Learning to let go: lessons from a 1yo baby

Why do I feel relieved when my 1yo daughter goes down for a nap?

Why do I not reach for the same feeling of relief while she is awake?

Isn’t it just my own resistance?

The Dao of parenting…sleep deprivation edition

Parenting is really really demanding.

But it’s our own resistance that makes those demands difficult to meet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to preach here; last night was one of the most challenging I’ve had in a while, so I want to move forward on this subject.

It helps to see these challenges as bringing to attention our own pockets of resistance.

But don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t feel like that right now.

When things feel really tough it’s not the best time to reach for answers. At those times the best we can do is to find the barest positives like “at least we’re all still alive!”

Here comes some resolve!

But this morning I’m feeling a little more focused. I know last night was an unwanted experience. I know I didn’t reach for relief. I know I can do better and by doing better I mean feeling better.

So I intend to remember the things I learned and applied with our first child.

Our first child was a steep learning curve and there were tough times for sure. But I recall moments of real clarity and focus that I now think were even more powerful than I realised at the time.

Be like water

The Dao is often likened to water, because water flows without effort, never holds itself back, is content to take the lowest position, but in the grand scheme of things is unstoppable in its influence.

Interacting with an infant or young child, being like water means being sensitive and adaptable without contrivances or resistance.

After all, children want to be happy and feel good. We don’t make them happy, we merely provide the basic things they need.

Happiness comes naturally.

In Chinese this kind of nature is 自然 ziran and I love this word because it basically means “flows from oneself”.

So the happiness of a child flows from itself.

But that’s not how it feels. It feels like the little darling wants to scream and cry and be constantly dissatisfied.

How can happiness be natural when the kid is so often inconsolable?

Let go of resistance

It may not be obvious at first, but there is a natural flow and it is most likely our resistance to that flow that comes before the screaming and crying kick in.

We need to be sensitive and let go of our own demands and arbitrary deadlines and procedures. In effect, we need to be guided by the child.

But the guiding can’t start in the midst of a meltdown. Start when things are relatively easy.

She has to eat!

Here’s my first point of resistance. She has to eat, and it’s vital that she eat at this time because she needs to sleep at this other time, or else she’ll be overtired and the whole schedule will fall apart and she’ll probably get sick and we’ll all die horribly..

Okay that last part is exaggerated.

But notice that before she gets upset, I’m approaching her with a determination that she must eat a certain amount of food at a specific time or else everything will fall apart!

What if she’s not hungry?

What if she’s teething and it hurts to eat?

What happens if she doesn’t eat right now?

Have a little faith

If she doesn’t eat right now, she’ll eat later when she’s hungry.

If she doesn’t sleep right this minute, she’ll sleep later when she’s tired.

And guess what? Feeding her later and sleeping her later will be so much easier if I haven’t spent the past hour or so fighting with her to eat when she’s not hungry and sleep when she’s not tired!

A little bit of faith in nature is essential. And if you talk to anyone who’s had a few kids their faith is heavily seasoned by experience.

Speaking of nature as “flowing from oneself”, our 1yo hadn’t pooped for three whole days. But we knew from our first child (and yes we worried back then) that this is totally normal.

Make sure they have plenty of water, make sure their diet is good. Otherwise just sit back and wait because it will inevitably flow from themselves!

And when it comes, it will come abundantly….

But what about my schedule?

If your schedule works, then keep doing it. But if you’re finding that “nothing works!”, if you’re at the end of your tether, then consider no longer fighting, resisting, or struggling.

What I’m reminding myself is that when I let go of my preconceptions and resistance and have the intention to just flow naturally, I become more relaxed and more sensitive to what is going on.

I’m better able to read her moods and wants and needs and she seems to adapt to my greater ease and letting go of the struggle.

We create our reality

My problem is not that I’m forced to care for a difficult child single-handed. My problem is that I’ve let worries and cares and resistance accrue for a while and I’ve only gone looking for relief when I felt completely overwhelmed.

It’s taken time for me to acknowledge I want life to be different on this subject.

And then it took more time for me to know how I want it to be different, the kind of difference I’d like to see.

It’s not about the baby, it’s about me and my habits of reaching for better feelings, or digging more firmly into resistance.

So to come full circle – she’s asleep right now, not because I made an effort or was super patient, but because I felt suddenly inspired to leave the house and go for a walk with her.

She fell asleep about twenty minutes into the walk, but I hardly noticed because I was busy looking at the beautiful houses and trying to work out which house owned a tiny little driveway that I’d never noticed, tucked away between two other houses.

