Parenting – It’s Not a Competition

Kelsey 2019 w dog

Photo Credit:  Anna Dobbs Applebaum

Parenting – It’s not a competition.  What a concept, I know.  Yes, it is a huge undertaking, and yes it is critical to how your children turn out, how they feel secure and loved (or not), whether they grow up with good physical and mental health.  Of course it matters.  Every bit of it matters.  But so many parents see only their mistakes, and spend far too much time beating themselves up over every single one.

I was at a training recently that discussed attachment, among other things.  It has long been known that infants and young children decide whether the world is a safe place, based largely on how their caregivers respond to their needs.  Luckily, most of them decide it is a safe place and go on to live fulfilling lives.

But here is the part that was new and intriguing to me:  Those slight breaches, the times when a parent or other caregiver is distracted or sad or angry—when the parent reaches out again, comforts the child, heals the breach—some breaches are actually beneficial to the parent-child relationship, because the healing is part of the connection.  And without those breaches, what would there be to heal from?  (Okay, I am talking minor breaches, not outright abuse or neglect; that is critical here.)

When my son was tiny, I had a wonderful friend Beth who had a Masters degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key—all the trappings of extreme intelligence and accomplishment.  Beth told me something I will never forget:  The most important thing you can give your children is You.  Yes, You.  Another parent might make more homemade goodies, keep a cleaner house, give the best birthday parties…and that is great.  But that is them, and that is how they bond with their own children.

You have no need to compete.  Hug your children.  Listen to them.  Help them process their emotions, I’m really big on that one.  Compliment them.  Protect them.  Help them feel loved.  If your children feel loved, they are likely to see you as the best parent in the world.  (At least when they are little; teen years may be a bit more challenging.)  Those are the things that will bond you to them.  Doing your best is important; trying to measure up to the standards you think others set is not.

My wonderful friend Becca MacDowell told me a great story about comparing yourself to others.  Becca was a single mom raising two young children, working full time, and had pretty much given up on her attempts to attend college classes in the midst of all that.  She turned on the TV and watched an episode about a single mother of four who had decided to become a doctor.  Of course Becca felt totally inferior, having given up on college courses with “only” two children to raise.  She watched the entire episode, feeling worse at every turn while this woman was regaled for her tenacity.

Then at the end of the show, guess what?  It was casually mentioned that during this entire period of Mom’s medical schooling, she had turned over total custody and care of her children to her mother/their grandmother.  Kind of obliterates the whole story line of raising four children while you pursue a dream, doesn’t it?

The point being, we don’t know anyone’s whole story but our own.  Comparisons can be very destructive.  Are you supportive?  Do you do your best?  Are you there for your children?  

Give yourself a little credit, okay?

Talk It Over, Already

Talking statues

Statues in conversation

Some of my worst mistakes can be traced to my unwillingness to discuss a potential decision with someone else, to seek feedback, or at least to hear my own words reflected back to me. What stopped me? Embarrassment? I like to think I won’t again pass up the opportunity to reflect and share with others what I am considering—especially when it comes to dealing with any enigma. So if you want to do better than I did? Talk it over, already.
See? It doesn’t always require a professional. In many cases, a nonjudgmental friend can be helpful.
About that word nonjudgmental? That doesn’t mean your friend (or counselor) won’t call you out if they think you are wrong. Disagreeing should not mean the end of a relationship. If it did well, what would we do for friends? Because we are all wrong sometimes. Or at least need to consider a different viewpoint.
Let’s say you are trying to decide whether to pursue some higher education. You want to know if it’s a good idea as well as how to pay for it. One example from my own life involves when I first started wanting to pursue a graduate degree, but I had no clue how to pay for it. Did I go to the financial aid office? Um, no. I just stewed over it. (No, this oversight did not ruin my life.)
Let’s say your friend knows little or nothing about the benefits or costs of higher education. They can still reflect back, ask logical questions…they can lead you to deeper thinking, propose the questions you could be asking in pursuit of your decision.
It does often help to know someone with a specific expertise. Are you looking for financial advice? If you don’t want to reveal your finances, you could still get some general advice from a person whose expertise you respect.
I remember the time when someone told me the secret to their small business success was that they never borrowed money, that they had no debts. At the time time I was hearing this, several other voices were telling me to take a risk and go deep into debt: a thought that made me very uncomfortable. I picked the no-debt route for the small business I was running at the time, and have never regretted that decision.
You are not the only one who will benefit from your friend’s acting as a sounding board. Has anyone ever come to you for advice or counsel? Even if you weren’t interested in that role, I am guessing you were flattered. We all need to feel we matter, and providing moral support and a listening ear is one of the best ways I know to get that reinforcement.

