Connection essentials

The courage to connect and courageously support

I often think about mothers of newborns and very young children and wonder how smartphones and the advent of Web 2.0 has impacted and changed the experience of early motherhood. When I first became a mother, smart phones were only just entering the market so Facebook and all the other social media icons were not yet as ubiquitous to every day life as they are now. I see posts from friends with babies and toddlers sharing milestones, cute photos and videos, and also the not-so-cute times. The sleep deprivation, the frustration with teething and sickness, the inability to ‘get anything done’, the urgent and dire need to ‘get out of the house’, the overwhelm of trying to fit too much into a day and then think of something to cook for dinner. Whenever I read these posts, it takes me back to a time when I too shared the same experiences, but didn’t have a smartphone to be able to tap into a willing cheer squad.

 

 

I was thinking about all this recently when a friend of mine with a very young baby wrote a post about being worn out looking after her unsettled colicky baby. Her post and replying comments took me right back to when my second child was a baby and also very unsettled. It reminded me of how I felt during that time and how I became isolated and depressed, even though I didn’t really know it at the time. My overwhelming desire was to reach out to her and help her in the way I wished someone had have been able to reach out to me. I wanted to tell her what I wished someone had have been able to tell me.

 

When my baby 'turned' from being a content, quiet little baby into a tormented, frustrated, crying little red ball at about 6 weeks, I think I would have liked my older self to have looked my younger self in the eye and tell me about the necessity of having the courage to trust my instincts and prioritise self-nurture. That this, regardless of what I believed was most important and what being a ‘good’ and ‘capable’ mother meant to me, that these things had to come first. I know what the younger self would have thought too. She would have brushed it off as obvious to the point of being irrelevant because the real priority was to figure out how to settle this baby so I could get all this other stuff done. In other words, I, like many others, I daresay, theoretically saw the importance of nurturing instincts and understanding unrealistic expectations, but not to the extent of being able to prevent myself from becoming isolated and depressed. Making the link between instincts, self-nuture and maintaining meaningful and healthy connections with others, along with the active pursuit of accountability for your own well-being is probably difficult to do without the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

 

And so day after day I’d try something new, looked for those magic gripe drops, tried the swaddling technique that was slightly different to the 7 others I’d tried, upset myself and my baby with control crying, soothing music, a more rigid feeding routine, altering my own diet, stressed myself out by trying not to be stressed and read yet another article telling me my baby was upset because I was stressed and that he was merely taking cues from me, so I should sit down and have a cup of tea. Viola! Not.

 

Looking for solutions is fine, but there's rarely a silver bullet and sometimes not even a name for ‘it'. The truth is some babies cry, a lot, and sometimes we never really find out why. Just when you think something’s ‘done the trick’, you’re just as likely to have the wheels fall off and have to head back to the drawing board … again. Early motherhood is demanding, even when everything’s smooth sailing, and downright treacherous when it’s not. When you're new to this, to this enormous, relentless job, your instincts are probably your best friend. But we can’t see instincts, were never taught instincts at school and they were possibly not even mentioned, or merely skimmed over at your anti natal class, they’re not to be found in the baby isle at Coles and your mum probably brushes them off as inferior to actual experience. But your instincts are important and they need to be honed and developed, and the only way to do this is to practise listening to them. It means being kind to yourself, it means being your own mother in a way, and making that your first priority because in truth there is no other time that you need to mother yourself more than when you become a mother yourself. If you’re so tired and exhausted and confused that you can’t even imagine having instincts, but you know you need to breastfeed and bond with that baby, if that's all you can manage, well that's absolutely enough and that’s more than ok.

 

It's all so intense and magnified when you're 'in it', but time marches on and when you look back you realise how small a time in your whole life it actually was, and therefore so precious ... and tiring, and hard, and scary, but always never the less, precious. I wish new mothers were told more strongly and relentlessly that if "all" (as if it's nothing!!) you do is sleep, breast feed and talk to your friends during this time, punctuated by some walks outside, and snuggles and talks with your partner, best friend or significant other, then you're doing a brilliant and perfect job. So ingrained is the expectation that we will be ‘super mums’ immediately (whatever that means anyway), that we’re not even explicitly told to have these expectations, we just automatically do. Now that you’re a mother, you’re supposed to have everything sorted - a perfectly content baby whose different cries you fully understand and efficiently respond to, an immaculate house, a tidy pantry, delicious and nutritious dinners, washing and ironing up-to-date, a tidy social life and coffee calendar, an exercise regime, baby weight lost, swimming lesson and baby yoga, blissful breastfeeding with copious amounts of milk, a nice fat baby, and let’s not forget, extreme happiness because everybody tells you these will be the best years of your life. 

