Last week I wrote a column here on The Committed Parent about my experience with a phenomenon I call Toxic Parent Brain (TPB). This is a state in which my more wise, mature and rational self disappears, leaving my nervous system subject to all kinds of irrational fears, anxieties, angers and criticisms of my children and/or myself as a parent.This state is certainly not optimal for my children’s development or self-esteem. I wrote about how TPB comes on for me and many others, and the seven things I found that were most likely to set it off. Fortunately there are a few things that I have found that help me remedy this phenomenon. I would like to share a few of them here.
Putting on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
The wisdom of “put your own oxygen mask on first” when resources are dangerously low, is one known, at least in theory, to most parents.Yet this wisdom is difficult to practice in the swell of need. Taking great care of myself certainly was not what I was shown or learned in my own family of origin. There are two really difficult pieces required to actually do this. The first is that you have to be able recognize that your resources are dangerously low (unfortunately no one ever pops one out and prompts me to put on the mask). I used to call this “Maternal Hypothermia.” Hypothermia is a condition in which low body temperature causes you to become disoriented and strips you of many self-protective survival instincts. This is a state that often requires someone else to help recognize and lead you out of, which brings us to the second challenging piece: from time to time we need support from others, and additional resources to help address the condition.
It is not clear that parenting was ever well-suited to be performed in isolation. Enlisting several caring friends outside of the immediate family to help us monitor our Parent Depletion Levels can help – something like a buddy system. Bodywork, yoga, psychotherapy, support groups, meditation practices and spiritual work of many kinds can be hugely beneficial for us and our children while we are raising them. Admittedly not all of these resources are affordable in time or money for many families with children. Still, even small external resources can create dramatic shifts in our inner resources and neuro/psychological balance. I call this practice “Creating Oasis.”
When I was deep in the 24/7 parenting years with four young children – two who were newborn twins – I had very few resources to spend on outside help. However, I was able to find and afford a doula for two hours twice a week. During that time I made a ritual of walking to a local coffee shop, ordering eggs, eating slowly in peace and writing in my journal. I have no doubt that the rituals of feeding, movement, expression and inner listening for four hours out of the 168 in a week changed the life of my children and helped me re-pattern the deeply-ingrained idea I had been raised with: that I had to utterly and completely sacrifice myself to my children’s care.
What is Oasis? It could be anything from focusing on a body part that is holding too much or too little tension, to imagining your summer vacation spot or favorite place of comfort, or to walking to get eggs in peace. It is something that tells your brain “you are safe,” that it’s okay to relax.
Now that I have studied and practice body psychotherapy, I understand the power of this small Oasis to my psyche and nervous system. Somatic psychologist, Peter Levine discovered that by attending to simple body sensations and inner images, we can begin a profound process of resetting the mind/body to begin healing from even large traumas in small amounts of time. If I can imagine and focus on being in Oasis even a few minutes a day, my mind/body begins to respond. Nervous system energy begins to dissipate from the body through vibration, breathing changes, changes in body temperature and emotion. Even fifteen dedicated minutes of self-care and self-inquiry a day can begin to shift the tide of unawareness to myself and attention to my inner needs and feelings. That awareness, of course, can raise other issues like the one below.
Speaking Truth about Feeling to the Self
Perhaps one of the downsides of gaining more self-contact and awareness is that you may discover things present that you would rather not know about, like feelings and behaviors that demonstrate our less-than-mature parts of self. Feelings truly felt through the body can be very challenging. Yet body and psyche react profoundly and positively to the genuine expression of them. This can create a problem for parents. Parenting often elicits strong emotions. At the same time, we often have no safe, socially sanctioned outlets for strong emotions and feel we should protect children from them. Children, meanwhile, are seldom fooled because they are so highly attuned to our emotional states. Indeed in the past several weeks I have encountered several cases in which young children were directly acting out emotions that the parents were working hard to suppress within themselves. It was a strong confirmation of something I already knew: that time and space set aside to claim and accept the presence of a parent’s own strong, even immature feelings, eventually benefits everyone. I need space to claim my truths, even the more difficult ones, whether in writing or while walking or stomping up and down the shoreline at dawn.
Movement alone is helpful. Pairing words with movement makes for an even more effective emotional release. I keep a heavy punching bag and gloves in the garage for the larger emotions. Statements lurking in the body such as “I hate picking up after you!” “I need a break!” “I am sick of folding laundry and tying shoes!” “Who is there for me?!” or even “I am sad that I can’t do anything else to change this,” often need full expression and bodily release. Body psychotherapy can be a wonderful way to work with some of these expressive needs. There are also ways to bring less charged tension and conflict into playful, safe release. Some favorites in my family are floor wrestling, tugs of war, snowballs, water guns and pillow fights. Children usually love being a part of this energy when it is done with good intention for coming back into connection.
Killing the Angel of the House
Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own wrote in 1929 that if a woman wanted to be a writer she needed money, a room of her own … and a knife to kill off what she called “the Angel of the House” (or the perfect caregiver). Parenting creatively and successfully has similar requirements. Who is the Angel of the House? She is the keeper of the perfect family photographs in which everyone is smiling, the Christmas letters in which all family members are thriving, and all problems are easily resolved. She is the keeper of images. The angel of the house is always seen with her natural sidekick and companion, the Critic, who is ever-available to evaluate whether she has managed to uphold the impossible family standards. This dynamic duo has probably done more harm to my children than any honestly expressed frustration ever has. They take me out of the healthy heart-truth that my children and I are okay as we are, that the world is good in its imperfection, that we are all in this together, and that our futures hold great possibility. If the Angel and the Critic are not murdered, they must at least be well-contained and be seen honestly for the neuro-nuisances they are.
Managing the Angel and the Critic
The main problem I find with managing the Angel and the Critic is that the world outside of the family often aids and abets them. Seeing that issue clearly and dealing with it is a column for another time. Interestingly, though, I find that when I take reasonable care of myself including plenty of time for finding and expressing the truth of how I am feeling, the Angel and the Critic stay in the attic closet where they belong. If they do escape to parade through the house one day (clipboard, stopwatch and halos in hand) I am usually able to find them funny. And then? I invite them to grab a water gun. Play…or die!
Jeanne Denney is a body psychotherapist, hospice worker, birth doula and mother of four children. She practices in and around New York City and sponsors the Rockland Instutute for Mind/Body Education. Jeanne is also a Global faculty mentor at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology.