God gives us the children we need. He speaks to us through our children. We can listen for his voice, or let the noise in our heads tune it out. The choice is ours. Here’s one mother’s heartfelt struggle to learn to listen–and experience the healing that comes in hearing.
When my daughter Azalea was born, I was flooded with feelings of love. But it wasn’t long before I returned to a more familiar sense of myself, and that love was mixed with ambivalence, internal conflict, impatience, and sometimes anger. Yes, I adored my baby, the way she nose-breathed on me as she nursed, her milky smell, her beautiful face, her charming smiles, her bright energy. Her. I loved her. But I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and what might be expressed as irritability in some parents felt more like rage to me. I knew better than to express anger at a baby, but my control dials felt out of reach. I never hit or shook my daughter, but I did yell at her, in real and frightening fury. One time, when she was 6 months old, she was supposed to be taking a nap, but instead she was pulling herself up in her crib, over and over again, nonstop crying. I was over it, done, nothing left. I sat on the floor in her darkened room, and made my ugliest, angriest, face at her, seething, yelling at her to just…go…to…SLEEP.
If this had been a one-off, I could have rationalized that every parent loses it at some point. But this kind of heat was all too available to me. I would occasionally confess my behavior to my husband, a psychotherapist, but he rarely saw it up close. So as much as he, my own therapist, and my friends tried to support us both, I was largely alone in my shame. And my daughter was alone with a warm and loving and sometimes scary mom.
I had read Dr. Sears and his attachment-parenting ideas before Azalea was born, but I was deeply suspicious that a checklist of behaviors could teach anyone how to raise a human being. I would read things like “Respond to your baby’s cues,” and think, Right. As if. Her cues were often inscrutable and always exhausting. Sears’s cavalier oversimplification annoyed me to no end and added to the weight of expectations and disappointment.
As Azalea grew, some things got easier. Language helped. Her ever-increasing cuteness and sweetness helped. Our connection developed, and I loved doing things together — reading books, going to Target, cooking, cuddling, walking, hanging out with friends. Things were good. Except when they weren’t. Like the time in the grocery store as I was checking out with Thanksgiving groceries while struggling to manage Azalea’s unwieldy 10-month-old body in front of a line of blankly staring, silently huffing adults. I remember the jaw-setting, skin-tingling, adrenaline-pumping feeling of anger overtake me. While I don’t remember exactly what I said to my squirming baby, I will never forget the disgusted look on the checkout lady’s face, confirming that whatever outburst I settled on was definitely not okay.
In my dark moments, I felt like something inside me was missing, that thing that functions deep down that keeps us from hurting the people we love. But I also tried to remind myself that the cult of perfect parenthood is a myth, that there is no way to avoid making a mess of our kids one way or another. That gave me some peace. Then, when Azalea was 4, I interviewed Jon Kabat-Zinn, the [therapist and] mindfulness expert who has written many books, including Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of the Mindful Parent. I think I was hoping he might encourage me to set down my burden of guilt and shame, maybe even offer a God-like let it go. But that wasn’t what happened.
Kabat-Zinn: The meaning of being a parent is that you take responsibility for your child’s life until they can take responsibility for their own life. That’s it!
Me: That’s a lot.
Kabat-Zinn: True, and it doesn’t mean you can’t get help. Turns out how you are as a parent makes a huge difference in the neural development of your child for the first four or five years.
Me: That is so frightening.
Kabat-Zinn: All that’s required, though, is connection. That’s all.
Me: But I want to be separate from my child; I don’t want to be connected all the time.
Kabat-Zinn: I see. Well, everything has consequences. How old is your child?
Me: Four and a half.
Kabat-Zinn: Well, I gotta say, I have very strong feelings about that kind of thing. She didn’t ask to be born.
I knew then that I needed to figure out why I am the kind of mother I am, and what effect it was having on my daughter. READ THE REST HERE
And to learn more about how to listen to God speaking through your children, check out Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too): Living the Little Way of Family Life.