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Motherhood and Self: How to Know When I've Given Enough

Motherhood and Self: How to Know When I've Given Enough

My advice as a mother, friend of mothers and doula of mothers-en-route: surf the shifting ground. 
Stay connected to the core of your experience so your balance doesn’t waver in the changing tides. And remember that you are the core and the rest of your world is built around you, on top of you. 

WHY JUDGE A MOTHER? Why Mom-Shaming is Destructive to Your Overall Energy

WHY JUDGE A MOTHER? Why Mom-Shaming is Destructive to Your Overall Energy

Today Sara Lyon talks about something that you probably don’t associate with mom fatigue, but is an ever-present factor in most of our daily lives:  Mom shame and mom guilt. Two sides of the same coin, both of which can really deplete our energy without us even realizing it.

Father Feelings with Ben Ringler, MFT

Father Feelings with Ben Ringler, MFT

Psychologist Ben Ringler and I spent time dissecting some of the core obstacles men face in their transition to parenthood. Ben’s counseling practice focuses on men, particularly as they approach fatherhood, and he is a father of two himself. While most of our readers are women, we hope that you will be able to better understand your male partners with compassion after learning more about the male experience of new parenthood.

                                                                                                       -Sara Lyon


Because Glow specializes in prenatal & postpartum massage, we hear from more women than men, and we often hear that women feel under-supported by their partners. Many women express that their male partners aren’t taking the egalitarian, active role they had hoped they would maintain with children in the picture. What are some modern cultural features distracting fathers from being fully present with their partners once a child arrives?

Ben: Before kids come into reality, it’s common for couples to have certain ideas, expectations, hopes of themselves and of each other, but they have no idea what the reality of becoming a parent is like. There can be a real dissonance between the fantasy of what a father wants to do, how they want to show up in their new role, and what the reality is.

This can be particularly hard for men who like to be able to anticipate something before it happens, but having a baby is beyond anticipation. A lot of men solve problems as a way to manage anxiety, and that’s not always possible in parenting. No one can predict how they are going to respond when they have someone truly dependent on them.

Being fully present is very hard even without a child, I think many people struggle with that. It’s the nature of the human mind, especially in this age of technology and busy-ness and disconnection. Unless you’re doing an active meditation practice or some other practice, being fully present is even harder. So, when you add a child to the mix, a lot of men will discover how un-present they really are. Parenthood is a mirror for both parents. It can be ego dystonic, in other words, not how you see yourself.

Having a child will often confront men with the areas in life where they really aren’t present and aren’t fulfilling their goals. So expecting oneself to be present is really a setup for failure.  It is very important for men to be compassionate to their own struggles.  Being hard on oneself makes being present even harder!

What are some common underlying psychological barriers preventing men from being totally present with their families?

Ben: Some of the biggest psychological barriers are memories and emotional experiences that lay quite often unconscious without extensive therapy. There is a lot of unconscious mapping of what it is to be a child in a family. We all grow up imprinted with particular dynamics that we’ve experienced by being fathered and mothered by our own parents, or not fathered and mothered in some cases.

These imprints are comprised of absences, wounds, and even just particular norms and values that are imbued unconsciously. Men don’t think about that unless they’ve already experienced significant suffering before children come.

So, these unconscious dynamics inevitably come into play in the relationship with the partner and the child. Some of the things that might not have previously come up in the intimate primary relationship- tensions, conflicts, anxieties- will start to surface and put pressure on fathers. These new pressures are uncomfortable and even emotionally painful. As humans, we all try to minimize pain­ and build defenses to reduce our experience of pain, but these defenses block our ability to be fully present for our families.

Because our children are our mirrors, I truly believe that their job is to push their parents’ buttons so the parent can grow into the parent that the child needs. The parent can then give what they themselves didn’t receive as a child.

Quite often, a prior generation father-son dynamic will come more directly into play when a new father has his first son, and there will often be some projecting onto the child and the relationship. The father doesn’t want to repeat the unhealthy dynamic, and there can be anxiety that the father doesn’t want to repeat history.

All of these factors contribute to the pressure of new fatherhood, and the struggle to be present. For men, this struggle can often take the form of avoidance of family time, or overextension in work, or sometimes it can take the form of aggression, depression or anxiety. It all comes back to unresolved childhood conflicts and the defenses against those conflicts that exert more pressure when a child comes- there’s just not as much room in the family for the their needs.

Also, the change in the dynamic between the parents, particularly receiving less attention from the partner, can bring up all sorts of different feelings. It’s important for the father to be able to speak openly with his partner about the changing relationship in a non-blaming, non-judgmental way. Ideally, the father is given room to speak about his own experience without receiving judgment from his partner. Hopefully the partner won’t feel blamed, and that channel between the partners can remain open, which frees up energy to take care of the child and protect the parents’ relationship with one another.

Along with individual counseling, I also work with couples that are going through this transition. Couples’ therapy is a great space designated for the couple to maintain connection and feed the relationship because it inherently goes under strain. We are not taught how to communicate like this culturally and we do not organically have the time- there are so many distractions, so many pressures. So, making the time, scheduling it into your week is tremendously important. Ideally, you go to therapy both individually and as a couple. When you set apart the time, it’s an investment that will pay off in terms of how much you enjoy your relationship and your child. And while it does take the investment of time, every step is celebratory. Every chance you have to reconnect provides energy that can bring more enjoyment and creativity.

We discussed prenatal and postpartum sexuality in our last two newsletters, and the feedback was overwhelming. In this busy, distracting world, it’s no surprise that there are many couples feeling sexually unfulfilled after having children.  How does this lack of presence impact the intimate relationship between a man and his partner?

Ben: A mentor once told me that the number one thing that maintains sustained sexual passion in a long-term relationship is being present with the other person. So, if that’s true, a father’s declined presence and defensive reaction to the stresses of a relationship are going to make it harder for him to tap into his desire.

