Motherhood, Parenting, Personal Growth, Relationships

How to Be an Emotional Adult

Angry kitten by zhouxuan12345678 on flickr

Last week I wrote about helping kids to navigate the often murky waters of their own feelings.  This is an important investment of our time as parents, to be sure – but kids aren’t the only ones who need to increase their emotional intelligence.  Some grown-ups still have a lot of growing-up to do when it comes to identifying, handling, and expressing emotion, too.

We adults – just like our kids – can be pretty clueless about how we’re feeling in some situations.  Why, otherwise, would we pull a kid back to prevent him from stepping off a curb into traffic and express our relief at having saved them by yelling at them?!  You know, the old “You could have died!  I’m gonna wring your neck!” speech… * We don’t choose carefully measured words because we are a jumble of nerves and emotions at that moment that we’ve saved a child from the precipice.  We can’t reasonably process all that we’re feeling – and so we express ourselves poorly.

*[Disclaimer here: it is a normal reaction to speak in violent hyperbole when rescuing children from certain death – this does not mean that we follow through with actual physical violence.]

We adults aren’t just clueless about how we’re feeling.  As the above example demonstrates, we’re not always in control of our emotions, either.  We don’t always express our anxiety, anger, or sadness appropriately.  But letting our kids see that we’re working on being better at those things can help them to realize that it’s important for them to make the same effort.  And yes, if we find that we’re consistently ‘venting’ in ways that aren’t healthy for our families or making excuses for yelling, ranting, and raging, then it’s time to get help.

I find it useful to give my family a ‘heads-up’ when I’m feeling particularly stressed or hormonal – not so that I have an excuse for losing my temper, but so that they can understand if I’m not as patient as I’d like to be.  And an apology goes a long way; if we admit that we’ve behaved in a way that we’re not proud of, it puts the responsibility for our actions on our own shoulders so that our kids are less likely to take a sharp answer or impatient attitude personally.  Apologising also demonstrates an important point:

We are responsible for our own actions, even when we feel that our negative feelings might excuse the poor choices we make in expressing those emotions.

We are the adults.  We need to be committed to striving for emotional maturity (more on that later).

It’s important to realize, too, that there are cultural and family differences that influence where we set our threshold for emotional expression.

Brits (and British colonials) have generally exhibited a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to emotion; that is, don’t let that lower lip wobble and show your vulnerability, but push your feelings to the side and get on with it.  Latin temperaments tend towards the opposite end of the spectrum; Italians and people from other Latinate backgrounds are more likely to display their feelings in a ‘fiesta’ of passions; in those societies, it’s considered braver and more honest to express emotion than to contain it.  Both of these approaches have their benefits and their costs.  When we never address how we’re feeling, we risk becoming too repressed and never making ourselves truly known (nor ever truly knowing others); when we allow ourselves unrestricted expression of emotion, we can cause rifts in our relationships when we vent our frustrations in a heated moment (because seldom do these frustrations typify our feelings about the other person/people the rest of the time – they’re a flash in the pan).

Whether your family growing up embodied the ‘fight hard, love hard’ approach to life, or whether they exhibited a ‘tortoise’ mentality (duck down and wait ‘til it’s over – hide in your shell from those uncomfortable feelings), it WILL have an impact on how you behave in your own relationships today.  It will also affect how you behave in your role as a parent.  But it doesn’t have to be just a matter of walking in your parents’ shoes – you can make deliberate choices to achieve what you feel is a healthy balance (bearing in mind that you don’t want to be extremely to one side or the other of this spectrum).

So, what does emotional maturity look like?  Well, to me it looks something like this:

  • Acknowledging emotions – Accepting that you are an emotional being, and that feelings lend both colour and meaning to your existence.
  • Correctly identifying emotions – “Am I scared? Anxious?  Frustrated? Lonely?”
  • Tracing the source of your feelings – “This feels like anger, but what am I really upset about? Do I feel ignored?  Am I just hungry or tired and so my patience has petered out?”
  • Avoiding blame You’re responsible for your own reactions, and you shouldn’t allow the actions of others to control how you feel.
  • Expressing your emotions in a helpful, considerate, and honest manner – not ‘venting’ or allowing your emotions to control your behaviour to an unhealthy degree.

One of the signs of true emotional maturity in a parent is not mirroring your kids’ craziness back to them.  If your kid’s angry, then he’s angry – it doesn’t mean you have to be, too.  When your preschooler is losing it at the gate into school, you don’t have to burst into tears along with her (even though your heart is breaking) – because you know that you have to hold it together for her sake.

