In The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Louis Cozolino describes people with a rare type of brain injury who are “constantly distracted by emotional and sensory experience, unable to maintain focus, and suffer deficits in imaginative abilities.”
Wait! That sounds like a description of every parent of young children! Even without the injury, we are usually so wrapped up in each moment – or so exhausted – that we don’t have time or energy to absorb our parenting experiences, consider their meanings and imagine new possibilities. But we need to make the time for reflection, even if we have to steal it from other activities that seem more crucial.
There’s an old Sufi story, in which Mullah Nasrudin – the wise fool – is chopping down a mighty tree with a dull ax. A friend, passing by, suggests that he sharpen the ax, since it’s clear that at this rate the job will take forever. The Mullah waves his friend away, saying, “I don’t have time; I have to chop down this tree right away.”
Reflecting on parenthood – stepping back to think, write or talk about what life is really like for us – is worth the time, because it helps us become better parents. Another Nasrudin story explains why:
A man walking along the street sees him searching for a lost key under a street lamp and politely stops to help. After a long search, the passerby says, “Are you sure this is where you lost the key?”
“Oh no,” answers Mullah Nasrudin, “I lost it over there.”
“Then why aren’t we looking for it over there?”
“Ah, because the light is better here.”
Reflecting on our parenthood (and on our own childhood, while we are at it), prevents us from making the same mistakes again and again, because we get to step back and notice that this tactic has never worked and probably never will.
The best way to jump-start a habit of self-reflection is to set aside a specific time each day for writing in a journal or sharing your thoughts with a friend. Ten minutes can keep your ax sharpened and help you figure out how to take a flashlight over to the dark spot where you lost your keys.
To get you started, here are some helpful things to reflect about:
• What’s great about being a parent?
• What’s hard about it?
• What was going on in your life when you were your child’s age(s)?
Be prepared for reflection to be a bit painful at first, as you pay attention to things that you have avoided thinking about in the past, like losing your temper, not knowing what to do, or saying the same exact words your mother or father used to say to you. You can learn a great deal if you step back from the overloaded stress of daily life and examine what was going on in your mind when you “messed up,” what old memories and feelings were triggered, and what you did out of habit, without pausing to think.
A friend told me this story about the power of taking a little time to reflect:
Everything seemed to go smoothly for me as a mom until my son Isaac was about 18 months old. I started to panic that he was having trouble breathing; every time he coughed or ate I would rush over to make sure he was OK. Everyone told me he was fine, but I couldn’t stop obsessing. Sometimes I would also feel like I was choking. It all made me so nervous that I found parenting more stressful and less enjoyable.
One day a friend asked me, “what happened in your life when you were 18 months old?” Of course, I couldn’t remember, and I thought it was a dumb question. But over the next few days I kept going back to it, and spent some time thinking about it. I had always heard the story that I was left for a week with my grandmother at that age, while my mother was in the hospital having my baby brother. I had a sudden memory, from later in my childhood, of my grandmother trying to force me to eat when I wasn’t hungry. I imagined being a baby, force-fed by my grandmother while I was trying to cry about missing my mommy.
Perhaps all this worry about Isaac choking wasn’t about him, but was really about me. Like the sun coming out of the clouds, my worry and panic went away, and my joy in holding him and playing with him came back.
Not every reflection will lead to such a clear breakthrough, but it will always open the door to understanding. So get a journal – not a baby book, but a book about you – or take 10 minutes each day with a friend. Remember that reflection needs an attitude of acceptance and compassion – not harshness or criticism – and it is not the same as rumination. If you find yourself going over the same familiar thoughts, reach for brand-new thoughts. Allow yourself to be surprised.
(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)