Excerpted from Carla Naumburg’s new book Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters.
Chapter 2: My Journey from Confusion to Clarity
“Will you please put your shoes on?? This is the third time I’ve asked!”
“Get your hands off your sister! Do not touch her! Stop it!!”
“Are you listening to me? Are you listening to me?!“
“NO. MORE. TALKING!! STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER!!”
Despite the multiple resolutions I had made not to yell at my children, none of them stuck. I wanted to think of myself as a good mother, but I was also losing my temper at my daughters more often than I cared to admit. The girls could be throwing a tantrum or playing together happily, ignoring my requests that they come upstairs to get ready for bed. Either way, I would get increasingly irritated. My shoulders would tense, my jaw would tighten, and loud, angry words would come spilling out of my mouth with a force that often took both the girls and me by surprise. Sometimes they would silently comply with my requests, but other days they would look at me in fear or sadness and start crying. Those were the worst days.
Occasionally my yelling seemed justified, like the time my toddler ran into the middle of a busy parking lot, or when she was a baby and her older sister picked her up by the neck. (“Drop her!” I screamed. And she did.) Although I would usually freak out in response to something the girls were doing, they weren’t the actual cause of my outbursts. The problem was me—my stress, my fatigue, my impatience, my frustration, all of which welled up inside over time until I exploded. The yelling would release the tension inside my body even as it created more tension between us. Each time I let loose, the heavy, tight air around me would seem to clear for a brief period, even just a few seconds. But within minutes, everything would build up again in one way or another. The girls would cry or I would be flooded with guilt (or both), and even as I was apologizing to them I was berating myself for my inability to control my own emotions and behavior. There are only so many times I can say I’m sorry, I thought to myself. At some point they’re just not going to believe me, respect me, or take me seriously anymore. If this was our relationship before the girls even hit kindergarten, how would we possibly survive adolescence?
I knew that raising my voice wasn’t the worst thing I could do to my kids, and I knew that lots of people (including myself) survived childhoods characterized by frequent and frightening parental outbursts (or, as we like to call them around my house, “mommy tantrums”). I also knew that the amount of yelling I was doing was within the range of “normal” parenting by today’s standards. As a 2009 article in the New York Times noted:
Many in today’s pregnancy-flaunting, soccer-cheering, organic-snack-proffering generation of parents would never spank their children. We congratulate our toddlers for blowing their nose (‘Good job!’), we friend our teenagers (literally and virtually), we spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings. But, incongruously and with regularity, this is a generation that yells.
Nonetheless, I felt terrible every time I yelled. I felt overwhelmed by the force of my anger, scared about my inability to control it, and worried about the effect it would have on my daughters. After I read the New York Times article, I found another article and another, each filled with details about all of the ways in which my yelling was going to screw up my daughters. Yelling and bratty behavior reinforce each other, so I was just making things worse. Kids who are yelled at are more likely to become depressed, and they’re more likely to have behavioral problems in their adolescent years. Eventually, they’ll struggle to connect in meaningful ways with others. I tried to justify my yelling by telling myself that everyone was doing it, but deep down, I found little consolation in the thought and I knew that not only was it not helping my daughters, but it could actually be harming them.
Toxic. I came across that word again and again in my research. My yelling was making our relationship toxic, and our home life as well. In addition, it was making my parenting experience incredibly unpleasant. I just wasn’t enjoying motherhood as much as I wanted to, and as much as I knew I could.
It was an endless cycle: I would lose my temper, then apologize, then proceed to silently beat myself up about it for the rest of the day, which made me more tense and irritable, and then I would yell again. On my better bad days, I would have enough presence of mind to turn on a TV show for them (and then feel terrible about the fact that the TV was doing a better job raising my children than I was), or I would find my way into a joke or a hug or even just a smile, and things would start to turn around. Until it would happen all over again a day or two later.