Body Image

Your body is fine

Loving your body

Way back when my sister was about 7 years old, our older brother was taking a very pretty classmate to a graduation dance. My sister was so impressed by this girl, especially since she was wearing a satiny dress that my young sister brushed her fingers against and said “Ooh, you feel just like my Dacron pillow.” This beautiful teenagers immediate response was to miss the compliment and apologize for being too fat. (Which she was not. At all.). This happened decades ago, and even then, we (females especially) had conditioned ourselves to constantly apologize for our size, regardless of whether it was an actual issue to anyone else on the planet. I suspect this has changed, but only for the worse.  Body image is a problem for too many of us.
When we are little we just use our bodies for things like running, stretching and playing and don’t think a lot about it. We give them food and exercise on a regular basis, just because that feels right. Assuming we are not raised in a highly oppressive environment, we don’t spend those early years sitting around worrying that we are too fat or too thin. We think often about our next opportunities to exercise, but we aren’t thinking in those terms: It is about climbing trees, swimming, running, bicycling, sledding, skating, building a snowman…So it is fun instead of a duty.
Then teen years and adulthood have a way of taking hold. Not that those are bad years; I certainly enjoyed my teens and the adult years that have led to where I am now. And there didn’t stop being some things I did for pleasure that also happened to provide good exercise: dancing and walking in the woods come to mind. But I also attended classes designed to encourage me to keep moving. Again, that is not a bad thing. Plenty of friendships are made and good conversations started while people roll up their yoga mats. And the ones who stick it out tend to be either very disciplined or in love with that particular way to keep your body moving. I vote for doing it for enjoyment, rather than taking it on as a chore.
Likewise, a great deal of nutritious food is truly enjoyable, yet a lot of the enjoyment is lost if you choose that diet simply for the physical health benefits. I know, we want to enjoy our food and we want to choose foods that will enhance our health, and we commonly can do both. So let’s, let’s enjoy movement that feels good and food that tastes good. And let’s try to not constantly measure and critique our own bodies in the meantime.
One of the joys of getting older is, competing for the best body becomes pretty pointless. We can enjoy our bodies for what they do, for how they serve us, rather than constantly comparing and focusing on where these bodies fall short.
Let’s think like children again. Let’s think like my sister did at age 7. Let’s enjoy the great feeling that comes from throwing our self-consciousness aside. In her book “Some Body to Love”, Leslea Newman suggests writing a love letter to yourself as a step toward becoming more comfortable in your own skin. Let’s start now, can we?

The Last Straw in Relationships

breakup at park bench

the last straw

(Note: Before reading the following—this is important, critical even—if you are in a relationship involving abuse, DO NOT leave without proper safety planning. The most dangerous time is in the act of leaving.)

