When I speak with my friends about the rigors of parenting, we invariably talk about “so many needs!” Whether you have one child or eight, it’s easy to feel crushed by the weight of their needs. Being empathic in the moment makes our parenting easier and better.
Very often, the needs of the moment — what you perceive as needing to be done or taken care of at this time — are in conflict with the needs of the child. This is inevitable and healthy. We don’t want children who suppress their needs to make our lives easier or theirs less scary.
What we want is to be able to meet the needs of the moment and the needs of our child’s moments, in each moment as they come.
This is impossible. So we do the next best thing, which is to cultivate an empathic presence and meet the needs of everyone, including ourselves, when we can.
Our needs are very related.
The awareness of the interdependence of our needs and those of our children is crucial. Our happiness and well being impacts theirs, and their happiness and well-being impacts ours. It would be hard to say which correlation is stronger! Your needs are their needs and their needs are your needs. And you have to meet them all.
No wonder parenting is hard.
In truth, it’s not about meeting everyone’s needs every time. It’s more about the quality of your presence. Needs are met when you can just be there — just be with your children in an open and understanding way.
How can we be present, empathically, with our children?
1. Be aware of your own shortcomings, limits, dark feelings, and stresses.
When you know that x, y, and z set you off, you can see where your feelings are coming from and gain some power over them.
Your awareness of your personal limits and darknesses gives your smart mind something to do with the feelings you have — a box to put them in or a way to drain the color for the moment. Part of the way I healed from postpartum OCD was to notice the destructive thoughts and say: “Oh yeah, there’s my little problem. That goes here. I don’t have to think more about it.”
2. Be aware of how parenting brings up difficult feelings from your time being parented.
Often we lack empathy for our children because we are protecting ourselves from the pain we experienced as a child. Empathizing with a child’s vulnerability reminds us of our own vulnerability.
If our children are experiencing something similar to what we experienced, we can avoid feeling the pain of those memories by turning off the feelings. It may also be that we fear becoming our parents, and our children are pointing to the ways we are doing just that.
These are not easy to reconcile. You don’t have to. You don’t need to fix or heal or get past it to empathically parent your child. You just need be aware that that is what is happening.
3. Accept your feelings for what they are.
Your feelings are just feelings. People have lots of them. They are often brought on by fake things we think about ourselves, our children, our situation, the world.
Most of our thoughts are unreliable and inaccurate. It’s the brain’s job to think of All The Things. That doesn’t mean you have to believe them all.
Whatever you feel, whether you like it or not, whether it makes sense or not, just accept that right now, in this moment, it’s how you feel. Judging your feelings is unhelpful.
Your brain may judge or name your feelings — that’s its job. Like advice from your mother in law, you don’t have to accept it. “Thank you brain, that’s very nice, I’m glad you’re still here, doing your thing. I have considered it and it’s not the way to go for me.”
4. Realize and remind yourself that these are children.
What they do is what kids do. Not that you can’t or shouldn’t correct what isn’t in their/your best interest, but that’s part of the deal.
Kids aren’t doing kid stuff to make your life hard and more than babies cry to manipulate you.
I remember my dad getting all upset and I really had no idea what he was upset about. I’d have made some colossal mess or been unable to do the thing just right and he’d get frustrated and say: “Just walk away” or “Think! Use your brain! Can’t you just think before you do things?” or “Oh, I’ll do it myself!” I felt more confused than hurt. I was just doing what 8 year olds do.
5. See your mind like an ocean.
The surface of the ocean varies a lot, but underneath, it’s always still. Spend time in meditation or another solitudinous activity to learn about your calm, deep places. Then learn to access them.
In times of tumult, you can just go under and wait or react from a calm place while the seas surge above. Understanding and feeling the depths of the calm parts can help you learn from as well as tame the crazy.
6. Act in awareness.
When you’re picking up your baby, realize you are picking up your baby. You have a baby and right now you are picking it up.
When you are helping your toddler through an emotionally turbulent affair in the library, you are helping your toddler deal with an strong and inconvenient emotion.
When you are tucking in your children at night, you are tucking in your children for the night.
Be right there.
7. Consider that you can never really know your own child.
Some people find this idea haunting or destructive. I like to think that it opens up our relationship to be more than just parent/child, boss/kid.
If you have a (probably fairly accurate) notion of who your child is, you will see primarily those aspects in her. You’ll see those particular limitations and watch her actions with a predefined set of interpretations. Your brain will find things to show you that you are right about them. This confirmation bias prevents you from seeing the real person, from truly knowing your own child and being able to parent them ideally.
When we become parents, our highs are higher and our lows are lower. Living in awareness and stillness, being with our children in empathy, makes it easier to survive these swings.