Do you want to help your child be the most she can be? Do you want to give her all that you can give, so that she can bloom? Have you ever considered that she may be giving you as much as you are giving her? That she is calling you forth – inviting you to become the parent and person you are capable of being?
When I was pregnant, I had a vision of practicing Aware Parenting with my baby. I wanted to understand her needs and meet them, to accurately mirror back all her feelings to her, to love her unconditionally, and to bring her up without punishments and rewards, connected to her truest sense of herself, her essence.
What I left out was myself!
How many of us do this as parents? We become so focussed on our parenting, and what we want to give our baby or child, that we forget to include ourselves in the equation.
I soon learnt that leaving myself out of the equation meant I couldn’t be the parent I wanted to be. That unless I allowed myself to hear all my feelings; I couldn’t hear all of hers; and unless I listened to my needs, I couldn’t fully contribute to hers.
Now I know that our growth is a parallel process, and that as she and my son learn, so do I; and as I grow and become more loving with myself, the more I can give them. Our lives are sublimely interconnected in ways too complex to fully understand. Yet, trusting that complex connection brings meaning and purpose and depth to the intricacies of our lives.
Our parenting choices have a lot to do with our beliefs about nurturance and care and closeness, and about our beliefs about human beings, and why we are the way we are. There is no accident in the type of parenting paradigm that each person chooses.
So when we hold our newborn baby in our arms, the way we choose to be with her stems from our beliefs about nurturance and closeness. Deeper than that, it reflects how we nurture ourselves. The beliefs we have around self-nurture are often the ones we received from the people around us when we were growing up – the ways we were nurtured, or not, become the ways we now nurture ourselves, or don’t.
This happens until we see that we are continually choosing those beliefs, and that we are also free to choose new beliefs and ways for ourselves that are more in agreement with who we are now.
Pregnancy and becoming a parent is often a time for us to enquire into our beliefs about nurturance. Do we want to hold our baby a lot? Do we want to keep her close to our bodies and touch her in soft and aware ways? Are we inclined to look for ways to understand her? As we trust our inner callings with these, we may find that we start to parent differently from the mainstream.
When we start listening to our inner promptings about how to be with our baby, we might notice the difference between a habitual response – something that we learnt early on and which is not necessarily true for us – and a response that is really true for us, that comes from our heart, and the depth of our being. Learning to distinguish between the two is quite an art, and something we have plenty of opportunities to practice as parents!
Let me think of an example. Say you have planned to put your baby in a cot in their own room after they are born, and you have bought the cot and decorated the nursery, and yet once your baby is born you just want to keep her in bed with you. Here is a golden opportunity to tune into yourself and what is really true for you. What are the voices inside your head? By listening in to yourself, and hearing the voices, and listening to your feelings, you will become clear about what are acquired beliefs that are no longer true for you, and what is most true and authentic for you in that moment.
And listening to your own truth and authenticity will be a guiding light for you on your parenting journey…. Listening beyond the storms of public opinion, of your doubts and fears, and underneath to that clear light of awareness.
As your child grows, your parenting choices are your responsibility, and you will grow in awareness and wisdom, and yet, listening within, you will know that you have made your choices with the utmost care.
As we listen to our inner promptings, we are able to give our babies and children things that we didn’t receive ourselves, and in doing that, we become more whole.
One of the most important needs for babies is physical closeness. As an “incubator baby” myself, and an only child of parents who didn’t hug much, I wasn’t really used to lots of closeness. Yet, when my daughter was born, I wanted to meet her needs for closeness as much as possible, as I had read about in The Aware Baby, and other books such as The Continuum Concept. Years of carrying her, and later her brother, as well as co-sleeping, has changed me beyond words. Being close to them so much has helped meet needs that didn’t get met for me as a baby. I didn’t do it for me; yet they have given me a great gift, and helped me become a different person.
So, with closeness, with our babies, we can see each choice as a gift to become more authentic. How much do we want to hold our baby? Do we want to use a carrier or a stroller? Cot or co-sleeping? Going beyond right and wrong, to deep connection with our truth… and from there come opportunities to express what is true for us to other parents, to our families and friends, without judgment of their choices, because we know how dear our own truth is to us, and so we respect their choices in the same way.
If we are drawn to Aware Parenting, we may intend to feed our baby when she is hungry, and not when she is upset or tired or has some other need. Yet how many of us eat only when we are hungry? Faced with a small baby, or a toddler, or a child, how do we help them become self-regulated in their eating, connected with their true appetite, when we are disconnected from our own? In order to have clarity about when they are hungry and when something else is going on, we need to learn that within ourselves. The little baby that comes to us straight away gives us a gift; “I will signal to you when I am hungry; will you hear me?” I certainly didn’t when my first child was born, eight years ago.