What ends relationships? Why do we call it the last straw? Often, the final insult, the breaking point, is something relatively minor in comparison to everything that has preceded it. For many, it is the point at which we realize nothing is ever going to change, nothing is going to get better. We can remain stuck in this situation or we can leave, but there is no option that will make it better for us if we stay. We see that can only stand by while it deteriorates further. Staying, we realize, means giving up any hope of improvement.
We often think primarily in terms of intimate or romantic relationships, but this also applies to platonic ones, to professional and business ones—even to family members reaching a point where they become estranged. Think of the employer who has promised you a raise every six months for the past there years, and this time when the raise doesn’t come through you start looking for other work in earnest. You have reached the point where you know this employer’s word is meaningless. It may not even really be about the money, just that you see the lies for what they are. Or it may be your mother who has picked fights with you at every opportunity since you were eight years old (or younger), and this time it is an even smaller than usual argument, but you are now 56 years old and have sudden clarity about how you will spend your remaining years—in relationships that bring you joy instead of chronic conflict. You hang up the phone and decide not to call your mother again, and to keep conversation to a minimum if she calls you—if you decide to respond to her at all.
Partnerships frequently end over long-standing issues, and something has reached a point where you realize you are not partners any more, that you have been carrying way too much of the load for way too long. Or it is something that indicates a shift in your own dynamic.
One story comes to mind for me, which I read in a magazine decades ago; I do not remember the source. A woman reports having been physically abused for years by her spouse; he even broke her jaw. When she was in the hospital, a representative from a domestic violence shelter sought her out and gave her a card, yet the article’s writer returned to living with this man. Until she came home one day to find her son and daughter watching TV, and her daughter had a welt on one cheek. The son said “Mom, she wouldn’t watch what I wanted, so I had to hit her.” This woman packed up and left that day. She was willing to tolerate all manner of abuse, but would not stand for seeing that pattern continue with her children.
Sometimes it is an escalation in an ongoing dynamic. It can be the boyfriend who was verbally abusive, but suddenly it becomes physical. Or it can be the wife who cursed you routinely but always in private, and suddenly she does it in front of friends.
Often, though, it is actually something much lower key than what you have been tolerating on a daily basis, only this time something shifts in you and you realize that there is nothing you can do that will improve this person’s behavior. It may be fifth time this week that your significant other came home with alcohol on their breath; the other four times, they started yelling at you and throwing things, then vomited in the corner and stormed out. This time they just passed out and you had no mess to clean up. But it was one too many, and you spend the remainder of that night making your exit plans.
When is the best time to leave? Someone told me once that it is the time when you no longer want to be with that person, and the message I heard at the time was that it is not wise to decide based on a specific incident. I disagree with that last part, because those specific incidents are so telling. After all, how do we know who and what a person’s true character is if not by how they behave?

Intelligence Comes in Many Forms

A young man and a dog

Intelligence comes in many forms. The young man in the photo was diagnosed with autism and learning delays at an early age, and was blessed with parents who saw and loved him for his kind and beautiful self. They never failed to nurture his spirit, and his talents. When he was a toddler, his father would lie down and allow the boy to crawl all over him—a delightful way to help encourage his sensory awareness, to help him feel comfortable with touch.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences, including interpersonal, visual-spatial, naturalistic, and about five others. Yet we are still too often hung up on that one number in an IQ test—with 100 being the norm and everything else being somehow superior or inferior in comparison. Never mind that just about everyone is a bit uneven in their performance across different areas.
Then there is Emotional Intelligence, written about by Daniel Goleman, who built on the research of Peter Salavoy and John Mayer. It involves the ability to assess and act upon a given situation, to manage one’s own emotions as well as impacting others. For example, when you read of a person who can intuit the point when a total stranger can use a kind word versus when that stranger would rather be left alone. This is especially useful in situations in which we have to react too quickly to systematically reason it through.
We all know or know of at least one person who is tops in a demanding field, something we mere mortals would not attempt, such as astrophysics or molecular biology, yet this same person is totally clueless about interpersonal relations. An IQ test measures that person as a genius, while witnessing that same person in a social situation might lead us to think they are not so smart after all.
But back to the young man pictured: His parents took him through the usual activities—soccer, Olympics, family vacations including Disney World…and like any typical child, he showed an affinity for some things and not others. Through it all, he loved his dog dearly and their cuddle time brought lots of happiness to both boy and dog.
Recently he tried training dogs, and no surprise here, he turned out to be a bit of a dog whisperer, taking first place in a recent competition. Why? As a person with autism, he loves repetition and precision—exactly the traits needed in a good animal trainer. And he has a good sense of how to best relate to each individual dog, such that the dogs he works with are eager to please him.
Temple Grandin, possibly the world’s most famous person with autism, has stated repeatedly that she does so well with animals because she thinks like one. She has been consulted in many instances in which some seemingly insignificant issue has spooked the animals: a two-inch chain above them, people tossing their yellow raincoats over a fence, too rapid a change in light levels for the animals to proceed without fear…She could focus on things the average person ignores, thereby helping the animals to remain calm.
Move over, Temple. We have a new dog whisperer, and he is going to do you proud.

