I received the most extraordinary gifts when my children were born. These two people that entered my life have beamed out love, beauty and aliveness every day of their lives. They brought such delight into my life. And yet, living with and caring for them also challenged me to an extent that I was totally unprepared for. I was challenged so profoundly that it completely transformed my life. I have experienced liberation through parenting. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but bear with me.
When I my first child was born I was blissfully unaware of the challenges that lay ahead. I had not reflected on what parenting would be like and I had no adult experience with young children. I hadn’t considered anything beyond giving birth and having some baby clothes and nappies on hand. In truth, no amount of thought or preparation would have really helped me prepare for parenting. From the moment my first son was born I was making it up as I went along.
The journey begins
As my journey into parenting began I discovered that lurking in my mind was a large bundle of beliefs about children and parenting. They were stashed away in my unconscious mind, just waiting to pop up when the moment was right. They were formed out of my own childhood experiences as well as scraps of information that I had absorbed from my friends, extended family and the cultural soup in which I was stewing every day. I didn’t realize it, but I had already picked up a job description. In the early years of my son’s life many of these thoughts brought stress into my life.
I was plagued by thoughts such as “He shouldn’t be crying this much”, “He should be sleeping through the night”, “He shouldn’t snatch that toy,” and “He should settle into preschool so I can go back to work!” When these thoughts conflicted with the reality of life I started to struggle with my child to try and get things to be the way I thought they should be. My attempts to teach and guide him didn’t bring the results I was looking for. This brought up even more stressful thoughts. I was haunted by the belief that parents are responsible for their children’s behaviour. If my child did something that others found unacceptable I was racked with stress and anxiety about what I should do to make that behaviour go away.
The problem was that my attempts at changing him not only didn’t work, they made me feel even worse. I knew deep down that my efforts to train and control my son were going deeply against the grain for me. I was horrified by some of the words that came out of my mouth and dismayed at the conflict between us. Although I judged myself very harshly at the time, I know that my actions were all innocent. I was following the script embedded in my mind – and believing it.
Although there were moments of delight and peace, parenting brought stress, worry and struggle into my life with surprising intensity. So much, in fact, that over a period of years I was unravelled by it – I just slowly came apart at the seams. Despite the fact that I had a healthy, delightful child, the everyday struggles (and the sleep deprivation) sucked much of the joy out of my life.
When I had another child the stakes just got higher. More joy and also more intensely stressful feelings. Little of the mainstream parenting advice seemed at all helpful to me, so I set out to find an approach to parenting that would take me beyond just coping. I didn’t want a new way of managing problems. What I was looking for was to dissolve the problems altogether. I had a passionate desire for the peace of Being – a deep peace that I could find within myself – and I wanted to experience it at home with my children.
Finding peace through asking questions
The most profound practice I have discovered for dissolving the problems of parenting is to question my thinking. I have learned pin down all those “shoulds” and open them to scrutiny. I have also questioned deep seated beliefs like the one about parents being responsible for their children’s behaviour. I ask myself; “Is this really true?
I have many different ways to question my thoughts. I read, I talk to friends and I have sought professional help. All of these have opened my mind in important ways. The most important step was forming my intention – my willingness to question any belief that brings stress into my life. I have been deeply inspired in this practice by the spiritual teacher Byron Katie. She presents a method of inquiry based on four simple, yet profound questions.
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without that thought?
Although these questions are simple, using them effectively takes courage. Many of our beliefs are hard-wired into our minds. To challenge them takes us way out of our comfort zone, even if that zone is full of negativity. These questions are best used as a guide to deep reflection or mediation.
Does he sleep through?
Take the belief “He should be sleeping through the night by now.” Many, many people in our society believe that this is something that babies should learn to do by a certain age. Who knows what that age is, but the general gist is – the sooner the better. When you have a three year old who is waking up on average four times a night this belief is really bearing down on you. It was certainly bearing down on me. I didn’t want to, but at some level I believed that there was something wrong with him or with me.
I didn’t know these four questions then, but when I use them now this is what I find.
The belief I want to question; “He should have been sleeping through the night by three.” My answer to the first question is “I don’t know.” My answer to the second question is more clear. I can’t absolutely know that my child should have been sleeping through the night by three years old. The fact was, he wasn’t and I have no idea why. It is just how he was.
How did I react when I believed that thought? I was incredibly stressed. I thought that I was not good enough as a mother that I hadn’t sorted this out. I got incredibly frustrated and angry with my child, even though I repressed a lot of those feelings. I felt desperate and inadequate as well as terribly tired. The weight of this belief was painful. And, yes, we had tried co-sleeping and it hadn’t helped. We had tried everything we knew to do.
Who would I have been without that thought? I think I would still have been very tired, but I would have been much more peaceful. As it was, I managed OK. It would have been so much easier if I hadn’t been giving myself and my son such a hard time in my head. In retrospect I think that part of the reason for his wakefulness may have been my own levels of stress and my repressed anger.
One lesson I have learned over and over again as a parent is that the more I can accept my child as they are the more peace and joy I experience. Acceptance also has a wonderful way of opening up space for new solutions to appear. If I am locked up in problem mode I can’t see the solutions, even if they are right there in front of me. The solution in this case was “Just relax, rest when you can and accept that he will grow out of it,” – and he did, quite miraculously and almost overnight when his baby brother was born.
I have now used these four questions so frequently that they feel like trusted friends. I have felt so many stressful beliefs release their grip on me. Freedom and peace flow into my life every time this happens. It has truly been a liberation for me.
I highly recommend watching Byron Katie as she guides people through these four questions. There are numerous video clips available on Katie’s website http://www.thework.com. A beautiful example is given when Byron Katie guides a woman through the process of questioning the thought “My son is weird”. The results can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04QOuP-wqVI.