 

Now I hate to sound cynical, but seriously? I’m skeptical and I feel strongly that these often unspoken expectations are not only unrealistic, but dramatically increase new mothers’ likelihood of experiencing feelings of failure, isolation and depression. It’s often said that failing to do anything about a problem is the same as contributing to it, and it seems to me that while most of us would agree that these kinds of expectations are unrealistic, we tend to smile and go along with them anyway. What we really need to be taught is how to unlearn them. We need to be told the way it really is and supported in being much, much more realistic in what the job actually entails, its excruciating demands and what’s actually important.

 

We are living in a period in time where most of us were brought up being told we can do and be anything. We’re used to technology and with that comes a certain impatience and expectation that everything can be ‘fixed’. If you don’t like something, don’t tolerate it - get an app, read an e-book, find a guru, fix it! And again, I’m a modern woman and I not only like that approach, for the most part, but I employ it often in everyday life to huge advantage. However I’m also becoming increasingly aware of the need for real connection in life to tap into the collective human wisdom that remains essentially unchanged through the ages. It’s so easy to get caught up in ’stuff’ and become deaf to the knowledge that has accumulated through millions of lives lived. What mother looks back and says she really should have done more housework! No mother, ever. There’s something in that, why ignore it?

 

For me, I felt like everyone had a million suggestions as to how to 'fix' my baby and I felt enormous pressure to 'solve' his problem, which in turn lead to nothing but an enormous feeling of failure and depression when I couldn't. This feeling was further compounded by my expectation that I could also get everything else done, but I couldn’t, and neither did I let it go. What I wish someone would have said to me was to stop focusing on trying to 'fix' him, and instead shift to focusing on how I was going to get through this. I needed to bring down expectations and nurture myself so I could stay relaxed and solid for my baby. I now know that it's absolutely ok if that means that all you do for days on end is sleep together and feed. Let it be. Or sleep together when possible and play blocks with your toddler. Whatever, the point is it’s just a moment in time and this too will pass. Take the time to intentionally trust yourself and nurture your instincts. Your mental health and ability to cope will be greatly strengthened and your baby will respond to your focused, calm attention. 

 

Perhaps even if this had have been said to me, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to hear it anyway because I know how ingrained my own expectations of myself were and I now also know how unrealistic and dangerous they were. It takes great courage to question your beliefs, to interrogate your modus operandi and that’s because within it we entwine our identity. Our identity as a ‘good’ mother, a ‘hard working’, ‘organised’, ‘thriving’, ‘natural’, ‘capable' mother are all wound up in our expectations of ourselves and compounded by a society that both praises these apparitions and expresses awkward discomfort with being different.

 

Mothers however, if nothing else, must be courageous, and let me tell you, even though I for one often felt as far from courageous than is humanly possible, it comes with the job; mothers are instinctively courageous. One thing you learn about courage though is that it’s not as sexy as brave. It’s often unseen, unheard and often feels exactly like fear, but the difference is that it’s relentless. It doesn’t go away and deep inside you know to trust its voice. Sometimes it sounds very different to your own voice, the voices of your friends, your family and even the voice of the world, but you’ll know it because deep down, you know it’s the truth. This is what mothers need to know.

We've got the apps, we've got Google, we've got the medicine and the natural remedies, we've got the research, we've got the studies, we've got society at large telling us what’s right and what’s wrong, but what we perhaps haven’t got is the connection that none of that can ‘fix’ anything without the ability to tap into and trust our own instincts. To share what hindsight has taught us about what’s important at a time that’s so fleeting. To help develop the courage to define our own priorities based on love and self-nurture, rather than an unrealistic and impossibly outdated super-mum machine ideal. It’s probably easier in a lot of ways to go along with the machine, but it doesn’t change anything and it unnecessarily contributes to the already present and inherently unavoidable risk of post natal depression. New mums need to be told that it’s ok to not do it all, it’s ok to not even want to! It’s ok to not be ‘perfect’. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed and depressed. It’s ok if your baby cries a lot - he won’t cry forever so let’s just now see how to get you through this in one piece, with your sanity in tact.