If you think of things in an energetic flow sense, presence enables a flow of energy, particularly desire and sexual energy. So, when something gets evoked internally- a conflict, certain wounds- there is a defense against that. This defense is going to cut off the flow of energy, the openness, the desire, all sorts of things.

The second level of this lack of desire is that for some men, seeing their female partner give birth to a child can bring into conflict their view of their wife as a certain kind of sexual object. It can go into deeper things like their view of their own mother, for instance. There may be some integrating work to do around how they’ve been attracted to or turned on by women prior to parenthood, resulting in a widening of how they currently see women. If they can dedicate themselves to that kind of work it can actually make sex a lot more fulfilling.

And then there are the feelings that come up when you’re not being attended to in the ways you have been before parenthood. Many mothers, particularly mothers who are nursing, are understandably drained. The mother is the primary caretaker early on, and there’s kind of a developmental necessity for one parent to be a primary for attachment at that time, and that’s going to affect how some men feel. It can bring up certain feelings of abßandonment, resentment, anger, hurt, fear, anxiety, all kinds of things. Many of those things just squash passion, particularly resentment.

There’s also a societal aspect, this conscious story that’s told to us that long-term monogamy is a passion killer, and that becoming a parent is unsexy. These themes reinforce themselves because there are so many cultural reminders. But I am convinced, I know that if there is enough work and investment in the primary relationship there can be a whole other layer of passion that comes from discovering your partner in a new way. Men think they know their partners after a few years, but that’s (a) not true, providing a false sense of security and (b) it’s a passion killer!

We have to get to know each other in a new set of ways, which can be hard with the introduction of a new child. Parenthood is a great opportunity to see the other person in a new light, discovering new aspects of a partner can generate more curiosity and passion as the father discovers things about himself through parenting.

How can we help our male partners, and even our male friends, through this confronting transition?

Ben: This taps back into the cultural reality that men are not supposed to have certain feelings and shouldn’t express feelings. Different men respond differently to varying approaches. One of the keys to supporting men through this time is compassion and understanding, not pushing but providing an opportunity for conversation. Hold compassion for men and what they’re going through. Know that there is a reason why they may not be opening up about their emotional experience.

Sometimes compassion is just something you do internally where you just have empathy for another person’s suffering. Sometimes it’s more action oriented, like “Hey man, you need to get help”, or “Hey, I’m sorry you’re going through it.” Sometimes you do have to be more direct about it, because it can have an impact on the family when one person is struggling. In these cases, find somewhere a man can feel safe, understood, and met, like a therapist versed in the psychology of fatherhood.

In a more direct approach, you may need to say something like, “It’s OK that you don’t want to open up to me, but you can enjoy this a lot more and find relief from this suffering if you find someone to talk to about this, someone who understands and can help you understand this process.” Then you refer the man to a professional or to a support group.

Be sensitive to the man’s communication needs; some men need a more direct approach to suggestion, while others may need a softer approach.


Ben Ringler, MFT

Ben Ringler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, with a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from California Institute for Integral Studies. He is also a Certified Hakomi Therapist, a psychotherapeutic approach that combines Buddhist principles and mind-body awareness.

Ben is passionate about this work and holds the position of psychotherapist with respect and and humility, particularly because he knows how challenging and vulnerable it is to seek therapy. In my work with clients, he pulls from a variety of practices in order to bring a balance of attention between mind and body so that I am able to listen attentively.

Sex After Kids: Talking Postpartum Sex with Midwife Leopi Sanderson-Edmunds

Sex After Kids: Talking Postpartum Sex with Midwife Leopi Sanderson-Edmunds

Leopi, what do we need to know about the postpartum period that will help us understand the libido after baby?

Perhaps the most important thing to learn about postpartum sex is the role hormones continue to play in the postpartum physical experience. The breastfeeding hormone prolactin will reduce a woman’s libido, and even make her mucosal membranes dryer, including her vagina, which makes sex uncomfortable without adding lubrication.

For people who are highly sexual, the shift can be quite a shock, but know that it’s normal! It’s very rare that someone is highly sexual when they are postpartum and breastfeeding. The shift is so dramatic that it can be scary for a woman if she really identified with her sexuality prior to pregnancy. She can feel really lost without that natural desire. She can feel numb.

How does this new physical reality impact the relationship dynamic?

It’s so important that both partners are totally aware of the hormone shift involved with breastfeeding, and the physical impact of those hormones. Don’t feel threatened by these changes, or insecure, it’s a necessary process that will change again when breastfeeding ends.

Partners often feel like the new mama doesn’t love them as much as before she gave birth, and that she’s spending all her time with the baby. Meanwhile, the mother starts to feel unsure of herself because she’s always rejecting her partner since she doesn’t feel affectionate or sexual. The hardest part of the postpartum process is not knowing how to talk about all the changes in the core relationship, how to express these emotional and physical feelings.

Your doctor will almost always say that after six weeks, or sooner, you can resume sex if you’re not bleeding. That’s the typical expectation: at six weeks we’re going to get back to it! I’m going to have my body back and we’re going to be so in love, and now our little baby is here! But this high expectation that there’s going to be normal sex happening again soon after birth, especially on the part of the person who didn’t birth the baby, is often met with disappointment. Lo and behold, most people get to six weeks, and sex is just not happening the way they anticipated.

For the mother there is a sense that the six week healing “deadline” is approaching, and she’s like, “oh my gosh, we’re going to start having SEX?! I’m not ready!”  Her body is being held onto and touched constantly by the baby. She’s tired, but it’s also the prolactin hormone that’s driving her brain and body to be focused on this little baby, and not her own desires or the desires of her partner. From another perspective, the perspective of evolution, it’s actually kind of perfect!

Both parents are going to be exhausted, and the partner also might not always feel like being sexual. Heterosexual couples live with the reality that the male partner has testosterone and still has a sex drive, that didn’t go away with the birth of their baby. So, here we have two partners, one with testosterone who is desiring sex, and one with prolactin who does not desire sex- it’s not a personal thing, it’s very important to understand that it’s purely hormonal. This does not exclude same-sex couples from a similar conundrum: one partner does not have prolactin, and is desiring affection and sex, while the other does have prolactin, and isn’t in the mood.

