Good morning, good morning. It’s later than I’d like it to be, almost 6am. I couldn’t pull my body out of bed when the alarm went off at 4:30 — even though I know how good the whole rest of my day is when I’ve had two hours awake and writing before anyone else in the house is up. That’s ok — just keep going now.
How are you being easy with yourself where you are this morning?
I have been thinking a lot recently about self care, as you know, and how easy it’s become to give myself permission to be the kid I didn’t get to be. I am thinking about giving myself permission to feel pain, feel anxiety, feel fear, and still move forward anyway. How much space I’ve made inside for the 12, 13, 14, 15 year old I was who was so afraid of doing the wrong thing and getting in trouble and having to deal with my stepfather’s wrath that now a lot of my life is structured around managing her anxiety. How do we teach ourselves the skills of being adult when we were psychically mangled as children, when we developed psychic structures and skill-sets that kept us safe once and now only serve to keep us small and contained? And how long will I be asking myself these questions? Do we ever actually grow up? Or is part of being grown up the asking — the recognition that I am acting in ways that have been shaped by my child self and I don’t want to force/let that kid be the one in charge anymore — I want to let her be a kid, one who gets parented well.
Last week I got to be alone with my nephew for a couple of hours while his parents, my sister and brother-on-law, went out for a date. My sister got to take a long shower and fix her hair for the first time in forever and put on her makeup and was so ready just to be herself again. My sweetheart and I had the pleasure of hanging out with a sleepy 7-month-old who doesn’t like to go to sleep Holding him, I remembered what it was like when I was a teenager allowed to babysit — that was the only job I had outside of the home when I was young, before I went to college. I remembered how honored I felt whenever a baby was comfortable in my arms, would relax enough to put her head on my shoulders, not to mention falling asleep on my body.
I can remember one babysitting gig we had where my sister and I went together to the house across the street from our stepfather’s and we took care of a handful of neighbor kids. The had a new baby, who wouldn’t have been much older than my nephew is now, and I distinctly remember sitting in a rocking chair with him while my sister took care of the other kids in another room. I had to get him to sleep, and I was armed with a bottle and nothing else — he was armed with his determination not to go to sleep. I rocked and held him for what seemed like hours while he cried and fussed. I whispered to him, It’s ok. It’s ok. You won’t miss anything good. It’ll all be here for you tomorrow. You can go to sleep now. We rocked and rocked, and finally he fell asleep on me, and it was all I could do to get up from that rocking chair and put him in his crib. Given the message I got at home — that I was selfish and untrustworthy, that there was something bad in me — having an infant fall asleep on my chest, trusting my hands and shoulders with the weight of his sleeping body, was a kind of innoculant to that messaging: something in me was still safe and kind, even if my parents couldn’t see it anymore.
My nephew cried and cried he got sleepy. My sweetheart and I heated up bottles for him and tried feeding him in his crib so that he could fall asleep there, but he wasn’t having it, so I took him back out into the living room and fed him on the couch. I watched the little face, a beautiful combination of my sister’s and her husband’s, turn wet with frustration. His eyelashes glinted with tears. He ate all he wanted, and then wouldn’t be soothed by a bottle or a binky. He’s stubborn — like his parents — and insistent. So we just rocked and bounced. I understood that nothing was wrong — his diaper was changed, he’d been fed, he wasn’t hurting or sick — this is just his way at bedtime. I wanted to be something steady for him to weep against while he learned to put himself to sleep. One more place, one more adult human who can teach him something about managing his anxiety and doing the difficult thing anyway. In his case, the difficult thing is going to sleep.
Who knows why he’s weeping, what all arises in his tiny new body when fatigue hits him. Don’t you sometimes still get weepy when you’re over-tired and can’t get to sleep? He’s still learning how to manage all of that — and be a human breathing air at the same time.
I held him and cradled his back and head and whispered into his ear, not to quiet him, but just to comfort him. He doesn’t quiet to shhhh any more than my puppy does. He would settle down, letting his head drop against my shoulder, and then snap back to attention, as though he’d thought. Wait, what happened? What’d I miss? Where was I? Oh yeah — and he’d start to cry again. My sweetheart said, I can take him if you want. She’s a mama who spent many nights walking the floor with her own son when he was young, so I knew she’d have some good tricks up her sleeve, but I am stubborn, too, and I didn’t want to hand his little body over. Selfish, sure. But selfish isn’t always terrible. She smiled at me when I didn’t even bat an eye at her offer. Eventually his cries got shallower, thinner, quieter. He got heavier in my arms, and started hiccuping. And then he let his head fall to my shoulder and it stayed there. I looked in a nearby mirror and saw that his eyes were open, so I just keep going — hand spread out across his back, rubbing slowly, bouncing a little, and whispering shhhh, that sound that reminds him of the whisper of his mama’s knowing when he was inside her. A few minutes later he was asleep. I didn’t even try to put him into his crib, which I know is a difficult transition even for his parents to accomplish these days. Instead I went over to the couch and sat down, then stretched out so that he was lying flat on my chest, and we listened to Cesaria Evora on Pandora, while he slept.