I had rarely yelled before I became a parent—certainly never in work situations and rarely in my personal relationships with family members, friends, or my husband. I was able to stay calm in even the most frustrating interactions, but somehow, in the face of these two little girls whom I love beyond all reason or possibility—and the last people in my life whom I wanted to hurt—I was unable to manage my emotions and treat them respectfully in hard times. What did that say about who I was becoming? What had happened to the old me—the one who could handle hard situations reasonably well—and more importantly, how could I get her back?
“I wish you wouldn’t yell at me, Mommy. It makes me feel so sad.”
Ouch. Knife to the heart. My daughter said that to me in the midst of one particularly difficult evening. Even though it wasn’t the first time my daughter had said something like that, for some reason on that day, it really hit me. I knew something had to change. I knew my behavior had to change. I did a Google search on ways to stop yelling, and I came across a range of reasonable suggestions: Whisper instead. Go into the bathroom and count to ten. Recite a mantra. Jump up and down. Take deep breaths until the moment passes. These were all very doable suggestions, and I became determined to implement them.
Within a day, I was yelling again. By the time I remembered to whisper or count or breathe or whatever, I had already yelled. I had come up against the fundamental problem with so many of these top ten lists and self-help suggestions: they offer incredibly compelling visions of what we should do or who we should become, but they rarely tell us how to make, and sustain, those tough changes. Just do it, we are told. Gee, thanks. If I could just do it, don’t you think I would have already done it??
And so we were back in the cycle that I was so desperately, and ineffectively, trying to end. The girls would nag or not listen on a day when I was tired or anxious or hungry or sad, the frustration would well up inside me, and all of a sudden, bam!
“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WHY WOULD YOU TURN A CUP OF MILK UPSIDE DOWN INSIDE THE CAR? WHY?!”
I was yelling over spilt milk. What I really wanted to do was cry.
Nonetheless, I wasn’t ready to give up on my quest to conquer my yelling. Even as I kept reading about different ways to stay calm, I decided to talk to my therapist about what was going on. In the course of exploring what was happening, we talked about triggers common to every parent: fatigue, hunger, anxiety, stress, busyness, and all of the different ways that kids can be, well, infuriating. But we also explored a source of my yelling that I hadn’t yet fully considered: my childhood.
Despite the fact that I had spent years in therapy exploring the impact of my history, I had never really thought about how it might be impacting my day-to-day life with my daughters. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want to admit that I was still struggling with my past. Perhaps it’s because I have good relationships with both of my parents now, and I didn’t want to dig up all of those painful memories again. Or maybe I just wanted a quick fix, and I knew that exploring the detritus of my early years would be anything but quick. I suspect it was all of the above.
My parents divorced when I was not quite a year old, and my sister and I would live through four more divorces by the time we left for college. The custody battle raged on for over a decade and was exhausting and overwhelming for all of us. My parents lived in two different states, and my sister and I lived in a number of different homes and family configurations over the years. The longest either of us attended the same school was about four years. I grew up in homes characterized by a chaotic mix of love and affection, rage and alcoholism. I do have many sweet memories of my early years, but I also have many, many memories of being on the receiving end of my parents’ anger and frustration, and I remember feeling terrified when they screamed at my sister and me. The force of their rage was overpowering. I felt truly unsafe in the moment, fearful about the future, confused about what I had done to trigger their fury, and desperate to figure out how to avoid it in the future.
Years later, when I became a mother (and a yeller) myself, I developed a different perspective on my parents’ yelling, and a lot more empathy for what they were dealing with. Raising children is challenging in the best of circumstances, and over the course of my childhood, my parents were either navigating divorces or single-parenting two young daughters while also managing difficult relationships with their exes and extended family members. On top of the daily challenges of life with kids (balancing work and home, figuring out what to make for dinner and how to pay the mortgage, checking homework and fevers), they were battling their own demons: addictions, anxiety, and depression. They just didn’t have the time, energy, support, or internal resources to take care of themselves and manage their own stress and difficult emotions, much less be present for mine.