Most mothers are feeling more love than ever for their partners after birth, they’ve just had this child together. She’s hopefully feeling safe and protected by her partner, even though there are totally new dimensions of each other that they’ve never experienced before. This newness in the dynamics of the relationship can be really tricky to navigate.

The mother is so tremendously devoted to the new baby, and the partner can easily become threatened by this bond that is growing outside of his relationship with the mother. It can be disorienting, both emotionally and physically, due to exhaustion. Hard nights and tough feelings can mean that sometimes a couple just needs to look away from each other for a time, and go through their huge growth curve as human beings; there is a lot happening for each of them.

How can couples work together to maintain intimacy during the postpartum phase?

Women need to stay connected to their sexual selves. Enjoy your beautiful body that’s just given birth, your full breasts that aren’t sexual for the time being, but they are feminine and life-giving. Let your romantic and sensual understanding of what you’ve just achieved with your body take the place of sexual desire. I remember feeling extremely romantic and sexy, I just did not feel sexual, and that’s a big distinction.

It’s important for her partner to look at her, not just at what she’s doing, like a cow milking all day. She needs to feel attractive to her partner. Her partner is responsible for continually reminding her how beautiful she is with words and welcome touch that can be sensual rather than sexual, like kisses on her neck, or pulling her in close for a meaningful kiss, things that make her feel desired as a woman, not a caregiver.

It’s hard work being touched all day by a little being, and sometimes a partner’s touch isn’t the thing that will bring her back into her own body. Sometimes it’s some form of body therapy like massage where there is no reciprocity expected, where you can just go within, de-stress and fine tune, and listen to the details of what you need, and then you feel sexier. Also, having really high quality, delicious, medicinal food and eating enough every day is great for the libido.

Maybe most importantly, both partners need to have some explicit agreements in the new paradigm of postpartum sexuality. For instance, “We will be sexual and affectionate regularly without the expectation of sex every time we reach out.” It’s OK for the mother to stipulate, “I just want to be held by you, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to try moving this into sex every time, because then I’m going to stop reaching out to you. I don’t want to reject you, I hate having to reject you.”

This typical approach-rejection back and forth around postpartum sex sets up a terrible dynamic of isolation from one another. It’s so sad to see this happen, derived solely from the confusing postpartum hormones and exhaustion. It’s so much easier to avoid the isolation if there is open discussion of what’s going to happen postpartum, and agreements made about behavior and communication before it’s an issue.

These agreements can include something like a cue: “When I really want sex, I’m going to give you this sign, and then you’ll know that we’re in that zone.” Which I know sounds silly, but the closeness and the sensuality and the affection and the friendship and the humor are so much sexier than sex to a woman in the first 3-5 months. When a partner changes diapers, makes dinner, wakes up early with the baby so mom can sleep, when he washes the dishes and puts everything away and makes the kitchen beautiful, these are things that are sexy to a woman in this phase.

I know that sounds really dumb, and housewifey, but it actually makes a lot of sense! She needs to feel taken care of, she doesn’t need to feel like just a big mama, always bossing people around or organizing people. And she definitely doesn’t want to be a nag; that feels so unsexy. She wants to feel like she’s being heard and that she’s really respected and appreciated for the hard work that she does all day and all night with her baby, that’s really sexy.

The body does change postpartum, particularly with the breastfeeding hormones. It’s fair to assume that the first few times will be a little awkward, because mom’s like, “Whoa! I can’t believe I had a baby through my vagina!” So let’s assume the first 3-6 weeks you can enjoy sexy touching, kissing and foreplay. This type of sensual interaction can be really lovely for a women who has just give birth and wants to feel like her partner really wants her, really loves her and her body.

When it’s safe to have intercourse, which is usually around 6-8 weeks depending on the birth, mama will be dry due to the prolactin hormone. Use a lot of lube! Many women think it’s because they had stitches, or are damaged from the birth, but this is rarely the case. Often it starts as real fear, then the awkwardness around sex sets in through the repeated attempt and rejection, then it becomes a kind of excuse: “It hurts too much, I can’t do it”, when really it’s just uncomfortable interpersonally more than anything.

Once you start actually having sex, you’re going to realize how good it is for your own body and mind, and for your relationship. At first many women resist sex because it’s really confronting. It’s hard to commit to working with your new body, and with your partner, to overcome what feels like an insurmountable task: rebuilding your sexuality after birth. As a postpartum mom, frankly, it’s such a beautiful, compassionate gift to give your partner sex and in a loving way, because they need it! They really do! If you are able to give your partner sex with joy and lovingness, you will probably end up realizing how much you needed it too.

Do you have any do’s and don’ts for this sensitive time?

DON’T GO FOR THE BREASTS. Just don’t go for the breasts. That is such a turn off for nearly all postpartum moms. Their breasts are being touched and sucked all day, in a non-sexual way, and that’s what they exist for in this time and space. But of course, they’re so beautiful and round and full, they’re very attractive, of course the partner wants to enjoy them! But no, just don’t.  So, where can the partner touch a new mother’s body? Down the spine, the butt, the legs, anywhere the baby hasn’t been touching all day. Rediscover erotic zones besides the breasts and vagina.

DON’T COMPARE PRE-KIDS SEX TO POST-KIDS SEX. Before, there was time, you could just linger. But now, you might just have a quickie, or some foreplay, and then get interrupted by the baby or the kids, and then get into it again later. Sometimes you get into it just enough to get turned on, and then you just have to enjoy that feeling until you can get back into it, and that’s ok! Even if you were turned on and you guys didn’t have your orgasms, it’s so deeply beneficial to turn up that sexual dial again. It’s a great beginning!

