Monday, June 30, 2014

Sleep Deprivation as a Parent

I honestly don't know how my wife and I made it through the first 6 months of parenthood, and more specifically the first 3 months.

If you are a parent you know exactly what I'm talking about. It must be a rite of passage set up by the gods of parenthood "Holy shit. If I can get through this I can do anything." I remember thinking to myself. "Soldiers fight wars in the midst of sleep deprivation. How the hell do they do that? Not only are you sleep deprived but you're sleep deprived during this incredible emotional marathon of raising a newborn baby. I mean what kind of twisted, sick combo is this? When you need your emotional and physical reserves the most you have the least available. It's like a vision quest that goes on from 3 months to, in some circumstances, years.

I remember being in physical pain I was so tired. My wife and I would trade off one hr sleep shifts because Sam would only sleep if he was held upright, and it was so intense with the crying and the sleep deprivation, that neither one of us wanted to leave the other with the baby for too long. That hour of sleep felt so sweet. A part of me was waiting for it the entire time I was holding Sam. "Oh my god. Fifteen more minutes. Just fifteen more minutes."

One of the hardest things about lack of sleep after a while for me was that I didn't recognize myself. Where did I go? Where's my sense of humor? Where's my sense of trust in the universe? Where's my fucking personality. My mojo has left the building. Will it ever come back? Will it always be like this? There was a sadness there. I'm gone and i'm left with this sleep deprived man in the shape of Mark Stelzner but this isn't Mark Stelzner. He used to be able to think straight. He used to be more creative and intuitive. How do I live my life this way? It was a mourning of my old life. I mean yes my life completely changed when I had a child but this was more specific. I didn't have access to all of me because of the sheer exhaustion.

After a while the only thing to do was make peace with it. This was part of my lesson of acceptance on the journey of parenthood. I've never experienced this before. I have never had this little sleep. This is a whole new ball game. I have limits that I didn't have before and if I don't accept them and myself within them it's going to be so much harder.

I said to myself "I'm going to have a different experience as a therapist with my clients. It's going to feel different. I don't have the attention span or energy that I normally do so I have to trust that the alchemical relationship in the room is happening the way it's supposed to. I don't have the same energy and focus at my other job. I'm not going to be perky. I'm not going to zing along. That's going to have to be ok for now.

This is all coming from a guy who always feels like he had to be on. I would get up in the morning, run for two miles, do some yoga, and meditate. Can't let them see a chink in that armor. I have to be capable. I need to be happy and helpful. It's like the universe said. "O.k. Try being on now. Good luck with that." I had to accept my shortcomings. I had to accept when I was angry, sarcastic, pathetic, helpless, in need. I had to accept all of me. Was this part of the rite of passage? Was this some twisted way of getting me to not obsess so much about who I was in each moment. Was this preparing me for being a father?

My heart goes out to all parents who are sleep deprived. It's so hard. It's sheer survival. Until you've been through it you can't make someone else understand. My heart really goes out to those parents whose sleep deprivation is ongoing. It's pure love because control really has left the equation, and it can feel like much of yourself has also left the equation. You are surviving hour to hour day to day to take care of this precious soul.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Surrender, Trust, and Humility

One of the hardest things for a father is when your child seemingly doesn't want to be with you. About a month ago my twenty month old son wanted to be with his mommy all the time. Then my in-laws would come over and he'd want to be with them. He's a toddler and it's really nothing personal but it was breaking my heart. You can't help but love your child deeply, and want to be around them.

As a father, from day one, I've learned that the best way to stay present with my child is to love him, love him, love him. He would cry and I thought I was doing something wrong. I loved him. He would want to be with my wife rather than me. I loved him. I couldn't console him. I loved him. This doesn't mean It didn't hurt when he wanted to be with someone else, or that he cried sometimes when I held him. It meant that it wasn't about me. I couldn't make it about me. He's crying. I'm going to do everything I can to soothe him. If nothing works then I'm going to allow him a safe, loving place to let it out. If he wants to be with mommy then right now he needs to be with mommy. If he wants to be with his Bepa and Nana then how incredibly grateful am I that he has such incredible, loving grandparents. This was work. This was painful work.

I would think to myself how much I wasn't cut out for this, how much I sucked at this. I can't console him. He's crying sometimes when i hold him. Maybe he's scared of me or doesn't trust me. I would think "I guess he just doesn't love me as much as Mommy or Bepa or Nana.

This was crazy making. It was so much about me and thank god for an inner source of wisdom. I realized. It's not about me, and even when it is, my task is to love him and do the best I can. When I'm worried about whether I'm safe enough, loving enough, or worthy I'm less present with Sam. I began to trust in the universe, surrender, and embrace humility. These were my allies and this was my clarity. Believe me, as I am writing about this present experience, it's hard, and it's a constant battle but it's my love and my presence that Sam needs. Not my inner critic. This week Sammy wants to be around me all the time. It shifts. He has different needs in different moments.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Being Held on the Rollercoaster Ride

My wife and I are flying from Oakland to Tampa, Fl with our sixteen month old son, Sam. Some details.

