(I’ll give you a clue – we also need to embrace them in ourselves!)
When I came across Aware Parenting (www.awareparenting.com) nine years ago, I had spent a lot of the previous decade training as a psychotherapist. I was really drawn to the Aware Parenting idea of listening to my baby’s feelings. After nearly ten years of receiving weekly psychotherapy, I was very familiar with crying. Having felt the benefits of being fully heard and accepted, I wanted to give this gift to my children – to really hear their sadness, grief, confusion, and frustration. I wanted to mirror and accept all their feelings, so that my children could be present with their feelings, rather than needing to repress them through habitual behaviours or physical tension. I had become more connected to myself through being heard and accepted, and I wanted to help my children to stay connected to their true essence through being unconditionally loved.
And so, when my daughter was born eight years ago, that was one of the aspects of Aware Parenting that I wanted to embrace the most – listening to her painful feelings, whilst holding her in my arms. (At the top of my list was meeting the rest of her attachment needs – lots and lots of holding, co-sleeping, and being empathic and responsive to her needs.)
I found the closeness and carrying and co-sleeping easy; it was listening to her feelings that I found the most challenging at the beginning! I was so in love with her, and so enjoyed all the closeness, breast-feeding, and eye-gazing, that at first I avoided the possibility that she might have some other feelings to express to me! I wanted to protect her from all stress and discomfort, so, being willing to acknowledge that, despite all my attentive care, she would still experience painful feelings, was challenging. After three months I decided I was ready to listen to her feelings. When I was really sure that she was not hungry and had no other immediate needs apart from to release stress, I stopped feeding her for comfort, and started to listen to her feelings as I held her in my arms. When I saw how relaxed and present she was after crying my arms, I became comfortable with her upset feelings. When my son was born four-and-a-half years later, I found it a lot easier to know when he was upset rather than hungry, and felt very comfortable with listening to his feelings whilst he was in my arms.
It has taken me some time to learn other central aspects of Aware Parenting – such as laughter, valuing my needs, and finding ways for everyone to get their needs met. The more I have learnt to value myself, my needs, and my day-to-day connection with what I love, the more joyful I am, and the more I contribute joy and laughter and fun to my children. Over time, I’ve learnt to really enjoy laughter games. Laughter play is a vital skill in Aware Parenting – laughter games help create connection, and help older babies and children release feelings related to being smaller, less knowledgeable, less competent, and less skilled. Feelings of fear, and feelings to do with lack of choice get expressed.
When babies and children regularly laugh in these ways, emotional safety is created for painful feelings to be expressed. Families have more fun, connection is strengthened, children get to heal from fear and powerlessness, and healing happens all round.
The first step then, is to look at how comfortable are we as parents to express joy; to have fun, to do things that we love? What do you love to do? How much do you give yourself the opportunity to do this? When we allow ourselves to be filled up in this way, we have so much more to offer our babies and children, and we are able to celebrate their joy and playfulness.
And what about our painful feelings? Do we ever cry? What do we do when we feel sad? What do we tell ourselves about feeling upset? All these things will impact on how we are able to respond to our baby or child when they are upset. They will play a large role in what we do when they have upset feelings. They will also affect how much joy we feel, particularly when we are with our baby or child.
In Psychosynthesis, the psychotherapy that I trained in, there is the idea of a lower unconscious and a higher unconscious. Just as we can repress uncomfortable (or lower) feelings and needs, we can also repress joyful (or higher) feelings and needs. And the more we hide from uncomfortable feelings, the more joyful feelings also become hidden. Our pain and our joy are intimately connected.
Babies and children who are not given the opportunity to express their painful feelings with loving support may seem contented, but tend to express less joy than babies who have been loved and supported in their painful feelings. Babies and children who are distracted from their uncomfortable feelings may smile less, and may make less eye contact.
On the other hand, as I mentioned above, when we play laughter games with our older babies and children, we also help create more safety for them to express their more uncomfortable feelings with us. Laughter and crying both get freely expressed, and the paradox is, babies and children then become more present. They are more aware of what is going on in the here and now, are more available for connection, and are more able to take in new experiences and information.
Last night, my children (now 8 and 3) were laughing lots, and were making up lots of games on the bed. I was tired, and got into bed. Then I relaxed into just enjoying watching them. I remembered how, in the past, I would have started getting “serious” and would have wanted to stop them (in a respectful way, of course!) Instead, I celebrated enjoying their laughter, and the creativeness of their games, and trusted that they were doing exactly what they needed to do. Sunny (3) had a small cry on the bed at one point, and then after a while, we all cuddled up and went to sleep, feeling warm and connected.
Daily, I am learning about doing things that I love, and playing laughter games with my children. I have a sense of my own centre that I didn’t have before I was a mother. I am (generally) comfortable with my children’s tears, frustration, and rage, as well as their joy, and laughter, and the funny games that we play. And do you know what? I trust that we will continue to grow and become more whole, and more truly ourselves, together….