Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C
It seems to me that many parents I come across in my practice are in a grieving process without being fully aware of it. I would venture a guess that there are many parents outside of my practice who are grieving as well. Grieving, while often associated with death, is really just a word that describes a transition from one reality to another. Transitions have stages that go along with grief like, sadness, denial, blaming, anger, bargaining, and relief. We can grieve relationships with or without death. We can grieve changes, like moving from a home we have loved to a new home- even if we are excited about the move. What I think most parents grieve is the fantasy they had about the parent they thought they would be. We all have those thoughts before we become parents, then, after becoming parents, we have days where we question what the heck we were thinking in the first place.
I remember having my first daughter. I was so excited and felt so much joy that she was coming. I was allowed that pure joy because I did not fully understand at that time, nor could I really without experiencing it, the enormous undertaking I was embarking upon. I remember that almost confused feeling, where my husband and I wondered aloud how it was that we came to the hospital, two of us, and left with a whole extra person. All the nurse needed to check was that we had a car seat properly installed. I’m sure the same is true for adoption and fostering as well. One day there are two of you, or one person on your own and the next day there is a whole extra person who does not know a thing about your expectations (even if you told them) and they are just there…all the time.
I think of those emotions, in contrast to having my second daughter, where I cried in the delivery room before I had her. When my husband asked me why I was crying, I told him I was happy, but I was also scared. I knew then the awesome responsibility we were taking on. We were responsible for a human life…two of them! Even with the knowledge that we had a supportive family and community around us I still felt that feeling, you know, that knowing that “the buck stops here.” I wanted to be a good parent and, even with all my training as a social worker, I knew it was going to be tough to feel successful as a parent.
I know too, that for parents adopting children at an older age, there is an added complexity. When you adopt an older child, you don’t have the advantage that parent of infants have in that, when you figure out you do not know what the heck you are doing, your child does not understand that you are just figuring this stuff out too. Instead, you have a child who is probably a bit hypervigilant, who is looking to see if you do know what you are doing, and who is actively testing you every step of the way (usually without naps). Even if you have already raised biological children, you have now taken on a child with a history you did not control and that was not ideal. They are going to be vigilant in their seeking to see if you know what you are doing, as you realize that really, lots of times you don’t, even if you went to all the trainings about therapeutic parenting.
A few weeks ago, I was laughing with a mom in my office when she told me she thought adopting internationally would be great, her son would be used to other children, having spent the first year of his life in an orphanage with other children. She would put him into daycare right away, where he would be familiar with other children, then she could keep working, and sometimes she and her husband could sneak away for dates periodically. She told me this after we had just spent the session with me reinforcing the importance of this mom spending time alone with her husband, since she had been a stay at home mom and they had not had a date in the three years since they brought their child home.
We parents all know that the actual day to day realities of raising children are different, perhaps vastly different, than what we expected. Some of it is more amazing than we could have ever imagined. Parenting can be funny, serious, exciting, and tiring! No matter what, it is always different than we thought it would be.
The children I see most often come with an unique set of challenges. They have been traumatized. Their brains work differently than other children’s brains due to neglect or drug use while they were in utero. They have experienced loss. Their hearts have been broken. In a harsher, less gradual way, the parents I see recognize that the children that live with them, sometimes children they have not had an opportunity to fall in love with yet, if they were adopted at an older age, need more than our traditional notions of parenting have afforded us. Biological parents can find this out as well. We live in a new age of parenting where there really is no dominant model for parents to follow. The media loves to tell you how to raise your child the “best” way until, if you were to try to simultaneously follow all the advice, you would feel schizophrenic trying to figure out whether you are supposed to tell them what to do, let them figure it out themselves, hover, or hang back, stay home or work… the list is endless.
I think a big part of the grieving I see in parents is grieving the loss of knowing what you are supposed to do! As a single, or even in a couple, before those little ones came along, we knew which days were sleeping in days. We ran our own schedules. We thought when the kids came we still would know what to expect in a given day, remember? Remember transitioning from most of the time being your time, to your time feeling like stolen time where you had to weigh whether it was “worth it” to take time for yourself away from your children? I remember before children, going to the movies with my husband and turning around to go home without seeing a movie because we had already seen all the movies that were worth seeing. One day we will get there again…maybe.
Until then, we will go through a series of transitions. We will transition from knowing where our child learned everything, to hearing them have a thought or bring home an understanding from someplace else. We will watch our children prove to us over and over that while we can attempt to control their outside world, we do not have total control over their inside world as they will have their own unique interpretations of the world as they see it. We will realize we can not shield them from pain, nor can we make them forget the pain they have already experienced in the way we fantasized we could. We will see our own understanding of parenting shift as well. The parent we thought we would be makes way for the parent that we are becoming. Often, we find that rather than being the parent we imagined we would be, we must adapt to becoming the parent our unique children need us to be.
What have been some of the transitions you have made as a parent that surprised you?
Messing Up Children in Just the Right Ways (help4yourfamily.com)
A Quick Primer on Early Primary Relationships (help4yourfamily.com)
To Parents Who Worry Their Children Will Harm Others (help4yourfamily.com)
Quick Self-Care for Parents (help4yourfamily.com)
Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C
This week I am writing to you from my vacation because I love you just that much. I am in Hawaii and I have been reminded of something that feels too good not to share. It is this…remember it is important to stand back in awe at the wonders of all life has to offer. I know that feels easy for me to say from Hawaii, but I was actually first reminded of this two times on my day long plane trip to get here (12 hours for those who are wondering).
On the second plane I was on there was an infant that could not have been more than two weeks old with her parents and three doting women, maybe grandma’s and aunts, in her entourage. She was a beautiful little baby and I had a wonderful, nosy neighbor view as I watched her parents rock her, coo with her and love on her. I got to see her sweet little smile and remember other babies I have held, my own, my niece and nephews, my friend’s children, my client’s children and grandchildren. I felt awe at the realization that we go from being such fragile, dependent beings to functioning people who walk and talk and make major decisions on a daily basis.
I know some people don’t like plane rides but I love it. There are so many things you just can’t do on a plane. I can’t fix anyone a sandwich. I can’t take anyone anywhere, get an extra load of laundry in, do a quick clean up, or return phone call or emails. I can have a conversation with anyone who wants to have a conversation with me, my husband, my children, or a random passenger who feels like talking even though I’m too shy to initiate the conversation. I can take a cat nap. I can read a book, watch a movie, if one is offered, or catch up on reading the newspaper. It was actually while catching up on the news that I found my second moment that reminded me of the importance of awe.
Everyone who knows me knows that catching up on reading the newspaper is a pretty quick deal for me. I skim over the bad parts, just enough to be informed, and focus on the good parts. Anyone who reads the news knows that’s a quick read because there is not much good stuff. This past Sunday however, in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, I got a nice surprise. There is an article which details the love story of Bill Ott and Shelly Belgard, two mentally impaired adults who fell in love and got married. I actually went to high school with Bill. We did not know each other personally but I do remember him going to prom (he might even have been with Shelly). I remember how dear he was with his date, how they both remarked about being nervous to one of the chaperones, and how they both were smiling every time I happened to see them.
The part of the article that reminded me about awe came from a quote from Shelly’s mother, Gail Belgard. In it she talked about how the doctors told her when Shelly was born that she would not live six weeks. Her mother says that Shelly kept “not dying” and actually went on to begin walking and talking. “You know what was nice?” Gail remembers. “People have all these expectations of their children or wishes for their children — to go to Harvard or whatever. For us it was, ‘Shelley learned to tie her shoe! She learned to feed herself! Gee, she’s walking!’ Everything was great. Whatever she was doing was great.” (Washington Post Magazine, Feb 7, 2013)
This made me think of the families I work with. So many children come to me who have suffered incredibly difficult trauma and/or neglect from very early on. It is amazing that they are able to survive with any of their spirit intact. I am in awe of their ability to survive. Much of my work has to do with helping parents to see the enormity of a child trusting in parents again after an essential parent/child trust has been broken. I wish I could give some of the parents who come through my doors a bit of the feeling that Shelly’s mom had but in this case, a sense of wonder when a child is willing to tell you the truth, even after a lie, even though they might get in trouble; or a sense of wonder when a child asks for help, even though they have always relied on their own skewed sense of survival to make it through the day.
As a reward for reading this far, I want to share with you a third moment of awe that I felt, this one from the actual vacation. We went on a whale watch this morning at sunrise. I got to see the sun come up and there was a moment when I realized that on Maui, you don’t have to look for rainbows as much as you see that the world is the rainbow. Whales were all around and my husband was good enough to catch a bit of it so I can share it with you…
When Bill Met Shelly: No Disability Could Keep Them Apart (Washington Post Magazine)
The Importance of Delight (help4yourfamily.com)
Parent Affirmation Monday- being present (help4yourfamily.com)
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- Happy Parent Tip #1
- Why Sexual Abuse is Never a Child’s Fault…Not Even a Teenager
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- This is your brain on attachment
- Last Chance for Two Great Opportunities
- Mother’s Retreat Weekend- It’s Really Happening!
- Stopping the Parent Shame and Blame Game
- Making Peace With Your Inner Critic
- Putting together something fun for you!
- Quick Jobs for Kids
- Staying Strong as a Couple