Joyful Parenting Tool: The "And" Will Set You Free
It’s 2 AM and I realize: I’ve done this to myself. I was taking my full nights of sleep for granted. The baby is screaming and sleeping fitfully, and only if being rocked. We don’t rock our baby to sleep. We do more of the “here’s your stuffie, here’s your pacifier, PEACE OUT, SEE YOU IN TWELVE HOURS” style of bedtime around here. Not last night. Last night it was my shift, and the baby clung to me weeping as I tried to console him. Was he hungry? Was it a fever? What was the issue? From what I could tell, the issue was that he was tired. And angry. So angry. Because he was tired.
So I rocked him and I took deep breaths and made eye contact with the dog (why she insists in hanging out in the baby’s room on these nights is beyond me. She could sleep anywhere. Sometimes I think “Oh, no. This wound-up pit bull is more compassionate than I am. She stays with the baby when he cries.” And then I remember she sleeps all day long and I get jealous of her. And then I realize maybe I am overthinking things. Again.). I imagine we are both wondering with bated breath and the hope only experienced by exhausted families in the middle of the night, “is this the time he’s really going down?” (It was not.)
The baby startles awake, screaming and enraged by my audacity as I adjust a blanket. My first instinct is to worry that he has a rare disease where he experiences pain when things touch his skin. I’ve heard of that, I’m pretty sure. Next my mind reminds me that in a week, I get to fly across the country with this screaming rage monster. Maybe it’ll be just like this, but on a plane! Full of other people! It’s so terrible.
And then somewhere from the deep recess of my wisdom reserve a quiet voice says “he’s never going to need you as much as he needs you right now”. And this moment becomes beautiful. It is terrible, and it is beautiful.
Becoming a parent has taught me more about the Dialectic Principle than any other life experience. The first step in Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) is to explore the world of dialectics: seemingly opposing forces that co-exist, rather than exclude one another. I love my son in a deeper way than I can describe and if he doesn’t stop whining immediately I might lose my mind. I can’t wait to finally get a productive minute in my day and my stomach is heavy with the sensation of already missing him the moment my car pulls into the daycare driveway. Parents all over the world practice this dialectic all day, every day.
The secret is the “and”. We replace the word “but” with the word “and”. “But” is a bad word in DBT. When we hear: “you did a great job, but…” everything before the “but” is no longer relevant. What we hear is the criticism that follows the three-letter DBT swear. Instead, in DBT we train ourselves to accept that what seems at first to be mutually exclusive can actually coexist quite peacefully. I am fatigued beyond belief and I am getting through this moment.
Embracing this complexity allows us to sense when we are emotionally reactive, exhausted, or triggered. We think in black-and-white and all-or-nothing at these times. “He’s always doing this to me” or “it’s all my fault”. When we notice this type of thinking, it a valuable source of information about where we are emotionally, giving us clues about how to meet our emotional needs. (And physical needs... sometimes I think I need a dialogue on my role as working mother and then I realize what I actually need is a protein snack).
Almost everything exists on a continuum, with the reality of any given situation comprised of multiple perspectives. In DBT, we allow that every perspective is accurate in its own way and holds a kernel of truth. We can acknowledge each truth without necessarily agreeing with it. I have found so much freedom in this grey area. I am free to acknowledge that parenting needn’t be either joyful or challenging. I don’t have to decide if I’m the best mom ever or disappointed in myself. The truth is all of the above. It’s all true. I’m exhausted. I’m in love with my family. I’m resentful. I’m so proud. I am all of these things AND more. The AND will set you free.