It turned out to be the rear entrance to a massive heritage estate, taking up about 4,000 sqm of land right in the midst of ordinary suburbia.

I’d never noticed it before, but isn’t that a wonderful omen? In the midst of “normalcy” we might stumble upon the path to something amazing and beautiful, so long as we are open to that experience!

Happiness Challenge Day 8

This morning I’m feeling uncharacteristically happy, and I love it.

I just got off the computer and found myself feeling like I’d just accomplished something wonderful, but couldn’t remember what it was.

Once upon a time I would have punctured that good mood immediately, worried I was losing my grip on reality.

“You can’t feel good without doing something to deserve it!

But actually I have done something: I’ve spent the last eight days challenging myself to make feeling good the rule, no exceptions.

And on the back of nearly two years of gradual work at feeling better, I’ve well and truly earned this feeling of ease, satisfaction, and accomplishment.

I’ve become so good at finding relief that last night we took the kids to a movie screening at the park, and I looked after them on my own for four hours, including feeding them and getting them to bed, so my wife could go to a local Symphony performance.

That might not sound like a big deal, but not so long ago I would have felt too tired, too stressed, or too anxious.

I would have asked my wife to choose between the movie or the symphony because both was “too much” for me to handle alone.

I’ve learned to actively find relief, knowing that this not only feels better right away, but also makes my future path easier.

So I’m relishing this good feeling right now, making hay while the sun shines, but also knowing the sun will always shine, and I love the rain just as much anyway!

Raising happy children

It’s actually not difficult, since children are naturally happy and find happiness easily.

All you really have to do is not actively undermine them and you’re already ahead.

I took to heart some painful lessons from my own childhood, and so with my kids I make an effort to:

Not belittle them, their efforts or their interests.

Not criticise, pick on, or draw attention to perceived faults.

Not mock, ridicule or laugh at them.

Limit the harm

We aren’t perfect. I get angry, frustrated, and can be petty or stubborn.

But I make an effort to limit the harm my bad mood might have on my kids.

I apologise to them, and explain that even if they’ve done something wrong, they aren’t to blame for my mood.

Sometimes our reactions as parents can be remarkably childish. It’s important to admit that and apologise rather than dig in and get defensive.

Focus on happiness

As part of my own efforts to be happier I’ve taught my son the “feeling game”, which is basically about finding good things to focus on rather than bad ones.

He’s taken to it with enthusiasm, and will even remind me of it when I’m frustrated or tired.

He has learned through his own experience that focusing on the wanted aspects of life is far more enjoyable than whining about the unwanted.

I don’t think we have to be perfect to be good parents. But I hope at least that my kids will grow up with a clear sense that happiness is accessible to them, and that my honest admission of my slip-ups and shortcomings on this path will aid them in their own journey.

Is it time to consider the lily?

My latest piece at MercatorNet is part 2 of my parenting tips from a low-energy father. Therein I advise we draw on providence and find ways to be happy, for the benefit of ourselves and our children:

Parenting doesn’t end at getting things done. Parents aren’t machines. We model not only our behaviours and skills to our children, but our entire worldview and the moods and personality traits that accompany it.

We can, in a sense, “do everything right” but still inhabit a joyless existence, and our children are powerfully susceptible to the long-term influence of our attitude to life.

That’s why good communication is not enough, and why – for my own sake, and for the sake of my children – I set out learning how to change how I feel.

https://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/is-it-time-to-consider-the-lily/21652

Parenting advice from a low-energy father

In my latest at article at MercatorNet I share the merits of assertive communication in raising kids:

instead of using aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviours to coerce others into doing what you want, you can learn to literally assert your needs and wants, thoughts and feelings to others, with the implication that merely communicating your own inner world is the first and most important step in interacting with others.

In other words, relationships are ideally not power struggles of passive or outright coercion, manipulation and resentment. How novel!

Learning to communicate well is important because other people don’t necessarily understand what we want, think, or feel (even though it’s obvious, right?), and many of us are blinded to good communication by an expectation of conflict in our relationships.

But in an ideal world we could all learn to be open and clear about what we want, think, and feel, and let others decide how they think, feel, and want in response to that.

https://www.mercatornet.com/family_edge/view/3-parenting-tips-from-a-low-energy-father/21616

Paypal gay picnic threat: a symbolic masterpiece in disguise

When I first saw this image on Paypal’s front page I just assumed it was a homophobic depiction of a small child fleeing in terror from a gay couple out for a picnic in the park.

gay picnic

Nice one Paypal, I thought, That’ll set the cause of sexual diversity back a couple of decades.

