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

What sort of parent are you?

 
Parent ‘tag’ is very popular in media. It’s easy to join or at least follow many conversations about parenting going on in social media. I read or scan so many information directed to me as a parent not because I’m parenting blogger but because I am a mother breastfeeding the baby and wanting to occupy my mind with something during that process. Or a mother having half an hour break for myself and being too tired to read the book. Or a mother searching for input on a particular issue which worries me. As a parent of small children I also find parenting the most interesting subject at the moment.
What I look for in those all numerous articles, advices and opinions is a consolation – a comfort of someone else saying something close to my view on breastfeeding or praising the way parents manage children’s screen time, which happens to be similar to mine. I also get excited when some opinion appears to be totally opposite to my view: I criticise it and I go mad: ‘it’s wrong’ I think ‘you can’t say that! it’s not a right way of bringing up children!’

Right – Wrong, Right – Wrong. This is a good way, this is The Way to start a spoon feed, this is The Way to breastfeed in public, the way to deal with siblings rivalry etc. etc.

Parenting world of opinions is completely polarised and it sucks people into thinking in these black – and white categories.
This creates a world where any real reflection or discussion which could enrich people with different views is practically impossible. The comfort becomes a distant dream too.

I lately read an article about letting children to fall asleep on a breast when the night time comes. The author was pro breastfeeding to sleep and critiqued the other article in which a psychologist was warning mothers that this is a bad habit, that breast is for feed not for comfort and that a child will have trouble falling asleep when gets older.

At first I was reading and thinking: ‘oh, great, the woman is talking sense – I am in fact breastfeeding my child to sleep now.’

But then the detailed explanation came and I started to feel bad: ‘ the child is unable to separate herself from the mother until 18 months old’ says specialist. ‘Every attempt to break the mother – baby fusion before 18 months is against nature, is wrong, unfair, can be damaging for a child’. 

‘Oh dear’ – I thought – ‘I do break the fusion…Sometimes it’s my husband putting children to sleep…Oh no, I left my daughter for a week with her father when she was only 14 months, have I done something wrong?’

And then I realise: It’s unfair to impose on us parents such a strong opinions, from arguably informed sources. No one is better informed about our children and family context then ourselves. This is very understandable that we seek reassurance about the way we do things, so yes: we’ll keep reading the stuff. But in my experience we are more likely to get doubts and worries fuelled, rather than become more confident with what we are doing.  
So I keep reminding myself: black and white world is a phantasy. There is no one magic formula to bring up children. Every child and every parent is different. 

Ordinary Parents

Royal Mother
Kate Middleton – The Duchess of Cambridge – gave birth to her second baby. It’s not this fact itself, what brought me to write this post, but another blog which in a humorous way commented on Kate’s perfect look during child’s presentation just few hours after giving birth.

The author very accurately picks up ridiculousness of a situation when woman being inevitably damaged and exhausted after enormous effort of labour, appears in front of the world ‘done up’ and ‘dressed up’, wearing high hills.
photo from Kate Middleton facebook page

Yes, the videos and photographs of Kate Middleton reminds me that I don’t belong to royal family and after I gave birth, no wider audience cared wether I had my hair brushed or nails done (and more: if I’d like to dress up straight after labour, someone would bring me on earth and told me to just lay down). It’s fortunately not part of my task as a mother to look perfect. But is it that obvious that the whole parenting venture isn’t about being perfect in any aspect? Isn’t the underlying message from Duchess to other parents: ‘perfect’ is what we all want?

‘Perfect’ is what the photograph captured but what was left behind?
Looking at the photo of Kate Middleton I’m reflecting on big picture of parenting. I am trying to capture what really matters in being a parent and what being a good parent means. I believe that in our era of parenting, where the pressure on parents coming from many angles is very high, we tend to forget what our priorities are and we might find ourselves in a place where we never feel good enough.
Experts and Ideal Parents
In fact, these dangers were present and spoken of in early 60′ of 20th century. Dr Donald H. Winnicot, English psychoanalyst, was particularly concerned about two issues (both of them become even stronger over the years and our culture is investing in turning them into the signatures of contemporary parenting).
One of the issue is a growing role of parenting experts. The market of education and advice for parents is really massive. Parents constantly hear what they should be doing and what is best for their children. I recently saw the post on facebook, written by child psychologist, inviting parents to write their concerns on the psychologist’s facebook wall and she promised to answer each of them in few sentences. This is very vivid example of the wider issue: the ‘expert’ badge, the voice of specialist, is in our culture very powerful. The experts sound so convincing that we are inclined to trust their voice more than our own judgements. This undermines parents’ confidence and makes them feel worried that they constantly miss some skill or important bit of information. Somewhere in experts’ minds exists a perfect and right way of doing things and we, ordinary parents will never be able to fully reach that. We then sip drops of wisdom from specialists’ mouth, hoping that this will be at least good enough.
The second issue is idealisation of parents. To illustrate what it means, I recall today’s radio program, where some caller criticised mothers for returning to work instead of staying at home with children. It was a judgemental speech, claiming that most mothers do have a choice and they still prefer career than the best start in life for their children. That lady simplified the dilemma and ignored complexity of the situation. She divided the world into two: good mothers staying with children and bad ones, returning to work. Her reasoning was fuelled by emotions: she split* them into two and assigned all the good ones to good – stay at home mums and all the bad ones to the other group. This is a process which we all sometimes go through, usually not being aware of this. Black and white world with simple divisions  is a product of our phantasy and it prevents us from seeing shades of the real world. How we as a society perceive parents seems to be influenced by this mechanism of splitting. They are good or bad objects – in minds of others and in their own minds. They experience emotional pressure, the necessity to be ideal and to fulfil unreal expectations.

To be ordinary

Parenting isn’t about trying to be perfect and fulfilling unrealistic expectations.  Parenting is about ‘ordinary’. Ordinary parents are good enough to provide right care for their children. And to be clear: vast majority of parents is doing great job of loving, caring and nurturing their children.
*original concepts of splitting and good enough parents come from works of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.