As my therapist and I explored all of this, I realized that I learned early on that big, hard, negative feelings, such as fear, sadness, and anger, were absolutely intolerable to my parents. It makes sense now, of course—they were just struggling to get through each day, and they had neither the emotional nor psychological space to deal with the additional stress of a sad, scared child. And so I learned, time and again, that any expression of such feelings would be met with either silence or rage. (This isn’t uncommon; most of us struggle to experience and express negative or powerful feelings in healthy, productive ways—regardless of our childhoods.) Over the years, I developed a number of ways to quiet those feelings, to ignore or diffuse them in calm, controlled, and acceptable ways—through humor, homework, journaling, therapy, and tears shed either alone or in a socially acceptable setting that had nothing to do with my parents. I sobbed so hard at Forrest Gump that the woman behind me in the movie theatre offered me a tissue. I cried at the end of Terminator 2. Hard. I still frequently cry at coffee commercials and NPR news stories.
This all worked pretty well for me until I had kids, and I found myself back in a parent-child relationship for the first time in years. Unbeknownst to me, old patterns that had stayed buried for nearly two decades were being retriggered, but this time I was playing the role of my parents. It didn’t matter that I was in a supportive, loving marriage, and that I had kind friends to talk to and time to cry after the girls were in bed—none of that could quiet down that jerk of a monkey who was still hanging out in my limbic system and flinging around painful memories, emotional tornados, and total freak-outs at the drop of a sippy cup. When that part of me was triggered, perhaps by my daughters’ tantrums or refusal to put on their shoes, I seemed to revert to an odd mix of my childhood self and my raging parents. All I wanted to do was make the crappy feelings—either mine or my kids’—go away, and in the absence of any other coping skills that were available to me in the moment, I tried to yell them away. Sometimes it actually worked for a moment or two; the girls would finally put on their shoes or stop fighting, but overall, it just made all of us feel worse.
Actually, it made me feel absolutely terrible. Each time I yelled, I was overcome with intense guilt and sadness. Even before I had made the connection to my childhood, there was a part of me—somewhere beneath my consciousness—that had never forgotten how terrifying and confusing it can be when your parents yell at you. And here I was, doing it to my own children. I felt powerless to change it.
My newfound awareness of the impact of my childhood started to shift that perspective in subtle but important ways. If nothing else, it helped me feel just a little less guilty about losing my temper. Yes, I was entirely responsible for my actions, but I wasn’t a terrible parent or a mean person; my brain was pulling out old coping skills that had served me well throughout my childhood. I knew from years of social work training and practice that this is what our brains do: once they have figured out a response to a difficult situation that seems to work well (or well enough), they use it again and again until it becomes an automatic response. If we don’t have the time or insight or support to see those habits for what they are—old habits—and choose an alternate route, we will reenact them time and again without even realizing what we’re doing. Although at times my response to my daughters might have been reasonable given their behaviors, more often than not it was way out of proportion because I wasn’t actually responding to them. I was reacting to the leftover chaos from my early years.
This realization was incredibly useful, but it wasn’t enough. Even though I understood that an old switch in my brain was being flipped every time my girls or I were having a rough moment, I didn’t know how to change it. I didn’t know how to calm myself down every time I was being triggered. I needed some new coping skills. I kept reading about yelling and child development and behavior management and the impact of a difficult childhood on parental behavior, and I started to notice something. Almost all of the articles and books made some sort of reference to mindfulness. I knew something about mindfulness from my training as a social worker, and I was pretty sure that it had something to do with meditation.
There was no way I was going to meditate. Absolutely not.
I had tried meditation once before in college, in hopes of scoring an easy PE credit required for graduation. I will never forget sitting on that hardwood floor in the middle of a stinky gymnasium. A tall, thin man dressed all in white with a long, wispy beard instructed us to cross our legs, close our eyes, breathe deeply, and clear our minds. I crossed my legs, and it all went downhill from there. Clear my mind? What the hell did that mean? Every time I tried to clear my mind, I realized I was just thinking about clearing my mind, which clearly isn’t the same thing. I tried thinking about black. I visualized black. But then I thought about how black isn’t my favorite color; I prefer blue but I can’t decide between sapphire or turquoise… and the next thing I knew, my mind was anything but clear. Within minutes, all I could think about was how much my butt hurt and my nose itched.
In my mind, meditation was for hippies who didn’t have their shit together and mindfulness was just a fancy word for reformed hippies who barely had their shit together. I was happy to spend an hour each week in the confines of a therapy office, but meditation was an entirely different proposition. In my mind, it was just one step away from shaving my head and handing out flowers at the airport. I was a Type A, take control, get-things-done kind of girl. There was no way I was going to spend my precious parenting time lighting incense sticks and chanting my way through the day.
The problem was, nothing else was working. I was still yelling. Apparently, I didn’t have my shit together as much as I liked to think I did. The weeks went by, the yelling continued, and mindfulness and meditation kept popping up in my life: my mother-in-law (also a Type A person) took a meditation course and liked it. I found an old book about mindfulness sitting dusty and untouched in a pile on my bedside table; I didn’t even remember buying it. A friend invited me to a writer’s weekend at Kripalu, a noted yoga and meditation retreat center in Western Massachusetts. And then one day, I was reminded of the old joke about the man who is caught in a flood and refuses to accept the help of neighbors with boats and police with helicopters, because he believes that God will save him. The man ultimately drowns, and when he gets to Heaven, he asks God why He didn’t save him. “But I sent you warnings, a canoe, a speedboat, and even a helicopter. Why didn’t you take them?”
In that moment, I was able to see that I was drowning, and I had been unwilling to grab a lifeline that I knew was out there because I was so hung up on my judgmental ideas about meditation. I knew what I had to do, as much as I didn’t want to. I begrudgingly signed up for a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class. I had done some research and knew that this particular model of teaching mindfulness and meditation was developed in the late 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist by training. In the decades since, the MBSR curriculum has been taught to hundreds of thousands of individuals and used in hundreds of research studies exploring (and often confirming) the effects of mindfulness and meditation. Because it was a secular program backed up by solid scientific literature, I figured I had a decent shot at not wandering into a drum circle full of patchouli-scented space cadets…
A few weeks later I was sitting on a folding metal chair in a large conference room. There were about thirty people sitting in a circle, each with a purple yoga mat and a maroon meditation cushion under his or her chair. We were going around the room, sharing our stories of why we were taking this mindfulness course. As I listened to each person talk, I felt wildly uncomfortable and totally out of place. Men and women, mostly older than me, were disclosing mental health diagnoses, chronic health issues, and relationship problems. As a clinical social worker, I was used to being the person in the front of the room or the other side of the desk, listening to these sorts of concerns and offering guidance. I was used to being the one who was in control of her life, on top of things, suggesting that other people consider mindfulness. This was different from the confidential conversations of my therapist’s office. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me to admit to roomful of complete strangers that I was struggling with parenting, that my emotions were beyond my control.
So there I was, squirming in my chair as my attention jumped between the thoughts in my head, the voice of our instructor, and the faces of the people with whom I would be meditating for the next eight weeks. A few of them had the disheveled look of patients I remembered from my time working on an inpatient psychiatric unit, and two women seated near me were most likely wearing wigs as a result of cancer treatment. I was so busy diagnosing my classmates in my own mind that I was surprised to realize it was my turn. I cleared my throat and shifted uncomfortably. “Um, well, my name is Carla. I’m a social worker and I have two little girls. Parenting is really hard … it’s like my own little Peace Corps, but poopier.”