BE FLUID AND HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR. Laugh about how long or short the sexual interaction is, or when you’re interrupted by the baby crying, or when your milk starts leaking mid-sex. This postpartum phase is precisely why I suggest working on your communication early, before birth, so you can flow through this new territory comfortably, because it’s tricky!

EXPRESS YOURSELF. I can’t tell you how many of my mom clients have told me that they are so sick of their partners wanting sex when they’re just exhausted; maybe they’ve been up with the baby all night, it’s 11 am and she hasn’t even gotten any breakfast yet, and her partner is awake and has some free energy and wants to have sex. Resentment easily builds when these two people are living in such different worlds together. The mother needs to feel comfortable explaining her needs instead of repressing it all, hiding her feelings, and possibly becoming depressed.

How do you commonly see couples sabotaging their sex lives after kids?

Physicality, whether it’s sensual, sexual or affectionate, is necessary for both parents’ health and wellbeing. I’ve seen modern parenting evolve so that the baby is getting all of the affectionate love, leaving little between the couple, and this is unbalanced. Parents can sabotage their sexuality and their relationship by over-parenting.

We all read so many books about parenting, but how many books do we read about healthy sexuality or a happy marriage? It’s all about being this ultra-perfect mother and father, and that’s really what we become, this ultra-mother and ultra-father. In this process, we lose a little bit of our identities with the parts that we were initially attracted to.

Be mindful when you are choosing your parenting philosophy; are you making room for your primary relationship? Attachment parenting, the family bed, prolonged breastfeeding, these are great philosophies in theory and sometimes in practice. But, a couple really needs to be educated on the postpartum hormones and make informed decisions about their parenting style with a full understanding of how it may impact their relationship. I actually think that in a lot of ways, the relationship is the primary concern, and the baby secondary, because the baby really needs the couple to be happy and connected and in love and close to one another.

So, really assess what you need as a couple to foster your intimacy. Do you need to get the baby to bed by 7:30 so you can have evenings together for adult conversation? Are you able to sleep in the same bed even with the pressures of night-feeding? Can you make it a goal to be in bed together, touching one another, not with pajamas on but skin-to-skin?

It’s OK to have boundaries with your parenting and with your children in a loving way. It’s a wonderful thing for a child to see that their parents’ relationship is important; there should be no guilt about that. It’s so positive for the child to see that the parents matter as much to each other as the child matters to them.

There is so much guilt around parenting right now: the pressure of perfectionism, all the books, the intellectual inundation. My blanket advice is to be in your body and in your heart. Say “no” when you want to say “no”, you don’t always have to explain everything. If you’re an affectionate, loving mother, then you can say “no” at any time without any guilt.

Leopi, you are the sexiest woman I’ve ever met, please tell us your sexy ways; we need your help!

I’ve always loved to decorate myself in some way, I love to take care of my body, to be in my body. I love being sensual and having beauty around me. I indulge in creating a peaceful space filled with symbols of beauty that help my heart and soul. 

I love giving myself treats like body care therapies and occasional nice meals out. I actually love taking myself out to dinner and being served, especially when my kids were younger. I love to sit in a beautiful restaurant, daydream, eat slowly, and observe people.

I suggest you also indulge yourself when eating at home. Have your treats, a little pot or wine or a mixed drink, of course not too much. We need to have our treats, we are women, we need to enjoy relaxing. Eating your chocolates, along with your healthy diet.

Lingerie! I come and go with that, but after birth, and especially while nursing, having some lingerie that’s fit perfectly to your new body, even if it’s under your clothes and you don’t show it to anyone, it’s a beautiful feeling.

Decorate yourself! Wear some beautiful earrings, get your nails done, fine-tune the things you enjoy and treat yourself. I like having liquid eyeliner on, lotions and oils on my skin.

Nurture your relationships with adults other than your partner. Invest in a variety of  relationships that reflect all of your essential things in life.

MEET LEOPI SANDERSON-EDMUNDS 

Leopi has been a licensed home-birth midwife since 1985, supervising and caring for over 1300 families. In addition to her midwifery practice, she offers care for prenatal and non-natal clients through orthobionomy, a slow and beautiful form of bodywork focusing on bone and soft tissue alignment. Unique in her field, Leopi offers prenatal counseling for women and couples to reach a deeper experience of pregnancy, and birth, no matter where and with whom they are birthing. Leopi also has a BA in Art Therapy and creates phenomenal masterpieces of figure painting. Leopi can be reached via the web at Sanctuary Leopi.

Toddler, Much? An interview with Dr. Jill Sulka, PsyD

Jill, as a mother of two and a psychologist specializing in 0 to 8 years old, you are uniquely qualified to give your opinion on toddler matters. In your personal and professional experience, what is the most difficult aspect of parenting a toddler?


Perhaps the most difficult part of toddler parenting is keeping your own emotions in check. It’s so easy to become frustrated with a toddler who wants to do more and say more than they are capable of developmentally, and losing your cool will only fuel a tantrum.

Toddlers are coming into a newfound sense of themselves as differentiated from their parents. In this crucial phase of development, toddlers are navigating their emerging autonomy while needing the security of their relationship with their parents. When toddlers come up against their own limits and the limits of their parents, frustration and disappointment can be overwhelming and seem very out of proportion to the situation.  While this sometimes intense phase can feel like a train gone off the rails, your toddler is tackling essential and normal developmental tasks. 

As a mother of twins, I have certainly fallen into the traps of a frustrated parent. One of my twins has the temperament of what we commonly call an “easy baby”, and even as a toddler this child’s feelings didn't lead to an extended loss of control.   He easily accepted the comfort and assistance I offered, the ups and the downs weren’t so extreme, and all of my professional and personal parenting strategies worked. These interactions were gratifying and rewarding.

With my other twin, the same strategies  didn’t result in the same outcomes. This twin, constitutionally, came into the world much more fiery and intense. It gave me the opportunity to feel the humility of learning to navigate that relationship and our fit.