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’re all more technologically connected than ever before, and while this definitely presents challenges for people becoming more isolated despite and maybe even because of all that connectivity, it also represents an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful connection. Mothering new babies, whether it be for the first time, or with a small tribe of toddlers, pre-schoolers and older kids, is extremely demanding. We get through it and come out the other side with wisdom and stories, regrets and triumphs, myths and myth busters. No two stories are quite the same because we’re all unique, but we all have something to share, something that might just resonate with someone who’s in the thick of it and who needs to be told, quite simply, it’s ok. And perhaps if it’s said enough our collective wisdom will impact the expectations placed on new mothers and increase their support and well-being. It is, after all, without a doubt, one of the most important jobs in the whole world so it need to be kept real and courageously supported. 

Canteen therapy

I had a bad dose of PMT the other day (wow, that's another whole topic, but let's not go there today!) and felt awful. I woke up with the devil and all his negative force inside me, had a big cry in the shower feeling I couldn't possibly go on (you know those cries), followed by a big snuggle and talk with my man to stabilise, then went off to a day in the canteen at my kids' school. It wasn't exactly what I felt like doing, let me tell you, but I have experienced the magic of canteen therapy enough to have been able to manage a fairly open mind.

 

I set off feeling grateful actually that I was going to be doing something that would keep me busy and give me a few laughs in a comfortable environment. Although I wanted to curl up, hide from the world and mope for the day, I know that can be a speedy spiral into negativity. Actually, it was better to have someone lead me in completing simple tasks and being productive.

 

Well the short of it is that I was right. It was much, much better to be busy with friends doing something useful. This was very, very good therapy. Incredibly effective, zero negative side effects and a plethora of compounding positive effects in addition to the almost absolute decimation of the original symptoms. Remarkable. And it got me thinking, of course, about connection, again.

 

Group therapy, occupational therapy, diversionary therapy, the importance of community, belonging, acceptance, as well as the sisterhood and women's business, in mental health and managing life's usual and unusual challenges. There seemed to be two key elements of my canteen therapy today that were fundamental in achieving the positive effect it had;

 

1. Being led and kept busy, but not frantic, in continuous, but undemanding tasks (purpose & diversion)

 

2. Accepting, embracing and even nurturing company (belonging & acceptance)

 

These two ingredients gave me something to focus on other than my PMT, allowed me to feel purposeful when I would otherwise have felt lost, frustrated and overwhelmed, and gave me a sense of belonging and of connectedness as the antidote for isolation.

 

When I reflected on this transformation of my mood, I felt like it was deeper than it seemed. Like it tapped into something more ancient and soulful and much bigger than me and my mind. It reminded me of ancient and tribal women brought together around tasks like food gathering and preparation, basket weaving etc, and was struck by the benefits of doing this and how I felt like I'd just spent a day doing the modern day equivalent.

 

Made me think about how depression and PMT and menopause rage and financial pressure and marital unrest and domestic violence and abuse and, in fact, all the things that make us sad and that hurt us are kind of taboo in our modern world. We have bugger-all accessible mechanisms to cope with these things and the things we do have set up to help people are often, unfortunately, repelling, or unattractive, or un-accessible to those who need them, often because they’re designed to remedy a crisis, rather than prevent that from occurring. I’m not knocking that either, we need to help people in crisis, but what I’m getting at are the simple mechanisms in life that serve our fundamental human needs and help prevent little things degenerating into more than they need to be.

 

We are often isolated in our modern lives, ironically when we've never been more technically connected. And that maybe the best preventative measures and most effective therapies for our mental well being are the very things that our modern world has either consciously or inadvertently decided are not important. Communities of people connecting over simple, meaningful tasks. Once upon a time baskets had to be weaved, food had to be gathered and prepared and people had to live in groups or they would have perished, and while we don't have the necessity of those tasks any more, we still have the need for the experiences those tasks provided the framework for.

 

We can shop now whenever we like with earbuds in listening to whatever we choose without an ounce of human connection. We can even operate the check-out ourselves so we can even avoid baseline pleasantries, and sometimes that’s very convenient. And our lives are so busy, we outsource much of our work because our scarcest resource is time. And I'm into that - I love convenience, I like a busy life and all its modern, convenient perks, and I love outsourcing or using machines to save myself some time.