And please don’t think I’m holding myself up as any sort of epitome of emotional maturity here – I am SUCH a work-in-progress on this.  I’m not there yet – but I know where the goal posts are, and I am ever striving towards them.

Our kids need good role models who understand emotion and deal with their feelings in a healthy way.  Parents, let’s work towards demonstrating emotional maturity as we deal with our kids and the other people in our lives who make us crazy!  

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Life, Parenting

Missing: One Sense of Humour

 

magnifying glass by solveigzophoniasdottir on flickr

 

Parenting is a serious business.  We’re charged with the care and safety of actual living people; and, more than that, we are expected to teach and encourage these little human beings, and nurture them to maturity as well.

When my first two boys were small, I was continually stressed out about their very survival.  Our A. has always been a curious child, and as a tot he would engage in ritual experiments involving water and wetting things and messes and tasting things…  Thus I never really trusted that I could safely leave him alone for a minute.

With the provision of a little brother, A.’s curiosity saw a natural opportunity to try out all those things he had wondered about but had been concerned about having an adverse effect on his own well-being.  And although not a naturally rough or violent child, he was as yet too young to appreciate the possibly fatal or damaging consequences of some of the experiments for which he had volunteered his brother as guinea pig. Why do they say it hurts when you pull hair? he would query. What happens when you move the cushion the baby’s leaning on?  And when B. cried, it was an interesting resolution to that query for him – so he moved on to the next experiment, and then the next (and so on).

I was terrified that one of these hypotheses would involve a heavy object and his baby brother’s head, and so I hovered, vigilant always, to protect B. from A. and A. from himself.

As B. grew, he proved sturdy enough to endure even the most rigorous testing from A. – and indeed, he soon began to investigate various theories of physics for himself.  He was the most agile and fearless of climbers.  The idea of B. and any balcony containing furniture sent chills down my spine – I could just picture him clambering up and…  Once, when he was about eighteen months old, I happened to glance away from him – and in that short moment he managed to mount an exterior flight of stairs and exit onto the flat roof of my sister’s house.  Parenting B. has never been for the faint of heart.

Enter C. and I suddenly found myself with three boys under four and only my original two flapping hands and two crazily-darting eyes to cope with them.

While I loved – adored! – my three tots, I was regularly in spasms of anxiety about their safety.  It just seemed that risks and danger lurked everywhere – and that was without being paranoid about it!

It was no surprise that I found myself rather lacking in opportunities to laugh.  I mean, West and I still often shared a weary chuckle once the little ones were tucked up in bed sleeping sweetly, but during the day?  Hardly a snicker.

Before having kids and when I just had one new baby, I often wondered about how mothers could look on, stony-faced, whilst their cherubs romped joyfully around the sandpit.  But now I knew. Last week, those cherubs probably ate a dog turd in that sand.  Or they ran away from the playground.  Or they threw sand in each other’s faces (and their own). Or… (you can insert a tale from your own experience or imagination).  And that poor Mama, she was just sitting there being vigilant.  There’s not much fun in playing security guard.  It’s exhausting.  It’s hard to see the silly side of things when so much of your time and energy is spent in just keeping the kids alive and well and clean and fed.

Sometimes, when I was particularly stressed and crabby, I’d tell my kids, “I used to be FUNNY, you know!  Kids used to LIKE me!”  But I knew that they’d rarely seen evidence of it.  I seemed to have lost my sense of humour altogether.  ‘Crabby baggage’ was my default setting as a mother; admonishment, not amusement, was the norm.

Everywhere around me were other parents whose senses of humour seemed to remain intact around their offspring.  They’d post on facebook about funny things their kids had said or done.  And I’d think, how do these people have kids with so much personality? How come their lives look like some kind of carefree resort commercialHow do they make having kids look like such FUN??

And then I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t their kids who were so different from mine.

I began to consider that maybe, just maybe, it was more a difference in perspective.

Yes, I am a ‘precautious’ parent.  So maybe I place a higher value on risk management than some of my counterparts.  But still, that shouldn’t preclude my enjoyment of this fleeting phase of my sons’ early childhoods – I should still be able to see the funny side of things.  And so I decided that I would.

I started to look more carefully at my boys’ antics and notice their quirks with a greater appreciation.  I began to see the comical side of their capers, even while still being careful to monitor the safety of their escapades.

