BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES
★ ★ ★ ★
The Parenting Connection
By Jami Ingledue
So much of parenting is pure instinct. I’m all for reading and being educated about child development and helpful parenting techniques, but in the end, it comes down to what you feel in your gut to be the right thing for this particular small human in your care. The noise of the information age too often causes us to second-guess those instincts.
I felt a visceral need to have my tiny baby as close to me as possible. Any mother who has had to turn over her 6 week old baby to strangers for 8 hours so she can go back to work no doubt has felt this. It’s a physical need; somehow your body just knows what to do, like a seed in the earth knows which way to grow. Just as we know instinctively to talk to our baby, sing, look them in the eye. Brain research backs up what mothers have known to do all along.
These interactions with a small baby—touch, talking, eye contact—all work toward creating the single most important thing in child development: connection. A strong bond. We are pack animals dependent upon one another for survival, and this connection is the basis on which everything else is built, including our brains.
This connection becomes much more difficult as your child grows. Especially when their natural desire to push boundaries involves shorts that do not cover the butt cheeks, or secretly smoking on the roof.
But maintaining an authentic connection is the single most important thing we can do for our kids, even when they are sulky, annoying teenagers. The biggest gift we can give our kids is to be really present when they’re in pain or struggling. To get down with them in the darkness and walk with them through their pain.
This might sound obvious. But it can be often be overlooked, or just forgotten, in the rollercoaster ride that is parenting, especially during the teenage years. It happens when we only focus on behavior and consequences and outcomes and how our child appears to the world. When we don’t stop to figure out what’s going on inside.
We can’t do this all the time of course: it would be exhausting. Being a parent takes a lot of energy, and we so often feel spent. And anyway doing it all of the time would be overkill. Some of my favorite parenting phrases, directly from my own mother, are “suck it up” and “you’ll live.” Kids need to learn independence and find their own strength, and they have to learn that the hard way: by failing. By falling down. By messing up. And then finding their own solutions. Not unlike us parents. I fail at the connection thing at some point every day. EVERY DAY!
But there are the small moments, and then there are the big moments. And the darkest moments can also give us the biggest opportunities for connection. After my 16 year old suffered a devastating betrayal and breakup, I got down with her on the kitchen floor, where she had collapsed in a heap, and held her while her body shook with sobs. What did I say? Who the hell knows. Who cares? I was with her at her lowest, literally down there with her in her pain, and she knew she was not alone and that she was loved.
This is all easier said than done of course. Sometimes, when your kids do terrible things, you just feel like throttling them. Because authentic connection goes both ways. We are not saints: we get angry, we lose our tempers, we say things we regret, sometimes we can’t even stand to be in the same room with them. AND THAT IS OK. We are allowed to feel our real feelings too.
Of course it is good to be patient and to try whenever possible to help them move to a more rational state and not get sucked down into an emotional whirlpool. But there seems to be a pressure on parents to always be calm, to never get angry, to always be validating.
But that’s impossible, because let’s face it, sometimes kids are just annoying. And if we never allow ourselves to feel our feelings, then what are we really modeling for them? We’re sending the message that it’s not ok to get angry and frustrated. And the world will not be ever patient and saintly with them. If they act like assholes, they will piss people off. How can they learn that if we don’t ever get pissed off when they act like assholes? One of the most important and oft overlooked jobs of a parent is to teach emotional intelligence. And we cannot do that without our own emotional authenticity. We cannot constantly repress our own feelings; martyrdom and resentment is the unhealthy result.
And then sometimes the hammer just has to come down. It’s their job, developmentally, to push boundaries; therefore it’s our job to hold the line sometimes and maintain those safe boundaries, even when they hate us for it. But if we hold that connection as our most important goal, it’s easier to see our way through the bad times.
Just recently, I found out my daughter had been lying. I discovered layers of lies and selfishness that felt like a painful betrayal. I was hurt to the core. I tried to remain calm when I confronted her with it, but it didn’t last long in the face of her “so what?” attitude. I believe I might have used the F word. So I stopped, and I said, you need to stay away from me for a while.
I couldn’t stay in the house. I escaped to the pub for the evening. I didn’t even want to look at her.
After two days of not speaking and having some space, we both felt better. We were able to have a very honest talk and come to some resolutions, together. We were able to really listen to each other and understand where we each were coming from.
Parents are allowed to have those big feelings too. We are allowed to have limits, to shut down sometimes. And though our impulse might be to yell and swear, our instinct is still to keep them safe, and to keep that connection intact. Pain is the root of anger; like a weed, if you don’t pull out the root, it remains. And while anger can damage our connection, like the choking vine damages the tree, sharing our pain—pulling out the root and seeing it in the light of day—makes our connection stronger.
The weeds will always come back. But that’s ok.
Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 4, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.