My best friend sent me a Zen parenting book. It’s called “Time-Out for Parents.” What I’ve gleaned so far is the notion that we parents are doing no service to anyone by ignoring our own needs and emotions.
We all know that. But making a change is really hard when you don’t know exactly what it means to pay attention to your own needs and emotions. When you are so used to being pissed off, there’s no warning flag. Nothing actually feels amiss. “Yeah, poisonous anger! Here it is again! What else is new!”
As I’ve regained some level of health and functionality, it is easier to fall into the old habit of ignoring those moments. They come back in the old way, these subtle feelings of anger and frustration that seep in practically unnoticed. I wonder if they come so sneakily because I am so used to swatting them away or ignoring them for more “important” issues, like finishing the laundry or completing an endless game of Candy Land with my son. Then later, something sets me off and lo, I’m already at my limit. How did that happen?
Here's an example. This spring, my family and I were having a nice, peaceful Saturday, when my son suddenly fell into a massive temper tantrum. This was the screaming, crying, limb-flinging kind of storm that nothing can abate. It just has to pass.
At first, I stayed present with him and observed his outburst with a barely restrained desire to smack him silly and toss him in his room. That’s what my grandmother and mother did. (But that’s not the kind of mother I want to be.) With M’s help, we got him redirected and calmed down. It took a lot out of us.
I didn’t realize how much, until J and I were playing with his train set and suddenly I realized it was approaching the deciding moment for dinner: are we cooking, getting take out, scrounging, or going out?
Suddenly I was fully irritated at my husband. He never seemed to notice when it was time to make these decisions. He didn’t get how long it took to cook, to shop, to plan, how much it took out of me to always be the one in charge of this, how much I really resented it some days.
“So what are we doing for dinner?” I snapped, trying to shift responsibility. (FYI, this tactic never, ever works.)
“I don’t know, I can go to the store and get stuff to cook if you want.”
If I want!
“There isn’t time for that,” I said. “I don’t have time to go looking through cookbooks and make a shopping list and cook all before the kids are ready to eat.”
“Well, can we just scrounge on what’s here?”
“Such as what?” I demanded.
“I don’t know, can we just make sandwiches or something?”
I thought for a moment. Part of my troubles before had been that it was hard for me to present too many makeshift meals per week to my family. M had been trying to convince me for years that he truly did not care. I had been making it my new practice to stop caring, too. And to accept M’s suggestions, no matter what. We had too long a history of me demanding that he take responsibility for a decision and then rejecting it. So, I said, “Fine. We’ll have sandwiches.”
I turned back to the train set. I was still feeling huffy. J insisted on trying to link up two ends of a circle that just weren’t going to meet. Then he got frustrated and started trying to force them.
“Stop it!" I admonished. "If you have to force it, it isn’t going to work!”
Some wrangling ensued. I realized I was all of a sudden engaged in “duty play.” Duty play is “playing” with my son and hating every minute of it. M had observed this in the past and told me that when I’m doing that, I’m not being nice to J, and no one is having any fun. So I stopped and sat back on my heels. M was still sort of hanging around the scene and he looked at me.
“Susie, do you need to…”
“…take a time out?” I laughed. He laughed nervously back.
“Yes,” I said. I stood up. “See you in a half hour.”
I had resisted leaving the scene for many reasons. First, guilt over not having played with J earlier when he needed it, thus setting the stage for a tantrum. Second, relief at having gotten him calmed down and fear that he wouldn’t stay that way. Third, duty to M, who said he really wanted some kid-free time to work on our taxes. So we had guilt, fear, and duty. No wonder I was in a foul mood.
In my white bedroom, with the door closed and afternoon sunlight streaming in the windows, I opened the Zen parenting book and flipped to a page that said,
Stop! Take time out to be present to yourself, to your breath, to your feelings, to your experience of the moment.
What a fucking concept, I thought. How is this even possible right now?
Take a few slow, deep breaths, and notice what it’s like to be present to the thoughts, emotions, and sensations you are experiencing.
Ask yourself, What am I feeling?
I’m annoyed at my husband over the dinner thing. I’m annoyed at my son for causing such a scene and throwing me out of balance. I am scheming about how the rest of the day will happen, should happen. I’m out of balance. And annoyed.
Simply be present in this moment, just noticing.
I noticed, and then I closed the book and stopped “working.” I was literally sitting on my bed with a notebook and a pen in hand, ready to “work” through this problem.
But there was no problem. I was just having some feelings.
I watched them dissipate.
I set aside the book, the notebook, and the pen. I lay down under my down comforter in what I jokingly call “reclined meditation pose.” I observed myself settle into a quiet state between meditation and dozing. I still had twenty whole minutes to stay like this.
Afterwards, I went downstairs, hugged my husband and had a good chuckle with him. Then I opened the refrigerator and mentally threw together a bunch of ingredients I’d forgotten were there.
There was no problem.