Author Q&A: Susan Stiffelman
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting with Presence, available now.
Much has been said about parenting “in the moment” – tell us how your book approaches this subject.
In the book I invite parents to use our parenting lives—moment to moment—as a sort of classroom, the ultimate “goal” of the “course” being to become more fully alive, and more fully who we are meant to be. Often, the very things that are frustrating us about our child’s behavior can provide the opportunity for enormous growth and healing. For instance, if your child is ignoring your repeated requests to turn off the TV and come to dinner, you may well find yourself feeling frustrated and disrespected.
Understandably! But if you choose to use that experience to see what’s underneath the trigger, you may well find that it is stirring up emotions from your own growing up years. Perhaps you had the experience of expressing feelings and having them dismissed or invalidated. Or you may be struggling in a relationship with someone who you feel disregards your requests or concerns. So, your children refusing to heed your call to dinner becomes a much more significant infraction than simply your kids not coming to dinner—you may become enraged, and there you are screaming at them for what seems to them a small thing, but for you it’s activating a deep wound. In that moment, you might choose to pause and with great self-compassion and tenderness, ask, “What does this remind me of? How is this feeling one that is familiar to me?”
By becoming more present to what’s getting stirred up in the challenging interactions we have with our children, we can often use them to heal. In this example, you may get quiet for a minute, gently touch your heart with a “There, there”, and feel the sadness that perhaps is under the anger and frustration. This can move you toward greater healing, and better allow you to be what I call the Captain of the ship in your child’s life, lovingly, calmly and confidently in charge, without trying to be control what’s going on so that you feel better.
The side benefit of this is that without projecting the old, unfinished business onto your kids, you can be more at ease and in love with them…even when they don’t come to dinner the first time you call!
What was your inspiration for writing Parenting with Presence?
For two years I did an event called Parenting with Presence which consisted of four or five conversations a day over a four day period with incredible people like Jon Kabat Zinn, Jane Goodall, Arianna Huffington and Thupten Jinpa (the primary translator for the Dalai Lama.) These conversations helped coalesce the ideas I had been working with for some time around parenting with greater presence, engagement and attunement. I have meditated since I was seventeen, and wanted to explore how parenting really can become a spiritual or transformational path. I also wanted to look at how even those people who are committed to being calm and centered get pushed to the brink by the demands of raising children, and talk frankly about the importance of self-compassion and kindness when we inevitably lose our way.
What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?
My hope is that parents who read the book are inspired to be more present and engaged with their children, and with themselves. Parenting is brutally difficult. None of us are saints. We all lose our cool. But our children are incredibly forgiving. If we invest time in building connection and fortifying attachment, and we do our own work so that we are continuing to grow and develop, our kids will flourish.
What was the toughest part of the writing process?
I suppose it was trying to convey an idea in the most economical way possible. I know how busy parents are, and how tough it can be to sit down with a book after a long day. And I know how hard parents are on themselves. I didn’t want to write something that left them feeling they could never apply the ideas I teach, or reinforce shameful feelings that suggest they should be doing parenting “better.” I also wanted to make sure the material in the book was truly practical, rather than spouting a lot of theories. I worked hard to give lots of examples and make the book feel interactive so that parents come away feeling they have a caring and supportive friend as they raise their children. Infusing that feeling into the pages of the book was my challenge, but from what I hear, I think I managed pretty well.
What books have had the greatest influence on you?
Books have been absolutely transformative for me in my life. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Byron Katie’s Loving What Is. I love Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening. I adore Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet. Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want. The list goes on and on.
How do you balance motherhood and writing?
Well nowadays, it’s not such an issue as my son is 24 and pretty much “launched.” But when I wrote my first book, I allowed the process to take its own time, grabbing moments when I could, or writing for chunks of time with headphones on; I actually felt it was healthy and good for him to see me hard at work on a project I felt passionately about. But I also had to be flexible, and willing to stop in the middle of the process when need be, which wasn’t always easy.
What “advice” would you give other mother writers?
Write from your heart. I think what makes a book transform and uplift others is when it comes from our deepest understanding. While it’s lovely to read a well-turned phrase, what matters most—to me, at least—is the feeling that is conveyed between the lines.
Purchase Parenting with Presence.