All children bring their different and unique selves, and self-blame is such an easy trap to fall into as a parent. When you compare yourself to others, it's impossible to win. As a professional, observing the number of children I have in my career, I can assure you that there is so much variation in what babies and toddlers bring to the relationship. It’s about meeting your children where they’re at and knowing that they’re all going to be different, and what you need to do to meet the specific needs of your child and your relationship with them may look different than how another parent learns to be best respond to their unique child.

 


Ah yes, parental judgment, my favorite aspect of the job. That’s such a brutal one, because you can be judged by others, sure, but the judgment you place on yourself follows you home.


Exactly! I believe so strongly in compassion for ourselves. We are all going to be thrown by what our children present us, so it’s about having compassion when we fail over and over again. "Success" is weathering the storm as you show up in the best way that you can. It’s about striving towards how we want to be in our best selves as a parent, to each unique child.  That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want to reach out for help to learn more effective ways to parent and to manage your own triggers that come up, but be easy on yourself in your self-judgment as you strive to learn more about your child and yourself as a parent.

The act of parenting is your opportunity to learn who you are in this evolving role and even to revisit your earlier history from a different perspective.   Your worth as a parent is not  dependent on what others think; know that kids are different, and it’s very easy for others to judge what they haven’t personally experienced.

Remember that your role as a toddler’s parent is to do your best to assist your child to calm down, to manage their big, irrational feelings and eventually those experiences of help in managing their feelings will result in the child developing the capacity to soothe themselves. As a part of healthy development, toddlers do need to push their emotions and your limits to the very edge sometimes, and just being present to help them calm down is doing the necessary work.

When dealing with a tantrumming  child, remember that the tantrum will end, and that your value as a parent is not determined by whether or not your child throws a tantrum and for how long.  You can neither reason with your child toddler about their upset, nor force the tantrum to end. No matter how “perfect” you are as a parent, your toddler will still have tantrums; stopping them isn’t the goal, staying emotionally connected with them  through their ups and downs, while calming yourself, is. In fact, tantrums are normal and important work for toddlers.

Important life lessons about emotions and relationships come out of a tantrum:

  • Big feelings are survivable;
  • Feelings shift and change;
  • Their parent is still there, a real separate person who didn’t fall apart or retaliate.
  • Relationships can recover from hardship, their parent still loves them.

 

 

Know that after the toddler years, your child will have more capacity for reason, for being rational and for being socially and emotionally available in a different way. This phase does not last forever.

We all make “mistakes,” we all overreact at one time or another. Always remember that there is power in repairing the relationship with your child when you haven’t succeeded the first time (or the 10th time);  it teaches your child that big emotions are survivable and that the love remains intact even when we have a disruption in our connection. 
 

Acknowledging that every family is unique, what are some common ways you observe parents contributing to the sometimes brutal frustration of toddlerdom?

Trying to control the toddler’s behavior in order to manage your own emotions.

When your emotional state is dependent on how the child is behaving, that is often how power struggles begin. If you feel the emotional pressure building inside of you because of what your toddler is doing, it’s easy to become more insistent and controlling of your toddler in an effort to shift your own feelings and reactivity. When you are feeling upset, frustrated, saddened or angry, notice your reaction, take care of it separately, independent of what the toddler does. 

Taking responsibility to manage your own feelings and not take your child’s oppositionality personally is a primary part of parenting during this period, especially because toddlers have embraced the experience of saying the word “no” as a way to experience their newly emerging personhood, as an individual separate from other people, testing out how their world and relationships work and hoping to find it predictable.   While it may be greatly frustrating for you, your toddler is doing something utterly necessary for their growth as a human being, and it has nothing to do with good or bad behavior. And it has nothing to do with disrespect.

In the December 2015 newsletter you explained that “time-out” is counterproductive for most children. Can you please explain briefly what time-out does to the child mind at 18 months to 4 years of age?
 

Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment as the answer. Alternatively, thinking of your child as struggling to manage something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.
Even if we were to consider the merits of time-out  as a productive form of discipline, it would not ever be valuable for a child younger than 3.5 because the parts of their brain that are necessary to make any use of something like that are not yet developed. A toddler is not yet able to go sit and think about what they did, that is not part of their capability  and is not be part of the experience of being a toddler.

In general, connection with their important adults is the primary thing that helps toddlers calm down. Being forced to separate from their parents and to be alone can have the opposite effect, children become even more distressed and dysregulated.

So, in addition to whatever the original disappointment or frustration was, they now have to manage the disruption in the emotional relationship with the parent. Consequently, they can become so overwhelmed with that disruption in the relationship, that the likelihood of learning from the experience decreases dramatically. Now they are distressed by being isolated, but they are not aware of the cause.
 

Are you saying that toddlers are not yet capable of understanding consequence? 


Often parents will designate consequences that have no relationship to what was going on with the child. The closer the consequences are to what actually happened, what we might call “natural” consequences, the more likely a child will make a connection between the consequence and the behavior. Then, the child doesn’t view the consequence as punishment, but part of a natural sequence of events spurred by the problematic behavior. The child then learns that there are rules, and that they can expect that the rules will be upheld, as opposed to learning that they are “bad”.

For example, your child is throwing a shoe in the house, and this is against your house rules. Firstly, say a few times,  “We don’t throw shoes in the house because they are hard and can break something.” Then offer the toddler an acceptable object to throw (i.e. a little foam ball or a small stuffed animal), and simply say, “The shoe is going away”, and take the shoe away. Do not allow the shoe to be part of the equation any longer, as opposed to saying, “Now go on timeout!” or “No dessert tonight!” which is entirely unrelated in time and in associative connection to what actually happened. The timeout or the withheld dessert are independent of throwing the shoe, and this type of punishment undermines the learning of why the shoe was taken away because the consequence is not meaningful to the toddler mind. 

Your child’s job is to be a scientist in the world--they need to push limits in order to understand the boundaries of the world. They will test the hypothesis that things will or won’t respond as they expect over and over again and this includes testing their social relationships. This is how the child learns that they are secure, that their relationships are lasting and strong. They are going to push and push and push against the limit in order to understand what the world is, and that it won’t be destroyed, and that they won’t be destroyed, . They will actually feel safer after pushing a limit and having it enforced in a way that is meaningful to the toddler mind.