I paused, expecting the laugh I usually get from the poop jokes I had been making since I changed that first dirty diaper over four years earlier. But no one laughed at the joke. Humor is my favorite defense mechanism, and when it doesn’t work I feel bare and exposed. I looked up and was greeted by a circle of earnest faces. I knew I was expected to continue. I briefly fantasized about pretending that my cell phone was buzzing in my pocket and that I had to take an urgent call from my daycare provider.
Daycare. My daughters. My sweet girls who bore the brunt of my temper far more often than they deserved. They were the reason I was there. I took a deep breath and continued.
“Anyway, parenting is really hard for me,” I continued. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I love my daughters so much. I get frustrated with them a lot more than I’d like to, and I need to learn to stay calmer with them. I think mindfulness could help.”
Over the next two months, I spent three hours each week learning about stress, stress management, basic neurobiology, yoga, and the history, theory, and practice of mindfulness. I learned that mindfulness isn’t some New Age mental crystal healing technique; it’s actually a very clear, compassionate, and pragmatic way to engage with our lives and ourselves. Mindfulness is simply about making the choice to pay attention to whatever is happening inside us or around us with kindness and curiosity. I learned how to practice mindfulness in small moments throughout my day by trying to be fully present while I was brushing my teeth or making my coffee. As I did that, I started to notice how fast and far my mind could wander, how easily old memories and fresh worries were popping up in my consciousness and mood, and how insidious it all was.
I still remember the first time I attempted to practice mindfulness in response to my own yelling. I wasn’t able to stop my tantrum before it started, but I tried a different approach after it had happened. I went into the kitchen (my standard retreat from a difficult parenting moment), and instead of scouring the cabinets for a handful of chocolate to shove in my mouth, I put my hands on the counter and took a few deep breaths. Almost immediately, the dam of guilty thoughts burst open: “I am a terrible mother. I can’t believe I lost my temper again. The poor girls looked so scared, and I just kept yelling. I’m the adult here, and I should be able to control my temper.…”
And then, for the first time, I realized what I was doing—and I stopped. I just stopped. I remembered what my MBSR instructor had said: Our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not reality, and we don’t have to treat them as though they are. We can choose how much we want to engage with them or not. We can let them go. We can ask ourselves Rumi’s question: “Who am I, standing in the midst of this thought-traffic?” The idea that my thoughts were nothing more than cars I could either choose to get into and cruise around in for a while or rides I could pass up was a revolutionary perspective for me; my years of social work training had drilled into me the importance of our thoughts. They were the essence of who we are (or so I was told), and they needed to be explored and weighed and considered and understood and struggled with. Well, I had done all of that with my therapist, and it had been useful—to a point.
So I tried something different. I let those thoughts go and tried to implement what I was learning about mindfulness, kindness, and curiosity. “Okay,” I thought to myself. “You yelled at your kids again. It happened. It’s over. You’re working on it. What was that about? What do you need? What do they need? What can you do differently now?”
I don’t remember how I answered myself—maybe I was hungry or stressed or the girls were overtired or getting sick. Maybe I took some deep breaths and offered to read them some books or let them watch a show so I could have a break. What I do remember is how I felt. Before, when I would I freak out and then berate myself for losing it, I felt stuck, helpless, and terrible. My mood would worsen, and I just couldn’t get myself into a better headspace no matter how hard I tried. More often than not, I would unleash that crappy mood on the girls all over again. This time, when I tried to pay attention to how I was feeling—when I tried to be nice to myself and interested in what happened—my experience was completely different. I felt like I could breathe. I felt like I could take a moment to see what was going on, and get some clarity on the situation. I felt like I had options and could go back to my daughters not only with a much better attitude, but with a willingness to reconnect with them rather than an angry urge to yell at them. And I did.
It was an amazing experience, one that I wasn’t expecting and was immensely grateful for. I had experienced for the first time what noted meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg describes as the magic moment: “The moment that we realize our attention has wandered is the magic moment of the practice, because that’s the moment we have the chance to be really different. Instead of judging ourselves, and berating ourselves, and condemning ourselves, we can be gentle with ourselves.”