He sits on my lap and gazes into my eyes chuckling "Dad." He becomes restless and wants Mommy. He nurses and after his alternating nursing and saying "done" several times my wife is done with the game and Sam is pissed off. Redirecting time. "Choo Choo." "Choo Choo." Out comes his trains and mommy and Daddy are the track. After a few minutes of this the train goes flinging into the aisle. We retrieve and try again. Into the aisle again and so we put the train away for now. Sam wailing "more, more." We try a redirect and it doesn't work. Mommy tries soothing. Not happening. Time for a walk down the aisle. He's beaming and laughing. He falls. He gets up again. He says hi to a few people and falls again. He's crying. I pick him up and this is when it gets tricky. It's borderline between being upset at falling and at being picked up. Do I soothe by holding him or by letting him walk again? I hold him for a minute and let him walk again.

The plane is on it's descent and the air pressure is hurting Sam's ears. We know nursing helps but he's also teething, and that's causing him pain right now too so he doesn't want to nurse. Torture, helplessness. Our baby is in pain. We're trying to help him but it's not working. We break out the train. Doesn't work. We get a book out. Doesn't work. Oh pure torture. Finally some duck peekaboo. Bingo. Aaaah. Thank the heavens. We land.

There is so much that can happen on a flight with a sixteen month old. It is such an exercise in letting go and being present. Reacting in the moment and moving on. You're in one very small place for an extended time and the only thing that you can control is giving up control and being in the moment. During each of these moments on the flight there was an undercurrent of wanting some control. "Is he going to try to crawl into the aisle." "Will we be able to soothe him." "Is he going to fall." "Is he going to be ok." "What does that person think of the train in the aisle?"

My wife and I aren't perfect. We aren't always present with Sam. But this is our intention. Life is hard. Human beings often aren't present because of this. We don't want to experience the rollercoaster of joy and pain, the unknown of any given moment. We find ways to have more control, to live the middle ground. It's in the rollercoaster ride where we are safest, and when others are present with us on that rollercoaster ride. I have an image of a rollercoaster going up and down, around bends, upside down. But all through this journey there's also a straight line. This straight line can't be seen but it's felt in the heart and the soul, and it's a consistent feeling of being held. This is what we want for Sam.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dads and Emotions

I was thinking recently about the burden that Dad's have in our society today. Dad's are expected to be more involved with the care taking of their child after so many years of being the provider, the bread winner. This change doesn't happen over night. It takes time for the transition.

Men are then sent mixed messages about being in touch with their emotions. Men are supposed to be more emotional in this day and age but then often if they are, they are seen as too feminine.

When Dad's do get in touch with their emotions, sometimes it's the first time, and that can be incredibly challenging. The expectation is that Moms need support during this time but there isn't much emphasis on the Dad.

If you become more involved with your child but aren't supposed to be emotional it's going to be overwhelming which often no one will know about because you aren't supposed to express that. If men do get in touch with their feelings and have intense emotional experiences during this time, where is the support?

I remember being with my wife during her labor and delivery and balling my eyes out because I couldn't bear her pain. I also remember balling my eyes out in admiration of this incredible warrior, this woman completely in touch with her body. The grace of it. I can't imagine not expressing that pain and that beauty. I remember talking to a therapist about how my time had all gone away, and how I always felt exhausted, and overwhelmed the first three months of my son's life. I remember feeling like I was never going to have a moment to myself again. I also remember feeling fear and anxiety about being a good enough father. Sometimes I hold him and he cries. Is there something wrong with me? Sometimes I can't stop him from crying. I feel so powerless. I don't know what he wants right now. I'm a horrible dad. Oh my god. I'm going to be a horrible Dad. There were nights when I would raise my fist to the air and have a silent primal scream at God in the middle of the night. You and me god. We're having words. Enough. I've reached my capacity. There were times when neither my wife or I could soothe each other, and nights holding Sam in the rocking chair at 2am, seeing the moon through the window, and the sound of crickets and crying because it was so perfect. Through all of this I showed my emotions, asked for support, and got it. It's horrifying to think of not having that.

Emotions are our ticket to the here and now and being a good parent is about being in the here and now. It's important to understand what this transition means to many Men. We need to support our Dads. It's how we're going to support our children.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Surrender at the Playground

I'm walking into the playground, and there's the giggling and screaming of children and toddlers. There are clusters of mothers talking to each other and I feel a little like an outsider. I'm the Dad. In some ways I'm like a novelty. My anxiety level raises a little bit. I can feel it in my stomach, and my heart rate increases slightly. I can feel my face get a little warmer. I look down at Sam and his eyes are lit up. He's pointing faster than his finger can move. Aaaaah. Deep breath. This is fun. We go over to the swing and I push Sam on the swing a little bit. He's not as giddy as he normally is. He's pointing at a cluster of kids. He obviously wants to go over and play with them. This is a newer development. Before there was smiling, and pointing, and giggling, and monkey noises. Now it's on. He's 15 months old.

