Our culture is very focused on thinking, talking, reasoning - these are great human strengths. And yet, they are not our strongest ways of being. What our culture has tried to forget is that we are mostly animals, mammals, embodied beings that have exceptional capabilities but still are beholden to our biology in many, many ways. I have learned a hard lesson (again and again) since my baby was born. I cannot, no matter how much I try, I cannot use just my brain to parent. So many of us parents feel like failures on the regular, none of us are alone in that (if that idea gives any solace…) and I am no exception, even when I felt so well prepared with my masters degree and my therapy and my experience. I am still, in fact, also a mammal.
All my learning and practice and thinking and reasoning could not have prepared me for the completely emotional and embodied experience of raising a child.
This is not news to anyone who has been in the trenches, but did you know that your sweet, snuggly, soft cooing baby will eventually grow into a walking, talking toddler who one day, much to your surprise, will, with all her force and might, slap you directly in the face? I’m not speaking figuratively. This tiny person will actually rear back with her little hand and slap you right in the face so hard your eyes will water. This child you have yearned for, stayed up all night for, fed, clothed, kissed, and generally loved with every inch of your being. Oh yeah, her? She’ll punch you in the face. And guess what?? You don’t get to hit her back!! She’s tiny and her brain is underdeveloped, remember? She’s trying a thing and you get to be the guinea pig. Yippee. Can we, as essentially animals with the ability to talk, stay calm in this moment? Maybe yes, maybe no. What about the tenth time she punches you in the face? Ha! If you stay perfectly calm and loving in that moment then you are a better person than I. But still, violence is not the answer (sorry), so what is a bordering-on-mental-breakdown parent to do? The answer is in the body. Hers, and yours.
A bottom up approach to parenting means we consider brain development in addressing parenting and behavior issues. We consider that both children and adults struggle with reasoning and empathy when upset, and small children struggle with reasoning and empathy simply as a condition of their age/development. When we look at the brain for answers, we learn that the strongest parts of a small child’s brain are impulsive and survival focused - and that most of their communication comes from their bodies because their language just isn’t there yet. When children behave in ways that we feel are inappropriate, the answer is usually in their bodies. What do their bodies need? Do they need comfort? Food? Exercise? Rest? For my little Pacquiao-wannabe extra exercise has been life saving.
I also have to think about what my body needs. Because when I get hit in the face my body wants to explode. I try to do preventative care with some yoga or stretching whenever I can. I try to make myself go to bed even though I sometimes want to stay up and enjoy my alone time just a little bit longer. And when I get hit in the face? I need to move. Go outside. Challenge my toddler to a race. We both need to expend energy in that moment. I used to try to contain the aggression, both hers and mine; that was futile. The energy is there, like it or not. Our mammalian impulses are there. But, when we are at our best, we can use our smart brains to focus that energy. For me, I need a plan and lots of support in order to be my best self.
I was shocked to discover that I didn’t have complete control over my body. Knowing the right things to do and actually doing them when you are tired, lonely, and getting punched in the face are two very different things. I yelled. I stomped around. I took my wrap off in a huff and threw it. I slammed doors. I plunked my kid less than delicately on the bed when I had had enough already! I’m glad it wasn’t worse, but it could have been.
I regret so much.
And also, I’m trying to forgive myself. Every new stage calls for a regrouping process. My self - forgiveness comes from two places: one, friends who nod knowingly when I describe my adult sized tantrums, and two, understanding that aggression is inside every single one of us and only when we get what our bodies need, can we rise above it.