But then I took a closer look, and suddenly it struck me that the two men were uncannily similar in appearance. So similar, in fact, that they could be the same person.

ghost of parenting

That’s when I realised the true depth of meaning behind this otherwise totally innocuous image.

Imagine there’s only one man, the man in the beige shorts, and what do you have? Just a father happily taking his daughter out for a picnic lunch in the park. He’s nicely and colourfully dressed. He has a fond and amiable expression on his face. He’s hoisting a picnic basket, a mat and other picnic paraphenalia in somewhat jaunty fashion, with another bag slung over his left shoulder but hidden from view.

What about the daughter? In one sense she’s the perfect image of a happy child playing on her obviously new and expensive scooter with a kind of stock photo abandon. Yet her eyes are fixed, uncaring, straight ahead, belying her otherwise excited expression. There’s a callous tone to her excitement. She’s happy to be riding, but in truth she’s riding away from her father. She knows he can’t keep up, and this points to a deeper tension in the entire scene, a tension embodied in the man in the red shorts.

Red-shorts-man is clearly an older version of the father. Like the ghost of picnics-future his hair is grayed and his whole appearance is faded and wan. Even his shoes have been drained of their colour.

His face is weary, pale, and full of apprehension. He watches his daughter through heavily-lidded eyes, his mouth open on the verge of an exhausted cry, his head tipped back as if he can hardly find the strength to keep it upright.

What is he? Is he a ghost? A photographic negative? Or is he an image of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths of the father’s soul in which lie all manner of anxieties and stress, in which the burden of keeping up the appearance of a picture-perfect picnicking parent is just too much to bear? To fully understand we must look to the symbols that attend the man in red shorts.

On his left hand he wears a watch, symbolising awareness of time and heightening our sense of urgency. Yet the watch dial is hidden from view, pressed against his shoulder by the burden he carries. Yes, time is a burden and the burdens we bear warp our perception of time. How long have they travelled? How soon must they return? These thoughts are both brought into being and simultaneously crushed by the increasing distance between father and daughter and his secret apprehension of what lies in wait further down the path.

Red-shorts-man is on the father’s left side, representing the introspective, introverted aspect of our psyche. While the father’s right hand (extroverted, conscious mind) is preoccupied with the picnic-materials, his ghostly companion clings desperately to the left. He expands the father’s hidden burden – the bag on the left shoulder. At the same time the father shrugs his shoulder against the ghostly presence, as if to deny its existence.

Red-shorts-man is in the midst of a powerful stride. He marches ahead, pulling the father forward, urging haste.  And yet at the same time he is somehow insubstantial. Like a balloon about to take flight he threatens to hover, incorporeal, as fears and anxieties draw us away too from our enjoyment of the present moment.

Red-shorts-man’s shoulders are equally weighted with baggage, he is fully laden not only with life’s present burdens but with the accumulated cares and concerns of the past. Is he truly older? No, his age, like his faded appearance represent the toll these cares and worries take on us all.

Why then the red shorts?

Red is a primal colour, a colour of fear and of blood, the two elements that bind father and daughter. Blood is family, heredity, relation. The fear, the terror of separation and loss echo through the father’s subconscious mind. But why shorts? Shorts are metaphorically at “the bottom”. They tie into a deep history of biological allusions not only to reproduction (the father as father) but also to our rich vocabulary of intestinal profanities: Crap! S***! Bugger!

They also point to the upper legs, the thighs, the powerful quadriceps muscles and the fight-or-flight response that has him set to run, to take off in pursuit of the daughter at the first sign of danger.

And what is this danger?

In a word: nature. Mother nature, human nature, the world beneath and beyond the limits of human civilisation.

The father, the man in red shorts, are safely on the path. The bold clear lines of concrete cut a swathe through the terrifying darkness of the wild. But it is into this wild that the daughter now careers headlong.

To the left of the image nature dominates. It is the unknown territory Paypal would have us ‘unleash’ and ‘explore’.

And yet…just where the trees should be at their thickest we see the edge of another path and even a glimmer of a fence or railing, more vestiges of civilisation.

In the end Paypal leaves us with a puzzle. It tells us “New Money takes you on new adventures” and extols a “sense of wonder”. But the world it offers us to explore is already bounded and fenced-in. It is safe. The only danger is an appearance of danger, the only fear is failing to have enough New Money to be happy.