Do It Like a Girl–A Genius Girl

Basic Algebra at age 7

No Fear of Basic Algebra

When I took a recent trip and stayed in more than one perfectly nice hotel, I found myself having difficulty leaning far enough over the sink to be able to see well enough to apply makeup. The only hotel that didn’t have this problem was one that provided a portable makeup mirror. Why is this such a problem? I am a woman of perfectly average height, 5’4”, so it makes no sense that I should have to stand on my tippytoes just to get a good look at my own face. Then it occurred to me: I’m guessing no one asked any woman how this arrangement worked for the people it was supposedly designed to accommodate.
Women got the vote in 1920, and yet we are still not asked often enough for our opinions in male dominated areas, such as the design of buildings. I am not proposing that every third woman become an architect (though we could certainly use more women’s influence in the design of these hotel rooms), but it does seem we could use more programs along the lines of We Code, programs that encourage girls and young women to research nontraditional fields.
The first step is realizing we can do it. And realizing that if we do it like a girl—a genius girl—that is a compliment. The movie “Hidden Figures” depicts three black women who started out as genius girls, who were at the top of their field yet had to constantly prove themselves. They helped pave the way for the rest of us to take our own ideas seriously.
Part of knowing we can do it, comes from breaking a task down into simpler parts, learning step by step and not letting the enormity of the total task overwhelm us. The girl pictured in this blog, my friend’s 7 year old daughter, is doing basic algebra. Algebra? Isn’t that for high schoolers? Well, not the really basic form. She is looking at things like 5 + x = 7. Just subtract 5 from 7 and you have x. Her dad helped her cut it down to its simplest form. This is a child who will not be held back by fear, and who has already discovered that learning is such a joy. I congratulate her dad on conveying that to her, and I hope this early learning stays with her, that she does not become timid as a teenager, that she does not lose her nerve.
This mastery of concepts is beautiful, and our young girls need to be encouraged every step of the way. If we encourage enough girls and women to pursue these nontraditional fields, maybe the day will come when an average height woman can put on makeup in a hotel bathroom without having to twist, turn, and stretch to accommodate herself to some male’s idea of great design.

