main contributors to the way we appear in the group. We might realise, that we often take up similar role in different groups we attend.  

It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek or cannot count on group support when feeling vulnerable. It’s just important to be aware that this deep emotional processes are circulating in the room and when we feel that something is put to us and we are perceived as more outside the group or more sad that we actually feel ourselves, we don’t have to consent to it. We can try and do something differently, engage with someone else that we usually do, change anything which we are able to change and see how it impacts our emotions and the way other people see us.
Getting group support which we need, often demands being proactive and as conscious as possible.

*my work on group dynamics is informed by relational psychoanalysis, concepts of defence mechanisms and group as a whole come from Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion

Photo: http://www.kcmetromoms.com

First published on xpose.ie

Full time parents: Re-connecting with the world 

  
Being a full time-stay at home parent for many people means disconnection from professional career. The distance from what we used to do before becoming a parent vary and we also take a break for a different period of time.
There are some circumstances in which come back to work can be particularly difficult.

Sometimes the break from work is very long and detachment from a job market is total. Some people left or lost their careers before becoming parents. Many families move to new cites or countries to have a fresh start. Without a network, with language barrier, differences in qualification system, building a career in foreign place is a huge task in itself. It becomes bigger when for a period of time we were preoccupied with the inner world of our family life and most importantly – with the youngest family members (some call this effect a ‘baby brain’).
In any case, planning to come back to work often triggers many emotions and brings to life questions regarding our identity, self esteem, skill set, belonging.

Coming back to professional work after a long break means reinventing ourselves and face all the challenges we faced when getting a job for the first time.
Re-connecting with the outside world of people who are get paid money for the work they do, is an emotional and strategic exercise. It is also an interesting phenomena in our culture. Our society tends to assign more value and importance to all the jobs happening outside the family home. It can make parents (in most countries – in majority – mothers) feel as if they are contributing less to the community or indeed to the family (not providing any financial income). It can also feel as if all the outside world was moving forward and learning new things, when in the meantime, home makers were just a home makers, doing all the things which all the generations have done before.
The value of staying at home parents is for me unquestionable. They not only dedicate themselves to offer care and support to those they love. They also rise people, who are the future of our communities. They do have a connection with previous generations, by committing to the same task which our grand and great grandmothers did. They learn – everyday of their lives – about relationships, emotions, themselves, their loved ones. They reach their limits and they learn to overcome their weaknesses. They manage family life and they care for the quality of it – food, aesthetics, warmth. They work and learn a lot and they do not have ‘baby brains’.
I am picturing this heroic image of staying at home parents and I am not mentioning the other part – those who make this arrangement possible, by earning money and contributing in many different ways. I will dedicate them a different post.
It’s because I sometimes hear when mothers who are planning to go back to work express their feelings of dislocation, inadequacy, low self-esteem, lack of clear direction and confidence. I also share some of these feelings.

And I think they need a strong encouragement and appreciation. They should remind themselves, that when staying at home, they are not disappearing in a vacuum. They are important part of the world ‘out there’ and that they can come back to work or do whatever they plan to do, reacher for the experience of being a home makers. Yes, it requires focus, commitment and strategic planning. Yes, it’s challenging and can be intimidating. Yes, they need a reality check and see what short term and long term goals are within their reach (considering support, actual opportunities, financial situation, further childcare).

But experience of being a full time parent is a great starting point and strong asset. Even if it is not being portrayed like this often enough.

Parents: children will be impressed with your new careers! Good luck.
First published on xpose.ie

Photo: http://www.scarymommy.com

Birthday Party? Do it as you please!

  
It’s my son’s birthday this month and as we have some friends who were born in January too, we are entering busy birthday party season. I am looking forward to it, although I am also familiar with all the uncertainties which can make an innocent children’s party stressful. Of course it’s about our children having great time and celebrating together. But it is also about being exposed as a parent to other parents, who as we know, are sometimes harsh judges of our choices (or maybe we only think they are?). It’ s normal to be preoccupied about being accepted by the group and it’s also natural that the group is expecting us to conform to its norms and standards of doing things. Unfortunately it’s also the case, that conformity kills creativity and even threatens our identity. Group norms can be insensible, irrational, stupid. We might disagree with them completely and obeying them might hurt us. And yet, we still go with the group flow, because we want to be accepted and we want the same for our children. 
This reminds me of an article I read in Irish Times about birthday party etiquette.

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/parenting/how-to-host-a-child-s-party-without-breaking-the-bank-or-your-kitchen-1.2416806

It answers in details what is an accepted way of buying presents, making guest list, serving sandwiches, preparing goody bags, etc.

It is the brightest example of social pressure which glorifies group obedience and doesn’t allow for any creativity. It fuels anxieties and supports the phantasy world of the group which benefits from all the members being exactly the same. The imaginary good coming from this homogeneous world would be lack of conflict, lack of confrontation, eternal peace and happiness. 

At first glance the article looks as a helpful guide through the common doubts I mentioned above. But when you read it through, you realise that it creates a strange world in which all parents and children want exactly the same environment to celebrate, eat and enjoy the same things and expect others to do what majority does. There is a real thread which can be read between the words: If you don’t obey the etiquette, you become an outcast, a weirdo, someone who doesn’t deserve to be part of the clan. 

Parents are surrounded by this kind of ‘do and do not’ guidelines, which are doing more harm than good, because they make us forget about the most obvious truth: we are adults, able to think independently and perfectly capable of making our own decisions regarding our children and ourselves.

It’s important to remember that the fear of being rejected is fuelled by the phantasy, that we all should be the same. We are all different and that’s all right. We can host the party which doesn’t obey any etiquette and most likely we will be appreciated for being authentic and honest. 

This post was First published on xpose.ie 

Image: http://www.aliexpress.com