18 October 2012

I had a kid and then I made a mistake: lessons in compassion

So I'm in the middle of some pretty intense rumination right now - the kind that generally leads to good, big things. I read an awesome article on unconditional love that I am consulting regularly and which is helping to inform me on how to approach my child by first addressing how I might adjust myself. This is the kind of thing I love - I'm a bit of a control freak and I know I make myself miserable 90% of the time by trying to control things that are uncontrollable. But when people give you real things you can use to shape and change your inner life it's a win win. Finally something I can control: myself! And finally some tangible internal work.

And then this little gem of an article came along and hit me upside my face and is still smashing my brain. Here's the gist: A big group of scientists and psychologists got together  after studying compassion, of all things, and had a conference to discuss their findings (science rocks). One of the things they were trying to answer is whether or not compassion can be cultivated and if so how. Ok so, this is fascinating right here:
"It turns out that feeling safe is a precondition to activating biological systems that promote compassion. In the face of another person’s suffering, the biological mechanisms that drive our nurturing and caregiving can only come online if our more habitual “self-preservation” and “vigilance-to-threat” systems (e.g. fear, distress, anxiety, hostility) are not monopolizing the spotlight."
The article goes on to talk about how having life experiences that lead to a strong sense of safety and support can pave the way to a healthy ability to access compassion. The suggestion being that the opposite foundational experiences can put a person into a near constant state of "fight or flight" threat response. Now, I know a few people who had a good, safe foundation but I know more people who didn't, myself included. Which means that  I may be in fight or flight mode a lot more often that I think, simply because that is the foundation of my experience.

I bring all of this up because I am very interested in cultivating compassion and also very aware that I feel like there are times when I should have access to compassion but instead experience the opposite. I, in fact, experience the need to fight or flee in the face of other's suffering sometimes. And I only realized this because I read the article that told me that's what's happening. It makes sense and that's scary for me. Of course having a child brings so many of your own issues to the fore (i just misspelled that to read "fire", huh, yeah fire too I guess…) but this is one of those issues I can't let go of yet, not until I've researched it and dissected it to death.

I have one of 3 reactions to my child's suffering: 1) I over empathize and assume a level of suffering that is way out of line with reality. This causes an almost physical pain in me and freezes my ability to act and be effective in alleviating the suffering. 2) I feel ineffective or I feel targeted and I get mad. 3) I empathize, I don't take it personally and I respond from love and understanding. The goal is to be with number 3 as often as possible, but when I'm in a parenting slump I am rarely with 3. Which leads to the next gem in the article.

You can actually train yourself for more compassion. Apparently compassion can be cultivated through MINDFULNESS, a timeless art practiced by Buddhists everywhere, everyday. So I'm discovering that a combination of foundational experience and a lot of early chronic stress has left me with the lovely gift of "vigilance-to-threat" state of being and that I can combat it head on with…MEDITATION.

Hey Buddha, how's it goin'? Can we be friends again?

Sigh. There was a time in my life when mindfulness was a constant practice. There was time and space and quiet to cultivate presence, to read wise teachings. Then my beautiful child came into my life. And after that I made my first big mistake: I set way too much of myself aside in an effort to give my child the moon. There seems to some advice circulating now about this unhealthy habit that many new mom's instinctually fall into. NOW I'm finding the articles and the blogs that discuss how this is not only unhealthy for mom its also unhealthy for child. Mom can become miserable quick: overworked and underpaid, but most importantly inauthentic. Child looses sense of self worth and value and confidence if mom is constantly there, constantly doing things, constantly helping, fixing, holding, cheering, doing, cleaning. And that kind of toddler grows into a preschooler who buckles easily under a challenge and has a paper thin tolerance for frustration.

Can I just rant here for a second? Most parenting books suck. Please take heed if you are a new parent or will be a new parent soon. Dig deep for your advice, because most of what is circulating out there will not suit you or your parenting style. Yes, the stuff I read did all suggest that I take care of myself and make time for myself but the way this advice was presented was utter BS and meant nothing to me. "Be sure and make time to get your hair done, Mom! Treat yourself to a mani/pedi now and again! Don't stop being you, new mommy!" This must have been written by the mom with the bottomless uterus who knew when she was 5 years old that her life long dream was to be a mommy. She makes apple pies and lemonade and her smile sparkles and SHE DOES NOT EXIST. I never got my hair done with any regularity before I got pregnant and I've only had a mani/pedi once in my life…why should I start now? And why on earth do the people who write this advice assume  that what makes a woman herself is her hair and her nails? Why is that considered good "me" time?? What the hell does my hair and nails have anything to do with my identity? End rant, thank you.

People are not talking about the challenges of holding onto yourself, or at least the few things that really to matter to your identity, in any real sort of way. And it's so easy for women to fall into the trap…I guess it's called "helicopter parenting"…you know, because you hover. you're always there, ready to catch, fix, wipe, hold. You've got this new beautiful little being relying on you for absolutely everything, what else can you do? Nothing else matters compared to that, right?

Wrong. There are things that matter as much, not many, but there are a few and the challenge is to not put aside the things that are important. For me one of those things is meditation. That article basically says that science has proven that me meditating will be good for my child because I am altering the chemistry in my body to cultivate compassion. And when I come from compassion I am a better human and parent and wife.

So more meditation for mommy. Starting today. Also, more exercise, now that the weather is weakly mimicking fall. And more blogging. Ok, these are important to me, meditation, exercising, blogging. (and chocolate and beer.)(Thanks)

P.S. On a totally unrelated note: I got an email from Barbara Boxer yesterday. She wants me to get an earthquake preparation kit and she wants me to participate in a drill on 10/18 at 10:18…oops, just missed it. Anyway I'm taking that as a sign. It's coming.


  1. Kerry, I somehow found your blog a while back, and I just wanted to write that I'm reading and DEEPLY RELATING and loving what you are saying. I am very grateful for what you're sharing here. You are speaking everything I've been feeling. I think you are a year ahead of me in this process, and man...wow. Wow. Thank you. I'm off to read those articles you linked to.

    1. Adriana!! I'm so happy that this touches you! I feel like I spent a lot of time looking for the ideas and methods that were going to work for me and have ended up reinventing the wheel in some things. This is one of those topics where I feel there is a lack of information and I'm so grateful to connect with you and others on this. Thank YOU. I hope you enjoy the articles I linked - I particularly like the Aha parenting site. Thanks so much for reading!