Abuse Isn’t Always Ended By Leaving

Upset baby

Suffering child

“Just leave!” It’s that simple, right? Wrong. Approximately 50 percent of women who are murdered by their partners are in the act of leaving or have left within the past few months. Fortunately, most abusive situations do not end so tragically, but it should be very clear that leaving does not necessarily end abuse. Sometimes that abuse is actually exacerbated. This especially applies if you are dealing with someone whose attitude may be “Oops, I can’t hit them any more. Guess I’ll have to start dragging them into court instead.”
The Power and Control Wheel has been well publicized for several years, highlighting patterns of abusive behavior. Seek out any web site for abuse victims and you will find that wheel prominently displayed. What is less known, and far more recent, is the Post Separation Power and Control Wheel. A huge portion of that wheel involves using children as pawns in order to further inflict harm on a mom or a dad who simply wants to be a good parent, to proceed without interference.
I have seen the court system used to exact revenge on people who exercised their right to leave. The very system that is charged with watching out for the best interest of the children, sometimes winds up unwittingly doing the opposite. Parents who previously had no interest in their own children suddenly start petitioning for shared parenting, or even sole custody. This despite the children being attached to the other parent and thriving under that parent’s care. I do not oppose shared parenting; I have seen children thrive in such situations. But it only works when both parents are invested in its success.
According to world-renowned expert Lundy Bancroft, abusive fathers petition for custody at approximately double the rate of non-abusive fathers. This makes perfect sense to me: A non-abusive father who is concerned about his children’s situation will also consider the implications of subjecting these same children to a court proceeding. That father is likely to proceed only if the situation is dire enough to justify involving the children in litigation. That father may say, “Gee, I don’t much like my ex-wife’s new husband and neither do my kids, but he pretty much stays out of the way and he treats my ex well.” That same father is more likely to petition for a change in custody only if he has reason to feel the children are being directly harmed: If the children report missing school because the stepfather and mother are too absorbed in arguments to get them on the bus, or if the mother and/or stepfather drink to excess on a nightly basis and keep the children awake far past midnight, or if there is never enough food in the house…and children are of course in obvious danger in the event there is physical or sexual abuse.
If a noncustodial parent cares about the children’s welfare, that parent will first attempt to mitigate any negative effects from the children’s home environment. Extra court involvement will be saved as a last resort. And yes, that does sometimes need to be done.
The abusive father or noncustodial mother, on the other hand, might think nothing of filing an emergency ex parte motion to have a child immediately removed from that child’s home pending a court hearing, sometimes even inventing false accusations, in order to hurt the other parent. It bothers the abuser not at all that the child also suffers.
The court system should not be used to continue the abuse long after the victim has left. I would love to see every domestic judge in the country become educated and aware, and earn to use their power to stop this. I know, laws have to change, and it will be an extensive process. But until that happens, too much power will rest in the hands of those who intend harm. Does anyone seriously believe that is in the best interest of the children?

P.S. I tried to post the Post Separation Power and Control Wheel, by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, in Duluth MN, and couldn’t.  If you are interested, you can find it with the keywords Post Separation Power and Control Wheel.

Tattoos and Their Context

bird and empty cage

tattoos as body art

I grew up in an era when tattoos were basically verboten; at least they were severely frowned on in polite company.  The only way anyone of my acquaintance had tattoos was if they had been in the Navy or in prison.  Body art was totally looked down on.  So you can imagine my surprise when it became mainstream.  And it is not just younger people who are utilizing these services.

With the increase in tattooing, there has been a corresponding increase in the quality of tattoos that are available.  Competition among professional tattoo artists today is to do the best job, to show the world that you can be counted on to produce a quality product.  And to do it with clean needles and good quality ink, of course.

There are specialists who volunteer their time to alter tattoos the client has become ashamed of, such as white supremacy symbols, to turn them into angels or other equally pleasant and inoffensive symbols.  Some use tattoos to aid in adjustments to body issues, such as decorating a mastectomy scar and the surrounding area with the beauty of a well considered image—something meaningful to the recipient.  Some do not decorate so much as tattoo an image of the nipple that was surgically removed.  These all strike me as incredibly therapeutic.

Tattooing is no longer the result of someone’s poor decision making while drunk and in a blackout.  (Or at least that is how people explained bad tattoos back in the day.)

I still don’t have any tattoos and probably never will.  But that is no longer out of an aversion to the practice.  So many years have passed without my body being inked, and I have dealt with enough bodily changes as it is.  But my attitude toward others getting them has changed dramatically.  Sometimes clients explain to me the significance of their tattoos and it helps me to better understand their situation.

And sometimes I just enjoy good art, whatever the canvas.

Here is what came as a shocker:  For some individuals, these tattoos have a dual purpose.  The pain involved in the tattooing process sometimes satisfies the desire a person might have to cut or otherwise self-injure.  Who’d a’ thunk it?  It it socially accepted, no one labels you crazy, and you get to choose a nice design and decide where you want it on your body—sort of a permanent monument to overcoming your emotional suffering.

