Parental burnout (2)
This post was written in collaboration with Els Vandingenen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In the present post I’ll describe the principles and steps that allowed the mother I described in my last post to find the way back to herself. As in my book “Courageous Parents”, we asked how this young woman could regain her courage and become a full-fledged person and mother for her children.
There is no doubt that this young woman had a deep wish to be a good mother and to answer to the needs of her children. But in order to help her out of her labyrinth, it was necessary to clarify those needs. We believed that what her children needed most was not the kind of unconditional availability that she was trying to offer them. Her son would continue to be afraid, if she ran to him in a panic whenever he felt anxious. Her attempt to prevent him from feeling separation anxiety was making him lonelier, for he didn’t learn to be with others. To be really present a mother must be there with her own voice, feelings and values. Her son should experience her as a full person, as somebody who is able to withstand pressure without melting. We also had to help her cope with the shadow of her grandmother that made her feel that if she set any limits, she was becoming like her. And we had to help her break out from isolation. Those insights led to three messages:
1) “An anxious child, like your son, needs clarity more than anything. If you are hazy and wobbly, he will feel that you are too weak to stand by him. He will then become more anxious. His greatest hope is that you be strong and steady, providing him with an anchor against the pull of his fears. This is also your greatest hope.”
2) “You’ll never be like your grandmother! It simply doesn’t fit the person you are. But her shadow haunts you, for you’ve come to believe you have to be her contrary. You cannot set a limit, for fear of being like her. You cannot protect yourself for fear of being like her. You cannot give your children safety, for fear of being like her. Ironically, it is precisely by trying to be her contrary that you give in to her. You become pliable and docile, just like she wanted to make you! Finding the courage to be a mother will make you break free of her shadow.”
3) “We’ll find ways for you to get help from your boyfriend, your parents and your friends. You told me you got many good things from your parents. Why shouldn’t your children also get them? You had a bad grandmother. Why shouldn’t your children get them too? You know the proverb that it takes a village to bring up a child. Your parents are different from you and that’s good! Your children need many kinds of music and not only the same song all the time. You, your boyfriend, your parents and your friends will give them each a different song. That’s the richness that you and your children need.”
Those messages were a running commentary to the steps that the mother started taking. She dared to give herself time, listen to the music she liked, and even take a long bath once in a while. Every morning began with a joint message from both parents to the children, telling them what was going to happen that day and what were the rules that they would uphold. The girl listened attentively, even though she could not understand everything. This morning announcement became a daily ritual that symbolized the family’s return to itself. The mother decided she would hold her son’s hand in the street. His protests vanished, when he saw that she meant business. She and the father decided that their bed belonged to them. She would help her son, by sitting by him silently for a few minutes, when he was afraid. But she would not take him in her arms or bring him to her bed. Her mother started taking the children on weekends, or babysit when she went out. After a month she went back to work. In a follow-up conversation, the mother told her counselor: “When I met you, I needed confirmation. You gave me the feeling that I was welcome and that you totally understood me. You gave me concrete actions to do without too much 'bla bla'. I keep working on myself. When I am happy and I have found rest, everybody is happy in this family.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the approach, order my book “Courageous parents”.