It’s not that I suddenly leapt from needing to be particularly attentive to my boys to a slacker concern about worrisome behaviours; I still needed to be alert to possible hazards, and my boys were still young enough to get into dangerous shenanigans without knowing any better.  But I just began to find a better balance between ‘fraught’ and ‘funny’.

And the more I looked for amusement and enjoyment in the time I spent with my boys, the more diverting I found my time with them to be.

In fact, without taking anything away from my friends’ kids and their delightful idiosyncrasies (as highlighted on facebook), I realized that my boys also provided plenty of fodder for laughter.  And in finding more humour in my parenting experience, I found that I was a happier Mama in general.

Now that my older boys are mature enough to be deliberately funny, too, they regularly keep me in stitches.  But even little D., just twenty months old now, is a little character with a great sense of humour. They’re all delightfully weird and unique, as all kids are – which, now that I can see it, does rather lend to the hilarity of life.

A., for instance, came home from a visit recently and proudly announced that he hadn’t been partial to the food served by the host, but he ate it anyway – and this feat he managed because with every bite he told himself, “Think of a nice teddy bear, think of a nice teddy bear…”  This has since become a funny mantra we repeat to ourselves whenever we have to do something we find difficult.  He also has hypochondriac tendencies and loves to leave us notes early in the morning about what his temperature was upon waking up and how he’s feeling in every part of his physical self – these often contain creative spelling and phraseology.  And he often comes up with good answers to my query of ‘How did school go today?’ – like the time he responded, “It was OK, I guess. I was full of big coughs and hot farts.”  Classic.

B. loves all things ‘grown up’ – and he is a great collector of artifacts of adult life, such as keys, briefcases, clipboards, and dress clothes.  He hoards these ‘official’ items and pulls them out for regular use.  The other week his pants were so heavily laden with keys (and handcuffs – he fancies himself a trainee spy/policeman) that they kept falling down when he bent over.  And last night I stooped to kiss him as he slept and saw that he had adjusted a sleep mask to fit his small face; the excess elastic hung to one side in an oversized ringlet.  No doubt he was blissfully dreaming of the time to come, when he will be tall and in charge.

C. has a delightful sense of humour and a great sense of logic; it’s funny to witness his wit and hear how he methodically works through ideas to an often hilarious conclusion.  He also holds his emotional cards close to his chest.  At kindergarten pick-up time he searches me out and beams in spite of himself as he sees me, but thereafter deliberately avoids eye contact (even while he is unable to contain that grin from spreading across his face as he waits to be dismissed from the line-up).  He will look every which way but in my direction, and it totally cracks me up, because he looks so sheepish while he glances around with that self-conscious smile.

D.’s young yet, but he has already cottoned on to the hilarity of life.  He cackles along when we’re laughing about something, and he knows how to bring down the house with a signature dance move or a little eyebrow raise.  He throws everything, except rocks – I know that he can safely cart a stone around in his little fist without chucking it at a passing car because he holds onto rocks with a death grip.  Separating him from his geological samples at the front door after a walk around the block has become a ritual anguish.  But it’s funny, too, because if we can distract him with a toy digger or another of his faves then he quickly moves on from the trauma of parting with the rock-du-jour.  He has peculiar tastes – he loves munching on cloves (long story).  So he, too, is a little character-in-the-making and we are just tickled by all the cute things he does.

Weirdest of all, perhaps, is my children’s Pavlovian response to the sound of the fish-oil capsule container being shaken…  From an early age we’ve treated the fish oil as a ‘treat’ for after dinner, so that now they see it as a reward.  If we’ve forgotten to give them their vitamins for a few days, West will take the bottle and shake it, and the kids come running like puppies at feeding time.  C.’s best thing is for West to hide his capsule in a little bowl of yoghurt.  And of course they find it hilarious that I will run from their fishy kisses after they’ve indulged in their vitamin treat.  Bleurgh.

So, yeah – turns out I have funny kids, after all!

It’s not all fun and games around here.  I still take my job of mothering very seriously – but I’ve found my sense of humour again, and that makes it all a lot more fun. I laugh far more often than I used to.  I’m learning to cherish the moments, to look for the humour in the parenting process, and to celebrate the unique characters and gifts of each of my precious boys.  And the fact that I’m enjoying motherhood more as a result?  Well, that’s no laughing matter.

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