 

But today I thought about it in a different way. I wondered how much that simple act of getting together with friends, or family, or a group of fellow volunteers, or avid hobbyists, or sports lovers, is missing, or overlooked in our modern lives as a way of providing some of the elements crucial to human survival. Things that maybe our modern lives could easily tend to disregard and how I was so glad to have had the opportunity to get my fix today, right when I needed it most. I’m not so much trying to make a sweeping statement suggesting that we’re all devoid of belonging to groups and therefore of feeling purposeful and accepted, but rather just to think about how good these kinds of structures are at providing some of the critical elements of life.

 

It’s good to feel purposeful, to feel like you belong and are accepted. We’re human, these are basic needs and having the mechanisms in our lives to intentionally access these psychological super-vitamins contributes to overall well-being more than I, for one, have given them credit for. And in this technologically hyper-connected modern world we live in, perhaps it’s more important than ever to cultivate an awareness of the unchanging human need for real connection; purpose, belonging and acceptance, and to intentionally seek and create experiences that feed us in this way. 

Connection shows up in forming better habits

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a piece about her addiction to her scales and weighing herself. It wasn’t an extensive post, but it was enough to get a sense of the pain behind this habit and how much of a challenge it was for her to quit it. I really felt for her because I know what it’s like to have created a habit in your life that’s based on negative feelings. I knew that it was going to be hard for her to change her habit, especially because the thinking behind the habit had to change too. That’s the hardest bit, I think. But I was also incredibly proud of her for having the awareness of the need for change, the love for herself to recognise what it was and why it was bad for her, the determination to change it even though it would probably be much easier to ignore her soul voice, and the courage to share her thoughts.

 

It doesn’t matter that I’ve never had an addiction to weighing myself and have in fact never even owned scales. It doesn’t matter a bit because it’s not actually about the scales. It’s about the ‘things’ we’ve employed in our lives to please others, out of obligation, because we think it’s right, as a way to push down and ignore our own feelings, out of fear, out of a feeling of scarcity, of feeling inadequate, of striving to be better, to appear better to others … ay ay ay! Always negative at the core and always drowning out, ignoring and sometimes consciously contradicting the inner voice of our souls.

 

That inner voice can be a problem, a rebel. It doesn’t care about conformity, doesn’t care about ease, about comfort, doesn’t care about anything but the health of our soul, our essential selves. But that can be inconvenient, can’t it? We argue with it. 

 

But having a body like that WILL make me happier. 

I’m stressed, I deserve a glass of wine, and then another… 

My family can wait - this report is more important than them right now. I’m doing it for them!

 

So we push it down. We dumb it down. We ignore it. We make it go away … until we can’t hear it anymore. And we keep doing the thing that does not make us happier, it makes us weak because we come to depend on it and we are, therefore, stunted in growth until we become aware of it, reach out and kick away the crutch.

 

We all have our ‘things’ and the only way we can become aware of our own ‘things’, our own crutches, and help each others with theirs, is through connection with one another. By reaching out and sharing her crutch, my friend did two important things;

 

1. She made it possible for others to recognise their own crutches, scales or different - she created an opportunity for her friends to identify with her and in turn, possibly become more aware about themselves.

2. She allowed me to recognise similar feelings and challenges that I’ve faced in my own life, and moved me to connect with her in encouragement and understanding.

 

Sometimes we don’t want to tell people about these things, sometimes we don’t even see them for what they are, so deaf have we become to our inner voice. But when we see others sharing their challenges and their journeys, there’s something that rekindles that inner voice. Something that tells us it’s not so bad, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, I’m not the only one. It may be uncomfortable, we may look at that soul voice askance and wonder if it’s possible that it could be right after all. We could still doubt it, but never the less, at the very least, we wonder and maybe, just maybe we reach out to that person. And then magic starts to happen.

 

The real beauty in this is that it gives us the opportunity to recognise that we are not that different from one another. Her thing’s scales, my thing’s alcohol or striving, but at the core of it, the core reasons or motivations for employing the crutches in the first place, for ignoring our inner voice and ending up with a negative habit, are similar feelings. Feelings that have to do with feeling less, of negativity, of a lack of acceptance and an absence of sufficient connection at the root issue.