 

It would be tremendously helpful to have some toddler parenting guidelines both for self-management and for child-management, please give us a shortlist of parenting tips.
 

I know it’s popular to publish clear “Do’s and Don’ts” on parenting, but I so strongly believe in compassion for ourselves, that I have a problem with this style of education. Here are some basic guidelines to help you through the toddler years; let’s call them “Try to’s” and “Try not to’s:”


Try to…

  • Find your calm. Your own managing of your own feelings in the moment is the number one thing that is going to be helpful. When you have stress hormones coursing through you, it has an effect on the stress hormones coursing through your child. Remember, you are needed as the secure base that anchors your child’s world, and if you collapse or get angry or hurtful back, your child’s anxiety—even devastation--about the rupture between you intensifies their distress and out of control behavior.
  • Validate your child’s feelings. Even when we’re ignoring the behavior, we don’t ignore the child. We speak to the distress, “You really wanted the purple cup, and it’s not here, it’s so disappointing.”
  • Give your child the words to express what they’re feeling. “I think you’re feeling really mad and you can say ‘I’m mad.’” That’s how they are going to learn to express themselves through words instead of through their bodies.
  • Give your child reasonable choices. “The purple spoon isn’t here, so would you like the red spoon or the yellow spoon?” 
  • Offer physical comfort. The child may not be able to verbally express that they need comfort in the form of affection.
  • Express reassurance. After the tantrum, reassure your child that you love them, that the relationship will be ok.

Try not to…

  • Think of your toddler’s tantrum as misbehavior or disrespect.
  • Reason or argue with your toddler. Logic will not work, a toddler is not capable of logical reasoning, even if they are verbal, so we often forget this and then feel manipulated, or compelled to negotiate. 
  • Give your child false choices: “Would you like to use the red spoon or go buy the purple spoon”, if you don’t intend to fulfill the promise.
  • Punish your toddler for their out of control feelings. Try not to yell, scream or scold the child. Don’t put them by themselves and expect them to manage their distress on their own. Try to remain connected to your toddler through the tantrum: they are needing your support while they navigate their own intense feelings.
      **Exception: If your own stress leads you to feel like you are no longer effective in the interaction with your child, if you aren’t able to calm down by remaining with your child or if you feel you might harm your child, put your child in a safe place, tell your child that you are going to calm down and that you’re going to come back,, then go take of yourself so you can come back and be more helpful to your child.
  • Don’t collapse or retaliate. Don’t be so scared of the toddler’s feelings or behavior that you are willing to do anything to appease them, that shows the child that their feelings are more powerful than anything else, more powerful than you are. Don’t retaliate by getting angry and returning their aggressive or destructive behavior. For example, by hitting them if they hit you, or an older children will often say “I don’t love you” or “I hate you” and it is only destructive to say it back to them.

MEET JILL SULKA

Jill Sulka, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who specializes in infant and early childhood mental health. She provides parent consultation, infant-parent and child-parent psychotherapy, and child play therapy in her office and at home, depending on the needs of the family. Dr. Sulka has been providing psychological services for 20 years, and has directed several programs for parents and their children birth to 8 years old. She believes that every child and parent deserve the opportunity to develop a relationship together that best supports that child’s potential to grow well and love well. Jill regularly contributes to the Glow newsletter and her articles can be found in the Parenting section of our Resources page. She can be reached at (510) 326-2002 and jillsulka@gmail.com.

Your Heart is Depleted.

My lovely baby girl is 18-months-old today.

Around her first birthday, I started managing crippling abdominal pain. The pain stops me in my tracks and wakes me in the middle of the night. Causes me to double over, grimacing and sweating while I wait in line at the grocery store; somehow still managing to dangle something – anything -- in front of my daughter’s face to keep her content for Just. Five. More. Minutes. Yet another attempt to stave off the piercing scream that marked her entry into this world and continues to sound out throughout each day to signal hunger, sleepiness, boredom, displeasure, disapproval…

My soul was not prepared to withstand the overwhelming amount of adoration and responsibility that accompanied my daughter's birth. I remain unstable. Many days I’m convinced that I will feel this way for the rest of my life. I often marvel at the fact that we are only at the very beginning of this journey together. Down the road remains teaching her how to ride a bike, helping her with math homework (ahem, learning how to do math), and holding her close when someone breaks her heart. Once you enter motherhood you can’t turn back. We are forced to evolve at someone else’s pace and keep up, keep up, keep up.

And I want to be the best. Mostly because I want her to be the happiest, healthiest person that ever was. Also, selfishly, I want her to love me as much as I love her.

But I digress -- back to the stomach pain. For months I’ve endured this pain. Most days I thought it would go away on its own. Some days I thought it was a sign of a heart attack. At some point, I think I just accepted that living with chronic pain was my new reality.

The truth is that between keeping a relatively new job, keeping a relatively neat home, keeping my husband relatively happy, toddler giggles, first steps, “Goodnight Moon,” changing diapers, changing clothes, filling bottles, cleaning the cat litter, feeding the dog, “Twinkle, Twinkle,” Doc McStuffins, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and “MOMMY!,”I just didn’t have time to figure out what was happening to me. There were never enough hours in the day to genuinely check “Take care of me” off of my to-do list.

My body showed evidence of this, too. Post the initial breastfeeding weight loss, I’d put on some weight. I ate whatever was nearby without thinking. My grad school days of eating only raw food, cognizant of the intentionality of food consumption as fuel for my body, soul, and mind, were long gone.

Then one day I sat in a meeting, pain searing through my stomach to my back and radiating down both sides of my ribcage. The room was fuzzy. I couldn’t focus on my colleague’s words. I could only focus on taking shallow breaths and contorting my body in just the right way to make it through this flare-up. I was finally fed up. I made my first appointment with my doctor.

