We are playing with building blocks, my four-year-old daughter, two-year-old son, and I. The atmosphere is calm and purposeful. We are each building our own little structures. My son suddenly picks up his creation. My daughter and I both glance at him quizzically as he attempts to balance it on his head, as if to wear it like a hat. He watches us with a smile as it falls off. My daughter laughs delightfully, in turn causing my son to giggle. I pick up my blocks and attempt to put them on my head. As they come cascading down, we are all laughing now. I subtly sense that I am no longer trapped in an isolated self—that all of us are floating together in an in-between space that has been opened up spontaneously. We are connecting with each other by virtue of surrendering to a process greater than ourselves.
Moments like this are indicative of genuine bonding. I would argue that the more we connect with our kids on this level, the more we ensure their future emotional stability. It might be that simple.
And it might be more complex. Many parents will attest that these moments are elusive and difficult to attain. Speaking from experience you would think that, since I am a therapist and get paid to connect with people in a deep and meaningful way on an hourly basis, that I would be exquisitely attuned to making these moments a priority with my own children. Yet I must confess that there have been entire weeks when I became so preoccupied with my own world that, not only was I not having these kinds of connections with my kids, I forgot to be concerned about having them in the first place. Many times what jolted me back to prioritizing these moments of connection was listening to my patients’ vivid stories of how wounded they were by their parents’ narcissism. What about all the other parents who aren’t faced with such stark reminders?
For the problem does lie in our narcissism. It’s an illusion to suppose we can ever outgrow our first and fondest delusion that the world revolves around us. So when the external world, following its own inscrutable circuit, doesn’t orbit within our wishes, our cherished routines get disrupted. Since on this level of our emotional functioning other human beings (read: kids) get included in the “external world” bucket, I can think of no other task that challenges this delusion in such a visceral manner as parenting does.
One of the dangers we risk as parents is responding to this challenge with rigidity instead of release. We can overcompensate by trying to control the external world even more, hoping this extra effort really will finally keep us in the center and the world at bay. Thus we are less able to have moments when we truly let go of ourselves. At best this effort at control results in us being emotionally absent from our children for a time. At worst, for a person whose sense of self is shaky or unstable (i.e. a person who experienced too many external-world-intrusions in early life), this results in outright abuse.
Ironically the only cure for our narcissism is… to focus more on ourselves! What I mean is: to practice being emotionally attuned with ourselves such that we know when we must take the time to replenish our capacity for giving. Again, it’s really that simple. Just go to the gym, engage in your favorite hobby, meditate, read a good book while sipping on a cappuccino, etc.
Right? We parents smile at the naiveté of such advice. Time is our most precious commodity. If we are lucky enough to be able to pay for the childcare while we engage in such indulgences, not to mention having the energy to be so self-motivated, these things of course would help. But what about financially strapped parents without a lot of family support, or single parents? Or parents who are divorcing? Or what if we engage in these activities but they don’t help much?
The most powerful way I know of to practice emotional attunement to ourselves is to be in psychotherapy. In therapy we are allowed space to express ourselves openly, without judgment. It’s an incredible relief just to speak what is on our minds and be heard by another caring adult. Even more powerful, we can learn about the deeper sources of our worries and the patterns that keep us stuck. Or (apropos to the topic of this blog post) we can understand how our parents’ care-giving subtly influences our own ability to parent.
Luckily for parents, with the advent of telehealth and Breakthrough.com, getting to a quality psychotherapist is as easy as walking in to the spare bedroom with your laptop and closing the door. Having gotten the external world to bed first, of course. Indulging ourselves so that we may forget ourselves: our kids notice the difference and are ready to jump with us into the space beyond.
Matthew Morrissey is a licensed psychotherapist in the state of California. He holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from The California Institute of Integral Studies.