At this final point the entire project is cast into doubt. What is there to fear if everything is mapped out, paved, and fenced-in?

The tantalising answer suggests itself: this very incongruity, the call to adventure in the midst of a fully bounded and stagnant landscape, is itself the instigator of an existential dread.

Yes, this is the true nature of the father’s subconscious fear. It is not fear for his daughter’s safety, but fear of the future she represents. The bulk of the red-shorts-man’s burdens are not on his right (extroversion, the real world), but on his left (introversion, the inner world). His anxiety is not for real-world incidents but an anxiety of meaning and purpose.

Westerners read from left to right and our interpretation of compositions is coloured by this influence. Yet the people in this composition are traversing from right to left across the screen. They are moving back into the past, to a place where the father at least has already been, where there is no adventure, no uncertainty, no possibilities. The daughter represents the future, but even she is returning to the past, and the circularity of the path suggests an endless loop of generations and of experience.

There is nothing new under the sun, Paypal cries, echoing Ecclesiastes. The father’s fond amiability, the daughter’s naive excitement, they spin together in a fixed orbit while red-shorts-man goes along, the only clue to something awry in this happy spectacle of endless and repetitive consumption. “Trip of a lifetime!” the caption mocks, as if to shock us from our complacence, its irony a stinging rebuke to the public perception of online shopping as the sine qua non of a brighter tomorrow.

Brooding on breeding

Dtcwee has had an article published on ABC Open. Check it out:

Much of the difficulty, I think, comes from the notion that children are a choice. There is even more baggage in the modern world surrounding self-determination.

Ironically, this baggage is involuntary. The truth is that circumstances play a huge part. Just as many are not childless by choice, many pregnancies are unintended; about 40 percent worldwide. Of those, quite a proportion are brought to term.

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/97611

Childhood 2.0 is a little buggy

My latest piece on MercatorNet is a reflection on recent experiences beta-testing virtual parenthood, grappling with the influence of new technologies on our way of life and the raising of our child:

Yet we couldn’t fault him, because as a mere toddler he only wishes to emulate his parents, to enjoy what they enjoy and do what they do. His excessive devotion to the computer and the smartphone is not his problem – it’s his parents’ problem. His crying and screaming are a rebuke to the idiot parents who expect their son to do what they do and enjoy what they enjoy only when it suits them; parents who want their child to live a happy and balanced life despite their own imbalanced habits.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/childhood_2.0_is_a_little_buggy

DadFit

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I know a few people involved in CrossFit competitions, and having seen what they’re capable of, I have to admit I’m impressed.

The CrossFit principle of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad modal and time domains” supposedly avoids the pitfalls of specialisation in more traditional forms of fitness and sport.  For example, no matter how good I am at kung fu, I might not be so good at doing chin-ups, rowing a boat, or running a moderate distance.  Fitness is very narrow, as your body quickly and efficiently adjusts to whatever specific activity you are doing.

Which is why I think we need a new discipline for parents, which I’ll call ‘DadFit’.  DadFit recognises that parenting requires a unique subset of physical fitness, a blend of endurance and strength rarely seen in more traditional forms of exercise.

Like CrossFit, DadFit will involve “constantly varied functional movements”, albeit of a very specific variety; functional movements such as:

– Carrying a 12kg toddler in both ‘squirming’ and ‘dead weight’ modes at randomly varying intervals over a distance categorised as ‘further than I realised’.

– Getting in and out of a car with 12kg toddler, nappy bag, toddler’s shoes, a ball, and three bags of groceries.

– Gently lowering a semi-somnolent toddler onto his bed without waking the child or crippling one’s back.

– Removing a screaming toddler in full tantrum from a public place while maintaining a vestige of dignity.

What truly sets DadFit apart from other exercise regimes is that DadFit is trained under very particular conditions.

Firstly, DadFit must be performed within the haze of debilitating long-term sleep deprivation.  Secondly, while DadFit exercises are timed, it is important that competitors feel they might go on forever.  Thirdly, while other exercise regimes are typically performed according to strict standards with impartial oversight, DadFit exercises take place in a condition of complete existential doubt. At no time should DadFit competitors have any confidence that they are performing the exercise correctly.

There is of course a corresponding ‘MumFit’, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I hear the warm-up alone takes a good nine months.

 

 

 

The Dao of Parenting

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A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.