How do we learn to be the same sort of steady, unyielding, kind presence for the selves in us that are still terrified, still afraid of the dark, still scared to take new leaps?
There was a morning earlier this fall when my sweetheart’s boy had reason not to want to do something at school because of an interaction with a teacher the previous day, and I got to watch my sweetheart stand up into his fury and fear, the way he shouted at her, You don’t know what it’s like, everything is easy for you! and threw a fantastic tantrum, and still she was a steady, maintaining presence, getting him ready for school, reminding him that she would be with him, but insisting that he go and do this thing even though he was scared. And inside all she wanted to do was let him have his way; she wanted his smile and his comfort. But she knew that wouldn’t help him develop the skills he’d need as an adult — not showing up for him the way she did wouldn’t have been good parenting. I was in awe of her steadiness, her unwillingness to meet his rage with frustration, how she was kind and gentle with him and helped him walk to the place he needed to get. He was unhappy all the way to school, but when they got there, she talked with his teacher, who helped clear up a misunderstanding from the day before, and he got to face his fear and walk through it.
I am not always such a good parent to the parts in me that still need to learn how to be grown up. I tend to let those parts sit on the couch and watch tv instead of insisting that we do the thing that we don’t want to do — make the difficult phone call, get some exercise, sit down and write instead of procrastinating. The small self in me doesn’t even have to throw a tantrum; she just gets tense and anxious and says, No, I don’t want to do it, and the only slightly older self in me, the one who got free at 21, says, You know what, small one? You don’t have to. Let’s just relax today. The tension goes away. We all watch tv and eat popcorn and peanut butter cups for lunch and then we get to the end of the day not having taken care of any business and feeling generally shitty about ourselves.
Sometimes, it’s true, a daylong movie marathon and terrible eating are just what the doctor ordered. I’m not removing those from my self-care toolbox. But I tend to reach for those tried-and-true anxiety-ameliorating practices a little too often, foregoing the necessary work to build up other skills– like holding hands with my fear while I risk submitting my work to a new publisher, or calling on someone who could help me promote the workshops, or following up with folks who owe me money for work I’ve done with them.
The adult me doesn’t have anyone standing in my corner telling me that it’s time to go do the difficult thing; it’s my job as an adult to do that for myself. But it’s also my job to be gentle and generous with the inside selves that were terrorized through adolescence and do deserve some ease.
The transition I’m facing a the moment is shifting the child out of the role of parent/adult — she who didn’t have anyone to take care of her as a young person had to protect herself as best as possible, and that meant shutting down anxiety as soon as it emerged however she could. It also meant that she felt overwhelmed all the time: how could she ever actually manage to be all that was demanded of her — obedient child, obedient sex object, successful and achieving student, and accomplished computer programmer — while carrying on the pretense, in the world and at home, that everything was normal. Of course she’s overwhelmed all the time now that she’s expected to be an actual adult. Of course she just wants to check out. And I’ve let her — us — do a lot of checking out.
(I’m putting the work into practice right now — while finishing this post, my web browser logged me out of wordpress, and I lost about a half-an-hour’s worth of work. My small self began, understandably, to pout and complain — God! Just forget it! Can’t we quit doing this dumb writing and go eat breakfast? — and so I pouted for a few minutes, complained to my sweetheart (who responded, quite satisfyingly, in kind, about how much the whole situation sucks and is the worst ever), and then came back up to my desk and sat down and started rewriting.)
Maybe nothing has to be shut down, no parts of ourselves have to be ignored or shamed like they were when we were being abused. Instead, we can let each part be itself — the 12 year old kid can be exactly her perfect 12 year old self, and does not have to have the responsibilities of an adult, and she can trust that the adult will take care of the tasks needed to accomplish our goals and pay our bills and put food on the table, without putting our lives at risk. I mean to say that the young and still-understandably-scared selves can come to gently learn that feeling fear, feeling anxious, doesn’t have to mean that we’re about to be harmed.
What I’m starting to confront is that “be easy with myself” doesn’t always mean just walk away from anything hard and crawl into a cave. Sometimes it has to mean doing this other work of self-parenting: sitting with the tantruming and fearful child inside, breathing with her panic and loss, while not giving in to her demand that we read books and eat cereal all day, every day, in order to avoid feeling any anxiety. I’ve never been a fan of the language of parenting the inner child — it creeped me out, I think because it hits so close to home. But today I am meeting this language differently, thinking about how to take small, straightforward and sometimes scary steps into a more healed life — one in which the adult gets to be the adult, and the kid gets to be the kid.
Thank you for all the ways you are being easy with yourself today. Thank you for your deep kindness with yourself and others, and, of course, thank you for your good words.