As of today, I’ve had several appointments with specialists, including the one where they stick a camera down your throat. Nothing has been named. No plan for healing identified. No relief in sight. The ‘diagnosis’ does not ring true with my experience. I called my gastroenterologist the day after that procedure, failing to hide my lack of faith in his opinion, “This is not acid reflux. I was pregnant about a year ago. I know acid reflux intimately.”  

A month ago, I started seeing a Chinese Medicine practitioner. She is convinced that the pain is related to food sensitivities and digestive disturbances, and I’m inclined to believe her. After some changes in my diet and the addition of some digestive herbs, I feel better. I’m not 100%, or even 85%, but I feel better. 

During our second meeting, she did fire work over my body as she walked me through a guided meditation. This was the start of the shift to less pain. I felt at peace. As she closed the session, she shared what she’d learned about me that day. Four words rolled off of her tongue that will stick with me for the rest of my life, “Your heart is depleted”.

Having met the love of my life just a year or so prior, I could not fathom that this was true. My heart had never felt more full. The rewards of motherhood outweighed the pains every day -- not every moment, but definitely every day. She continued to tell me that I needed to find time to connect with other grown-ups – to laugh, to dance, to escape the to-do list.

I’d been so wrapped-up in giving all of me to my family, to my daughter, that I’d opted to endure a life full of pain just to keep doing it for her. My healer went on to explain that in the end, that choice would only be hurting my little girl as she would get a lesser version of her mother. I’m certain I’d heard this once or twice before, but it's so easy to get sucked in without even realizing it.

This time the light bulb went off. To help create the happiest, healthiest person ever, and even to achieve the impossible of having her love me as much as I love her, I have to make time for self-care. And, every once in a while, I have to attempt to define my health and happiness as separate from hers. I imagine this will be something I will have to remind myself of often.

The spa day is scheduled. I’ll keep you posted.

RESOURCES 

Get yourself some bliss:

ACUPUNCTURE | Cara Brockbank’s Temescal practice combines classic acupuncture with divine aromatherapy, set in a charming craftsman cottage.

TAROT | Are you having trouble tapping into your gut feelings? This is your remedy. Laura Zuspan’s tarot readings are just the dose of reality you need, with a sprinkle of magic on top. Laura pulls from her beloved tarot deck and offers grounded, pertinent observations without judgment.

INDIAN SPRINGS | Located in Calistoga, this resort and spa is the perfect day trip to fit between daycare drop-off and pick-up. Our favorite treat is the mud bath and mineral pool combo.

GLOW POSTPARTUM DOULA CARE | Email us to find out more about our postpartum doula services which include a suite of wellness therapies tailored for your experience. 


MEET IMAN MILLS GORDON

Iman is an independent consultant living in Oakland, CA with her husband and their daughter, Lena. With the support of her family, Iman continues to actively pursue her ultimate balance.

Iman Mills Gordon

Toddlers and Time-Out

Many parents grapple with the challenging behaviors of their babies, toddlers, and preschool-aged children and wonder: Can a young child manipulate or be naughty? What does child discipline look like for babies and young children?

These are important questions, as the meanings that we attribute to our children’s behavior affects how we feel and respond. Seeing our children’s behavior as manipulative or bad sets us up to respond in harsh or punitive ways that worsen rather than calm the situation. It’s essential that parents’ expectations for their young children, and the interpretations they make of their children’s motivations, be informed by an understanding of what is normal for each age and developmental stage. Interactions that seem driven by purposeful mal-intent are often creative strategies central to your child’s developmental milestones. When my son was almost one, he started to drop his food off his high chair, watching what would happen to the food and also closely observing my response. While it would have been easy to interpret what he was doing as manipulative or naughty, I came to understand that he, like all young children, was investigating cause and effect. In this situation, he was discovering gravity and he was also fascinated to see how his actions impacted me, whether it led to my frustration at his refusal to stop or to my delight in the game he was inviting me to play by picking up the food he dropped.

We come into the world as little scientists. From infancy, children are driven to explore and investigate all facets of their world, including exploring the full range of emotions in themselves and in others, the most compelling of which are those of their parents, or other primary caregivers. An astonishing number of neural (nerve cell) connections in your baby’s brain are made each minute in response to their interactions with you, and from numerous, similar, repeated experiences over time, those connections are laid down as established neural pathways. As I discussed in the October and November newsletters, your baby’s relationship with you will be the central thing that organizes their experience of their world for the first six years of their life.

Young children are driven by emotion, not logic. They have very little self-control and are dependent on you to help them learn to manage their intense emotions and communicate in acceptable ways. These skills take years to evolve, so don’t blame yourself or your child when you find yourself helping your child manage their great disappointment for the thousandth time in response to a limit. 

Time In vs. Time Out

The purpose of child discipline is to assist children to regulate their emotions, increase their control over their behavior, and learn acceptable ways of communicating over time within a developmentally meaningful framework.

Limits make children feel safe and secure. When your child tests the limits, your kind, firm and consistent responses help provide a predictable world where your child knows what they can expect.

Children between birth and age three are not developmentally capable of making use of “time out” as a discipline strategy. Even after age 3, time out is of questionable usefulness before age six, and even then is not ideal as a primary strategy for changing problematic behavior. Young children need physical proximity and emotional connection in order to calm down after dysregulation and to learn new ways of interacting. If a young child is overwhelmed or distressed, physical and emotional separation in the form of time out will increase the child’s anxiety and fear and escalate the situation. The best use of time outs is when parents themselves need some time to get calm enough to reconnect with their child. Instead of time outs, try a “time-in”. “Time-ins” involve a break in the current situation, usually by removing the child in order to manage feelings and calming down with parent/caregiver assistance. When calm enough, the parent addresses the issue and assists the child in a reparative act if relevant. Time-ins build capacities for emotion regulation and self-control, both vital lifelong skills. This alternative to a “time-out” can allow your child to make use of your help calming down, and when calm enough, to address what happened in order to learn new ways of being.

BASIC TIPS

  • Manage your own feelings so that you are calm enough to help your child. Strive to maintain control over your response to your child’s actions.
  • Set the limit and keep it short and sweet: “We don’t throw plates. It’s not safe.”
  • With empathy, validate your child’s feeling: “I see you’re really disappointed that your sister is using the yellow plate."
  • Provide simple choices: “Would you like to us the red plate or the purple plate?”

Every parent deserves the support and help they need to have the best possible relationship with their child. For some, consulting with a therapist specifically trained in infant mental health or early childhood mental health can be of great benefit.


MEET JILL SULKA

Jill Sulka, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who specializes in infant and early childhood mental health. She provides parent consultation, infant-parent and child-parent psychotherapy, and child play therapy in her office and at home, depending on the needs of the family. Dr. Sulka has been providing psychological services for 20 years, and has directed several programs for parents and their children birth to 8 years old.She believes that every child and parent deserve the opportunity to develop a relationship together that best supports that child’s potential to grow well and love well. She can be reached at (510) 326-2002 and jillsulka@gmail.com.

Infant Mental Health

From birth to age 6, your child’s relationship with you is the central organizing experience of their life. From the beginning, your baby is a person with feelings, thoughts, and a meaningful inner life who is developing a sense of themselves, others, and the world through their relationship with you.

Babies are extremely attentive and sensitive to the feelings, facial expressions, and mental state of the adults to whom they’re close, and they depend on back and forth responsive communication to feel calm and secure.

Understanding the mind of your baby or child, and the meaning of their signals and behavior as they seek to understand yours, is a key part of the parenting experience. However, it is not uncommon for parents to find it challenging to attune to their baby or young child, especially with babies that have difficult temperaments.

When stressful things happen in your child’s life, it’s their relationship with you as their attachment figure that will help them manage their feelings and make sense of their world.

The more safe and secure your young child feels in their relationship with you, the more they will turn to you for help when in trouble when they’re older. With this foundational security, they will have a higher sense of self-worth, know that most problems have an answer, solve problems on their own, know how to be kind, and trust that good things will come their way.

Be aware that memories of our own early relationships and childhood experiences—both benevolent and problematic—return to us when we become parents. As children go through different developmental phases, unresolved past experiences and feelings can emerge in one’s present relationship with their child.Sometimes this causes difficulty with parents’ relationships with their children, but it also offers new opportunities for growth and transformation

Did you know?

Every baby and child is different. What it takes to be a good-enough parent to one child can be very different from what it takes to be a good-enough parent to another.

Separating from your baby? Make sure to say goodbye! All children feel more secure when they know they can count on you to let them know when you are leaving. Otherwise, children learn that that the people closest to them unpredictably disappear, and can become more clingy and anxious in general since they don’t know when you will suddenly be gone.

Everyday routine activities like diapering, bathing, dressing and feeding are not mundane activities for your young child; from the start, these are learning experiences through which your baby is developing a relationship to their body and their needs, and discovering what they can expect in connections with other people. 

RESOURCES

Zero To Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families

The Emotional Life of the Toddler, by Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph.D.

Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive,
by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.


MEET JILL SULKA

Jill Sulka, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who specializes in infant and early childhood mental health. She provides parent consultation, infant-parent and child-parent psychotherapy, and child play therapy in her office and at home, depending on the needs of the family. Dr. Sulka has been providing psychological services for 20 years, and has directed several programs for parents and their children birth to 8 years old.She believes that every child and parent deserve the opportunity to develop a relationship together that best supports that child’s potential to grow well and love well. She can be reached at (510) 326-2002 and jillsulka@gmail.com.

Parental Leave

As parents and soon-to-be parents, you likely know about the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides just 12 weeks of (unpaid!) job protected leave for pregnant mamas and new parents. We’re lucky in California because working parents are entitled to additional protections and benefits. These additional protections and benefits mean that a pregnant woman in California can take a longer leave from work and some of it is even paid! 

The downside to having all these laws, is that it’s confusing to figure out which ones actually apply to your situation and as a result, employees may not take advantage of all the leave that they are entitled to. Because of this, it’s incredibly important to be informed so that you can maximize your time at home with your new baby.

When Should I Start?

Start the research process early (during your second trimester)

What Are My Leave Rights?

  • Determine your eligibility to take leave under each of the three relevant laws: the California Family Rights Act, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, and California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave law. Your eligibility is likely to dictate how much leave you are entitled to take.
  • Educate yourself about your company’s policies and procedures regarding pregnancy/parental leave and other leaves of absence (most likely in your Employee Handbook).

Will I Get Paid While I’m on Leave?

  • Confirm you are eligible for 10-12 weeks of State Disability Leave and 6 weeks of Paid Family Leave.
  • Review your company’s policies regarding paid leave and use of accrued leave during maternity leave.

What Should I Say to My Employer?

  • Once you’ve done your research and you know your options, develop a plan for your pregnancy and maternity leave before presenting it to your employer.
  • This is also a good time to discuss any pumping accommodations you may need after you return to work.

Resources

  • Care.com’s Avra Siegel outlines the issues *California provides additional protections to those outlined in this article
  • 11 Questions Pregnant Employees Worry About  *California provides additional protections to those outlined in this article
  • FMLA Fact Sheet
  • FAQ for California Family Rights Act and Pregnancy Disability Leave
  • California Disability Insurance
  • California Paid Family Leave

MEET Rachel

Rachel Gardunio is an attorney with more than six years of employment law experience, and she currently works in-house for a governmental agency. As a working mother of two, she was inspired to begin a practice focusing on working families. 

Rachel provides private and group education to soon-to-be and new parents. She can help you decipher the various laws and policies and assist in developing a plan to bring to your employer so that you can maximize your leave options. She provides a flat-fee consultation in-person in the Bay Area or via telephone throughout California. 

Rachel can be contacted at rgardunio@gmail.com .