Despite wanting to practice Aware Parenting, I didn’t even look for her invitation. I simply fed her a lot – when she woke up, before she went to sleep, whenever we got somewhere, all through the early evening. However, as time went on, her invitation got stronger, as did the invitation for me to shift my relationship between food and feelings, fullness and emptiness. Years of therapy had already got me a long way with this, yet Lana provided the biggest impetus for change. Over time, I got clearer and clearer about when she was hungry, and when she was upset, and responded more and more accurately to her. I also came to have a sense of fullness inside myself, and an inner knowing of the difference between hunger and feelings.
By the time my son was born, four and a half years after her, I was a whole lot clearer about the difference, and a whole lot more comfortable with his feelings. My relationship with my children, and with feeding them, has been the incentive for me to make a paradigm shift with myself. I generally only eat when I’m hungry, and stop when my body tells me. I trust my body and what it wants to eat, when it wants to eat, even if this means eating different things from the people around me. I trust that my children do the same, on the whole. We all have periods of time where we may eat something instead of feel a feeling, and even in those cases, I find myself stopping for a moment to just be with what I am feeling, even as I take the spoonful of raw chocolate from the fridge! The journey with food is ongoing, and I celebrate where we are as a family with it – food to nurture us, food for enjoyment and fulfilment. I see that our choices become more aware and nourishing as time goes on…..
I remember one day, when Lana was about six, we were at lunch and we decided to play a game. This was after we started asking Sunny (two at the time) whether he was “hungry for food, or hungry for connection, or hungry for a cry,” when he said he was hungry. Lana and I checked in with our bodies and how they felt, and we sensed the exact sensation of hunger and where we felt it. Then we ate some food, and checked in again. I noticed that Lana was much clearer than I was about the sensation of not needing any more food!
So, as parents, if something is coming up for us, or our children about food, we can choose to look at it from a deeper perspective. Instead of seeing things as problems to be fixed, or that we need to “do something” to our children to “make them change,” how about seeing these as invitations? Invitations for us to become more aware and more whole, and to find new ways of relating to food, or whatever it is, so that we can connect with our child in a clearer way, so that she too can have the most friendly connection with food that she can have.
Sleep is something else that Aware Parenting looks at in a very different way to most other parenting paradigms. In Aware Parenting, the aim is to read a baby’s cues for tiredness, and then to hold her in a calm and peaceful way. Instead of rocking, jiggling, feeding, moving, and doing things, the intention is to be present and still. If the baby is calm and relaxed, she will simply go to sleep when she is tired, in the arms of her parents. If she has some feelings to express, or some tension to release, which most small babies do, then she will freely express these feelings by crying. When she has expressed the chunk of feelings, she will fall into a deep sleep. As babies grow, they do not always have feelings to express and release before sleep, but they often need closeness for some years, and certainly connection, so that they have an opportunity for crying, or talking, or laughing, or some wrestling play….
Yet again, how many of us adults know when we are tired? Who of us goes to sleep easily, without using things to get us past whatever is going on for us right then? Who seems to need to read, or watch television, or eat some particular food, or take some particular substance, before she can sleep? How many of us truly connect before sleep – with ourselves, or with someone we love; to be true to ourselves and where we really are at?
When my daughter was a baby I became aware that I often confused feelings of hunger and feelings of tiredness. I would often eat, and then realise that I was not hungry, but tired instead. Through being with my daughter and then my son, and listening to their tiredness cues, and aiming to help them release any tensions they had before going to sleep, I learnt more about doing this for myself. I used to “need” to read before going to sleep, and would often wake up in the night, thinking over things. Now I rarely do either of those. And I know the difference between when I am hungry and tired; and I know that my children know the difference between those different physical sensations too.
As they moved away from babyhood, I learnt that laughter and physical connecting play also helps get rid of built-up fear and frustration and helps them sleep easily. As they get older (they are now 8 and 3 and-a-half), I love to engage with the laughter games that they bring up before bed, knowing that the burst of warm physical connection helps them feel even calmer.
Last night they pretended to be stuck to each other and the sofa. I pretended I had this magic mixture that got rid of the glue, and rubbed it on them in a fun way; they laughed and laughed. On the bed, they got stuck to each other again, and I used more magic mixture. I turned out the light, we all cuddled up, and they were asleep within minutes. This morning I woke up, and Lana woke up too, and we gazed into each other’s eyes for some minutes. Then Sunny woke up, and Lana looked in his eyes and said, “I love you.” Sunny said, “I love you too.” The warm connection had continued through the night, and we had a beautiful start to our day.
As babies become toddlers, they learn about separation and connection, about going away and coming back, about trust and reassurance. About feeling a sense of connection and support even when not physically touching us. This is a time for us to learn about all these things over again too! How do we feel when we are separate from our toddler or child? Numb? Sad? Scared? Upset? Being with our toddler and child gives us a chance to differentiate between our own feelings, residues of the beliefs we learnt from our earliest experiences; and the feelings of our toddler.