I decided it was time to take the meditation part of the course a little more seriously. As it turns out, meditation isn’t about emptying your mind at all; it’s about learning to notice your thoughts—whatever they may be—and letting them go, over and over again. We were practicing abasic breathing meditation, which involves sitting and breathing (that’s the mostly easy part) and paying attention to your breathing (that’s the not-so-easy part). The goal is not to stay perfectly focused, but to notice every time your mind wanders (which is about every two seconds for me), and to make the choice to come back to your breath. It’s about having that magic moment over and over again, not so we can get to a point where our minds never wander (that’s never going to happen), but so we can get really good at noticing when we’ve gone off on another rant or tangent, and then choose to come back.
It sounds simple—and it is. But it’s not easy because our brains aren’t designed to focus on something as boring as our breath. Our brains were designed to think, and then think some more, about anything and everything, all the time. Evolutionarily, we survived because we were constantly scanning the environment for threats or risks (an experience most parents can relate to) and currently, our attention is constantly being pulled in multiple directions: regrets about the past, worries and hopes for the future, task lists that just won’t end, brightly lit screens full of enticing emails and status updates, the false promises of multitasking, and the endless requests of our children. Our brain’s default mode is to bounce around like a psychotic monkey, and then when we throw in the demands and details of modern life (and technology), well, it’s as if we fed that monkey a sleeve of Oreos and a handful of Ecstasy.
If we don’t notice what’s happening, we very easily and quickly decide that the monkey is reality. But he’s not. He’s just a monkey, doing what monkeys do. The more we indulge the monkey, the stronger and louder he’s going to get. But if we accept that the monkey is there, say hello, and then continue with our business, we get a little distance from him. We’re able to choose how—or even if—we want to follow the endless stream of thoughts we’re often so immersed in. We get better and better at seeing our own thoughts and emotions, getting some space from them, and choosing how we want to respond.
Much to my surprise, I started meditating. A few times a week, I would sit in a chair or on a cushion I had bought, and just breathe. Some days it felt effortless and invigorating. Other days I was bored or anxious and unable to sit for the whole time. But I kept doing it. I kept making it a point to practice mindfulness, to choose a few moments each day, often when I was out for a walk or reading to my daughters, to just focus and be present. Inevitably, my mind would wander (and it still does), and I would make the choice, over and over again, to come back to the present moment with whatever curiosity and compassion I could find in that moment. It never occurred to me that I could take that approach to the monkeys in my mind, but that’s precisely what meditation is about. Each time I noticed, accepted, and ultimately let go of the frustration, boredom, anger, and irritation that inevitably arose in the course of meditation, I was creating the head-space and cultivating the coping skills that helped me get through the roughest moments of parenting with just a little more grace and ease.
I can’t tell you that I am now consistently calm, kind, and empathic no matter what parenting dilemma crosses my path. Far from it. I still yell at times, but it’s far less often than it was, and I am able to bounce back much more quickly than I could before. And, much to my surprise, I’m getting some clarity on a number of ways in which I had strayed from what really matters in parenting: my connection with my daughters, as they truly are and as I truly am, right here, right now, in this present moment.
Until I learned about mindfulness, I didn’t really understand that I even had a choice in the matter. I just hadn’t thought about it. But as I practiced seeing and calming the monkey in my mind, I also learned where my brain tended to go when I got anxious or confused: I would search outside myself for something, anything, to read or buy to fix the latest parenting problem that preoccupied me. I became hyper-focused on my need to control the situation and would start to compare myself to other parents. Every single one of these tendencies took me farther and farther away from the reality of the present moment, which is where the real work of parenting—of staying connected and grounded—happens.
This is a sponsored excerpt from Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters by Carla Naumburg, Ph.D. Buy the book.