A new mother slumps before me, eyes filled with tears as she shares with me her despair and exhaustion. Her baby is lying on a rug between us. Mum wipes away her tears and attempts to smile. “I don’t want him to see his mummy cry. I’m so stupid for wallowing this way. No one else finds this as hard as I do.” I know she is silently adding that she is failing at motherhood. I also know that she is arguing with herself, telling herself that her sadness is weak, irrational, and she should just snap out of it.
Suddenly her little one yelps. He has rolled over and bumped his head on the pram brake. Mum scoops him up and comforts him. “Ouch!” she empathises, “That hurt.” He settles. He burrows into her neck and his cries slow into whimpers and then he is quiet. Soon enough he is happily chewing on Mum’s hair.
I use this little snapshot of motherhood to talk about how we comfort our children; how we soothe them when they are hurt- either physically or emotionally. Mum was quick to connect with my explanations of Active Listening (see my blog post by this title for more), validation, “sitting with” instead of problem-solving or disputing, and staying connected while the “storm” passes. Gazing at her child she declared that she will always try to validate his perspective and would not dream of joking, distracting, or minimising his pain- even if she could not see what the big deal was.This new mother agreed that her son needed her to stay connected to him and to accept his feelings so that he could learn to cope with them.
We explored how it feels to have one’s feelings accepted and how it hurts to have one’s emotional experience rejected. “Then why,” I asked, “are you doing this to yourself?’ My client was puzzled. I continued, and we began to unpack the many ways in which she invalidated her own feelings and disconnected from herself in times of distress. We re-visited the basic skills of Active Listening and she practised using them on her own thoughts, wishes, and feelings, just as I coach parents to do for their children.
Near the end of the session our new mother had an “aha moment”. “I need to parent myself just as I want to parent my son. When I am hurt I need to scoop myself up, comfort myself, and empathise: Ouch. This hurts.”
Try it. Read (or re-read) my post on Active Listening, and try it on yourself next time you are angry, sad, worried, bored…you name it. Stay connected to yourself. Be kind just as you would be to a baby. A point of difference though: you might find an activity other than chewing hair to re-engage with once the storm passes!