How do we know when our toddler or child wants help, or to be close, when we often don’t know if and when we need these things? How do we know if our toddler is comfortable crying with us sitting on the floor next to them and gazing lovingly at them, and doesn’t need to be held when she is crying, when we are still overwhelmed by the memories of us being left alone to cry at that age? Yet again, our toddlers are inviting us to be more authentic, to be more connected to ourselves, and to know what we feel and what we need.
When my daughter was a toddler, and was feeling upset, I would always rush over to her and pick her up quickly, and she would stop crying. On some days this would happen a lot, and yet despite me being there with her and responding to her, she wouldn’t be as happy as usual – she might avoid eye contact, or be reluctant to do much exploring, or have an agitated tone to her voice.
Over time I realised that I was picking her up in such a way that gave her the message that I was scared of her feelings. My own beliefs and feelings related to being left alone to cry myself as a toddler meant that I was terrified that she might ever think I was leaving her alone to cry. Living out of that world meant I wasn’t free to be present with her feelings, and her actual level of need for closeness. Gradually I become more and more comfortable with moving in close to her more slowly, and finding the exact level of closeness where she could still express her feelings, whilst being connected with me. The more comfortable I was, the freer she became to release tension, and the happier she was – she made more eye contact, was more relaxed in her body, and the more she was comfortable to have times of exploring as well as times of true connection, with eye contact and a relaxed body.
With the increasing mobility of toddlers, parents often find that how they speak to their little ones emerges as an issue. With Aware Parenting, the intention is to work out what a toddler or child needs, and to find strategies that meet both the child’s needs and the parents’ needs. There is no use of punishments or rewards.
Yet how many of us are still punishing and rewarding ourselves? How can we avoid doing it to our children when we do it to ourselves? And going deeper into communication, how many of us are still running the internalised records of the culture we grew up in, with it’s “shoulds” and “have-to’s” and “naughty”s and “nice”s and “good”s and “bad”s and “can’t”s. How about the guilt and shame and blame and avoiding responsibility? Talking to our child in new and more aware ways is an invitation for our inner talk to change, as well as the language we use with others.
I am grateful that I came across Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org) when my daughter was about 8 months old. I devoured it, and made the commitment that my children would grow up with NVC as their first language, and that they would be able to translate the judgements and ‘should-language’ and the blaming that they heard, into feelings, needs, and beliefs. It has been a gargantuan journey, with several years in the middle where I was obsessed with using classical NVC and wanted everyone else to use it too!
Now, seven years on, I generally use colloquial NVC, and I see my children use it too. I love seeing my daughter’s ability to translate into NVC language, for example when she is reading a book to her brother. I also love how she is able to meet her need for inclusion by also using more common words when she is playing with other children not familiar with NVC (for example, if she is playing a game, and the children are explaining things to each other, she will say, “you have to run round three times….” – she knows that everyone has choice, and she knows that no-one has to do anything, and she knows how to mix with the locals!)
So, if you want to bring your child up without punishing and rewarding her, without shaming or blaming her, then I invite you to commit to being loving with yourself in the same way – to notice when you are punishing or rewarding yourself, shaming or blaming yourself, and telling yourself that you have to, or should do things, and other unfriendly self-talk. And each time you have awareness of this, know that you have a choice to change, to translate these things to your feelings, needs and beliefs; to become more intimate with yourself and what is most true for you in any situation. The more you do this, the more you will be able to give it to your children. I think you will find that life becomes a whole lot more enjoyable, and parenting becomes a lot easier!
These are all things that I love about Aware Parenting. Any challenge we have with our baby or child invites us to look inside ourselves, and to become a more whole and loving human being.
We are called to learn to listen to our needs, and find ways of meeting them, without blaming others, at the same time as we learn to understand and meet the needs of our baby and child.
We learn to love ourselves, whatever we are feeling, or doing, or telling ourselves, just as we learn to love our children, whatever they are feeling or doing or saying.
We learn to communicate about what is true for us in ways that are respectful to the other, just as they learn to do the same.
We learn to find closeness when we want it, eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired, do the things that we are drawn to, live the life we want, and trust ourselves and our desires and callings, just as our children learn to do.
And most of all, we learn to laugh when we are happy, cry when we are sad, choose to play, and live fully. Just like our children.
Parenting is such a gift, because babies and children are so perceptive and sensitive, that they keep asking us to move into more wholeness and joy and peace so that we can be there for them in ways that they really need us to be!
Whenever your baby or child does something that you don’t understand, or you have strong feelings, or unwanted words pop out of your mouth, how would it be to see all of these as an invitation? An invitation from the little being that has come into your life, and who wants to be all that she is…. because the more that you are connected to your true authentic self, the more you will be able to really see, and connect with, the unique being that she is. Parenting is thus a sacred gift. Are you willing to undo the ribbon and see the gifts that are waiting inside for you?