By Jeanne Denney
I have this friend named Mark Brady who cares a lot about parents. Since I have four children and we are friends, he often asks me to review some of the things that he writes to see how it plays in Peoria (so to speak). Sometimes I give him a hard time. Anyway, my friend Mark is a very smart guy who helps parents be better parents and understand more about the real nature of children. He knows a lot about neuroscience and neuro-development. His heart is not too bad either. He is probably the most generous person I have ever met. Not only that, he has written several great books on listening (one co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Leigh entitled A Little Book of Listening Skills …I wholeheartedly recommend it). Anyway, one day in the middle of parenting frustration I wrote to him saying “Hey, Mark, how about writing a book for people on holding compassionate listening space for parents? A little book of skills for listening to and actually supporting parents.” To which he answered (in a very Mark-like way), “Say more about this. I like this idea a lot.” And somehow that challenge developed into this short essay.
I have a lot to say about how our culture fails to support or listen to parents. I am not sure when I first noticed that this was a problem. Maybe it was 20 years ago after the birth of my first child, when I noticed that none of my intellectual friends called me anymore. Overnight I became an untouchable, as if something about me as a mother was beyond what they could manage. Maybe it was one of my first airplane trips with a toddler when I noticed people rolling their eyes and visibly recoiling from the idea that they might have to sit near us. Maybe it was in the way that well-meaning grandparents undermined the establishment of breastfeeding (and my confidence in myself as a sufficient mother) by constantly commenting that the baby was hungry and needed a bottle, until I finally relented. Maybe it was the way that people on subways offered unsolicited criticism and advice as I struggled to handle my child’s behavior, or commented loudly and critically to one another about our struggles. These are but a few of many such examples. Another way of saying this is that the energetic space that I lived in as a parent seemed to become very small somehow, and this did not seem right at all.
Once, feeling deeply into and expressing the vague sorrow and isolation I felt as a parent trying to handle four young children (most often alone) a wise friend said to me “Oh…now I understand. You are talking about the ritual, tribal abandonment of mothers.” The ritual, tribal abandonment of mothers! That phrase hit my consciousness like a sledge and remains alive to this day. It expressed what I felt better than anything I’d ever heard. Since then, whenever I have used that phrase to describe the feeling I have seen on the faces of other young mothers, it has elicited a similar “aha!” – a momentary stunned look of surprise that such deeply felt sorrow could be named so succinctly.
Yes, it is about the tribe leaving me alone with all of the tasks of raising these children. Yes it is about the tidal wave of tribal projections onto me as a mother and their longing for me to take care of THEM. Yes, it is about tribal fear of touching into this need and sometimes this pain. Yes, it is about feeling alone with a task that feels impossible to do well alone. Yes, the tribe has resigned from its role in the life of my children and from its needed and necessary role in supporting me.
“For God’s sake,” I thought, “this isn’t the way that children should be raised.” It is my idea that children in a healthy culture need to be raised, not just by parents or mothers, but by communities of adults supporting each other in the tasks. As I reflect on it, the operational word in that last sentence seems to be the word “adults.” Indeed as more and more people struggle to reach a true maturity and a capacity for holding and expressing compassion, it is harder and harder to find others willing to show up for the collective task of being an adult caring for children.
One of the tasks of adulthood of course, is skillfully listening. This is why I really like my friend Mark. He not only has shown up to be an adult who cares about parents and children, he is a wise and expert listener and teacher of listening skills. And there is probably no better way to counteract the contracting space around parents than to listen to them. Not by judging, or telling, or instructing, or giving me long lists of expectations for improving my child’s performance (like many teachers, schools and politicians are prone to do), or by watching while holding your heart at bay, but by entering into a true compassionate holding. Even in silence. Even in public.
I have a picture in my mind that will probably never leave until the day I develop dementia. It is a scene from when my children were young. I happened to be in a mall without them. I saw a mother with a baby in a stroller and a two year old in full tantrum running for the escalator. It was one of those scenes full of pathos, wherein a mother just has to “miraculate” some kind of response out of simple desperation. We all saw it. That is when I heard two women in front of me talking. One said: “I remember those days.” And the other one, probably in inner recoil from memory of her own abandonment, coolly responded “Yeah … I’m glad those days are over.” I remember feeling in that disengaged assessment the perfect expression of the ritual, tribal abandonment of mothers. It was not that someone had to be there to help that mother physically. We were too far away. It was that there in public, witnessing hearts did not extend out in compassion. Kind hearts did not listen to a silent plea for understanding, holding and help. In my mind there is no better way to help children than learning this adult act of silent holding and loving witness for their parents. I think that my friend Mark would say: “What is listening if it is not that?” And I would agree with him.