 

But guess what? If I feel like that, then chances are that other people feel the same. If I’m not perfect, then chances are that others aren’t either. Nobody is perfect. It’s an illusion we create in our minds as a result of our feelings of scarcity and lack and inadequacy, and they’re fed and bolstered by a society of thousands of humans all doing the same. But if we connect enough to know that we’re not alone, then we can probably connect enough to also see that if negativity and lack and scarcity and inadequacy mentalities are possible, then it’s plausible that so too are the reverse. And that’s how we evolve as human beings. Through connection, we become more aware, braver, more aspirational, more free, more loving and more open. Through connection with others, we see what is possible in ourselves.

 

Photo credit: Marcus Jeffrey via Flickr

Connection requires empathy

Does it? Really? 

 

Absolutely it does and if, when you read that initially, you’re feeling a bit of resistance to the idea, I think it’s probably because most of the time we’re unaware of our empathy for others. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed because it’s pretty natural. Most of the time. But not all of the time. We notice the problem though when there’s a lack of empathy and the primary reason we notice it is because it inhibits connection. Connection feels good, lack of connection or disconnection feels yucky.

 

When we really connect with another person, or even when a group is really connected, there’s a feeling of shared understanding. I feel understood and I feel like I understand you. This makes us feel comfortable, accepted and like we belong. We humans love to feel this way, it’s nice and it’s healthy, and it’s essential to growth and getting through traumatic things that happen to us. It’s why we have friends and want to find more, why we join clubs, play sport, volunteer and share our experiences through writing etc.

 

Sometimes though, you get that feeling that you just can’t connect with someone. You just don’t ‘get’ them and they apparently don’t ‘get’ you either. That’s fine, that’s life. It happens and it doesn’t matter, it’s all part of the greater scheme of things. But sometimes it does matter. It matters whether you connect with certain people or not. It matters because you care about them and therefore you want to connect with them, but perhaps you just don’t understand them. This can be especially confusing when you don’t like, or agree with their behaviour, or decisions.

 

Sometimes what’s going on is that you’re trying to understand them, what they’re saying, what they’re going through, the way they think, before you empathise with them. It’s like using understanding as a filter. Like saying, “If I could just make sense and understand you, then maybe I could empathise with you …”. But the problem is that mostly we use understanding as a logical tool, and empathy, which is critical to connection, is a feeling, and that means making empathy dependent on logic is going to fail.

 

Using logical understanding as a qualifier for empathy means that we essentially want the other person to explain their own thoughts and feelings in a way that ticks the boxes and meets our criteria. It assumes that understanding is essential for empathy, but it’s not. And the thing is that if you block empathy, or apply ‘qualification rules’ to empathy, you miss out on connection.

 

The reason this is true is that logic is limitless and subjective. You can make endless logical arguments for a endless amounts of things in the world. You can explain and explain and explain, and still you’d never get everyone on the same page about this or that. But empathy is based on human emotion and there aren’t too many of those. Yes, of course there are extremes of the same emotion and emotions get tangled up with one another, I know, but at the end of the day, humans feel the same things. No one is inventing new emotions. No one feels something that no one else in the world has never before felt. This is why we can empathise. It’s part of what makes us human. But we shouldn’t make our friends and the ones we love qualify for that empathy through logical understanding.

 

There are times when our desire for logic impedes our human intuition to love and connect with one another. I don’t know what it’s like to care for a mentally disabled child day in, day out. I don’t know what it’s like to balance a high-powered career with being a mother. I don’t know what it’s like to be an 8-year-old boy struggling with bullying. But I do know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed and depressed. I do know what it’s like to feel intense anger and fear so strong it can’t be repressed. I know what it’s like to feel like no one could ever possibly understand. I know what it’s like to wish that someone did, but more than that, that even if they couldn’t understand, that they’d love me anyway.

 

This is the point of empathy, this is the beauty of empathy and this is why connection requires empathy. Don’t miss out that connection because somehow it seems that you have to qualify empathy - you don’t. Give it freely. Forget the circumstances, none of those are ever quite the same, but the underlying emotions usually, if not, always are the same. We all need someone to care for us and love us whether they understand us completely or not.

 

Empathy is something to be given freely. It’s what it was designed for. 

 

photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mythoto/7573314434/">Leonard John Matthews</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>