His world is opening up faster every day and he's embracing it. I notice a mixture of thoughts and emotions. I am incredibly proud. I always envisioned this moment of him playing with other kids on the playground so I feel a little giddy. I also feel this energy fill my belly. I'm anxious and there is a slight panic. "What if they aren't nice to him?" "What if they take his toys?" "What if he takes their toys and they get pissed." Major protective mode. I want him to be happy. I want him to have a great experience with these other kids. Maybe we just shouldn't go over there. It looks like he's still having a good time swinging. This is where the energy fills my belly and my chest. I know that this is about me. It's this feeling of guilt. He's telling me he wants this. Deep breath. O.k.

We head over to the other kids. He starts playing with their toys. Should I tell him that they're not his toys? Should I just let him be? What about this is about me? Let it be. Let it be.

So what am I aware of? I don't want him to get hurt. I don't want to be judged by the other mothers if I do something they don't agree with. I want Sam to be happy, and then it hits me. What I'm doing is modeling fear. He's going to be ok. I can keep him safe and I can soothe him when he's upset. I can also make mistakes. If I make a mistake then I know to do something differently next time. We're sitting side by side, each having this unique experience. He's pushing a toy truck and making his great vrmmmmm noises. I love those noises. I'm just going to enjoy this moment, yet I'm looking around, seeing if the other kids are going to form a posse and take the truck. How far is Sam going to push the truck?

let's go back to some of the anxiety. Unless you're a father you don't know what it's like to be in a playground full of mothers. You don't. I let Sam go down a mini slide and spotted him and he was a little upset. He's done it many times before and he loves it. This time he just wasn't feeling it. It's obvious to me he just wants to be with the other kids as much as possible. One of the mother's says "Oh isn't that sweet. Daddy's out with baby." "Maybe Daddy can slide down with baby." Uuuuuugh!!! Just because I am a Dad does not mean I don't have good parenting skills. I pride myself on my involvement in Sam's life but this perception remains and it's a subtle cloud hovering around me sometimes that I try to ignore but it's there. I remember a father telling me he overheard some women at the playground wondering whether he was unemployed.

What this all comes down to is the surrender. Sam's playing with the truck. A little girl comes over and wants to play with it. I'm getting in a zone. What will be will be. The little girl takes it and I'm in that zone because whatever will be will be and my mad skills allow me to not react, but to diffuse. "I know, you were playing with that. She's just going to play with it for a little bit. Let's put this sand in the sand truck over here. I really need your help with it. Whoa, check out doggy over there. We're in the moment. Daddy's having a good time. Sam's got a new toy, and did I mention we're in the moment.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I'm Tired, You're Tired. Uuuugh!!

Yesterday was a difficult day because, more than normal I was feeling the lack of time and space for myself. As a parent, and specifically a father it's a challenging area. How do I support my wife, take care of my child and both love and nurture myself in the process? Part of the challenge of this is that my wife who is my best friend, soul mate, and partner in this parenting journey is often dealing with the same challenge.

So a thought enters into my mind. "How can I communicate what's happening for me and ask for support when you're feeling the same thing and in need of the same support?" Such a tricky one. Sometimes there's a resistance to communicating my pain when my partner is feeling the same pain. Won't resentment and fear enter into the picture. "I'm tired too. You think you're the only one who's tired. If you're tired then I have to work harder and I'm already at my limit. If I open up to you and you're feeling the same exhaustion and lack of individual space will you drop me? Will I open up and then be dropped? Is it ok to be angry at this when you're just at your limit.       

As you can see it can get tricky and escalate. Last night I was vulnerable and opened up about my experience and my wife was in a different place. She had had a good day, a more energizing day. She was still tired but in an open, accepting place.       

As parents we need to be able to communicate our experience to each other. Parenting can be exhausting and all consuming. On this journey one of the most important things I continue to try to work on with my wife is the realization that if she's having a bad day or if I'm having a bad day we can't always save each other, and we can still be there for each other. It's about communication. "I'm sorry your exhausted. I wish I could support you better right now and i'm totally exhausted too. Doesn't that suck. We both need each other and we're both exhausted. I totally get where you're at."        

Instead of a competition based on having the same experience it becomes empathy based on the same experience. It's about accepting your limitations and trying to see your partner. If I'm seen and my wife says I don't have a lot to give right now I'm ok. I'm seen and I'm heard like last night. How soothing it is to be seen and heard by the one you trust the most.