Note that I am not taking a stand on this; it’s just an observation.  But it does seem to help some people avoid self-injury.

Now if only we can have a world with so little emotional pain that there is no temptation to inflict physical pain on oneself for relief.  If we can have a world in which people only get tattoos because they are eager to use their bodies as a canvas, to display their most meaningful art.

Politics in Everyday Life

protest sign in crowd

protest: We Are Better…

Having grown up in a very political family, I often tried to downplay the issue of politics. Then I came to the realization that it really cannot be avoided. Moral issues tend to have a political side to them, as was present to us so dramatically in the recent crisis of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern border of this country. Just about every professional organization weighed in on that—including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association, the American Psychological Association, numerous medical and pediatric associations…you name it. None of these associations exists for political purposes, but in this case there was no denying the link.
Prior to becoming licensed as an LPCC, I did my internship with adopted children who had attachment issues, which are most commonly caused by abuse or neglect in the first two or three years of life. Children with this disorder tend to be indiscriminate in who they will show affection to, many of them will tell obvious lies with a straight face, pit their parents against one another, manipulate situations, and demand control at all times simply for the sake of control. Why? Those early years are when they decide if the world is a safe place. Though all parents and caregivers make mistakes, the generally healthy pattern for an infant is that when the child cries or shows distress, at least one adult attempts to comfort that child, to meet whatever need arises, be it food, changing, or simply wanting to be held. This comfort has recently been snatched from so many of these younger migrant children.
The older children are unlikely to develop Reactive Attachment Disorder, but they will have long-lasting symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. We did this to them. I don’t mean you and I individually, but we are part of the country that did this to them.
And this is very political. Very.
Though I have no intention of engaging clients in political discussions, sometimes the problems that bring them into my office have a political basis. Women’s equality, domestic abuse, GLBTQIA issues, racial and religious differences, the views of different cultures, working with the differently-abled such as children with autism or extreme Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or with physical problems, listening to someone who is wrangling with obtaining much-needed healthcare while every other developed country has universal health care…How can this not be political?
You may go to demonstrations and call your congressional representatives or you may not. I don’t care. But I can no longer pretend that it is possible to go through life on this earth without being political in some way.
I have exactly zero interest in making any attempt to change your party affiliation or your political views. And I will hold firmly to my own, which are intricately connected to my own moral center.

Reporting Sexual Assault

What I have to say does not apply only to sexual assault; the principles apply more widely than that. But it is the focus.
Filing a complaint about sexual assault is scary; as making noise about any way you have been offended against can also be. At best it is a nuisance; at worst, you get to go on trial, in a sense, as if the whole thing was your fault. Actually it can get worse than that. You can get hostile questions and then have to go out into a world that feels perfectly free to intimidate and threaten you because you opened your mouth instead of keeping it shut.
I wish it was easier, because way too often the onus is on the wrong party. But it’s not. Reality steps in, in the sense that we have to live in this world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. (We can work to change it, though; that is an option.)
You have no doubt already said “Stop that” or “That’s not okay” to the offender, as well as attempting to physically fight that person off. Maybe you bargained with them to get them to leave you alone. Now it is time to bring in backup in a sense, to decide whether to involve someone else, someone with a bit more authority.
Law enforcement is frequently involved. Unless you are dealing with an exceptionally astute officer, there is a very good chance they will just sit on the report unless the offender has a record of convictions, or unless you can present some physical or witness evidence,
At this point, please do not give up. Please be aware that you may well be the first person to complain about this particular offender. But guess what: If you don’t report an offense, then it legally never took place. So please consider reporting it anyway. If you can bring yourself to. Because people seldom offend only once. There will likely be another victim, and another…And sooner or later, someone with enforcement powers will have to pay attention, someone will have to realize that two or three or 20 people are unlikely to maliciously concoct the same story about the same person.
If you can find the courage, think seriously about making sure there is a paper trail. It took decades with Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, but the attention those cases eventually garnered will likely make future reports more likely to be attended to. Hopefully.