Earlier this week, I watched a video entitled Parenting in a Pandemic with Britta Bushnell, a birth educator many of the families on this list follow and respect, and her colleague Kara Hoppe, a marriage and family therapist. I’m not sure what I was expecting, something about how to relate to children during these uncertain times, perhaps. Or maybe suggestions for how to talk to children about what they are seeing and experiencing. But what I walked away with was the critical importance of taking care of ourselves and our partners…giving the same care, space, and time we give to children to yourself and your spouse.
Hoppe pointed out that many of us have lost our commutes, which while fantastic for the environment and our stress levels, may not be as beneficial to our mental health as one would think. Yes, you’re not sitting in traffic for an hour+, but this means you’re also not having that physical, mental, and emotional separation between work and home. Hoppe recommended paying special attention to our transitions as we separate and reunite with our spouses, even if we’re just headed, to or returning from, a different level or room.
It reminded me of how I always encourage parents to tell their children when they are leaving, even if the child becomes upset. Ultimately, it helps to create more security for children as they never have to worry their parent will suddenly disappear on them. For adults, honoring the transitions in this way helps us to make the mental and emotional shift between work and connecting with family, but it also offers us the opportunity to stop and really see our partner. She reports that it helps strengthen the connection, the love and care, between partners…and I don’t believe it is limited to couples. Single parents, I encourage you to slow down and check in with yourselves, too. Pause as you prepare to start your day or move on to the next thing. Give yourself a mental shake and insert a beat or two between one thing and the next. We know that slowing down our transitions with infants and toddlers makes it smoother, it only makes sense that it would feel good for us, too.
This advice, so similar to what I ask parents to do with children, got me thinking: What if we RIE’d ourselves, our partners? Let’s lay it out, principle by principle.
We’d start by recognizing that each of us is unique, with our own ways of interacting with the world, responding to it…my Father-in-Law often says that he and his wife can walk down the same street, together, but report seeing entirely different things. He always laughs as he says it, a bit of a tease to my Mother-in-Law, but I love it. Yes, her eyes are drawn to the beauty of storefront displays, birds, and nature…while his are drawn to architecture and people. Together, they have a more complete view. And it’s true: we all have our own, unique POV, and it’s ever-developing and changing. Raising Good Humans reminds us that the child we put to bed is not the same one who wakes up the next morning…and the same is true for ourselves. Carefully (sensitively) observe1 yourself and your partner and you’ll start to see it. When we look with wonder and curiosity, instead of with expectations, that’s when we discover new things.
So, we’re seeing ourselves and our partners more clearly, what about our space? Our physical environment2 can make us or break us, and RIE asks us to craft spaces for your child. Have you done that for yourself? I know that when my office is more orderly, I feel more peaceful…a messy desk doesn’t necessarily drag me down, but it doesn’t lift me up, either. Having everything I need at hand helps me to stay focused on what I’m doing, which is why it was such a big, hairy deal to move my office from the first (unheated!) floor of our home to the third. Are there ways you can tweak spaces in your home that will make them more nurturing and supportive for yourself?
Speaking of nurturing yourself, are you giving yourself and your spouse time for uninterrupted play3? Hoppe told the story of how she and her husband had a clear conversation about giving each of them space to do something they love regularly (her: running; him: woodworking). Are you finding ways to follow your passions and interests? It might mean one parent is on duty while the other is ‘playing;’ it might mean your child is with a caregiver while you are doing something just for yourself….it might mean you’re letting your child have uninterrupted playtime while you do the same for yourself. Yes, you’re a parent, but you’re also a creative, interesting, fun person. Give yourself some time to stay acquainted with that self.
Building on this idea of play and exploration for adults, and in spite of stay-at-home strictures…no because of them, it’s critically important to keep our social circles intact4…to continue to check-in with friends regularly: video chats, phone calls, texts (ooh, or Marco Polo…a parent just told me about this recently…video messages that get sent like texts!), and as soon as we can again…physically distanced walks. We are social creatures: we want to be in society and among people. It’s why solitary confinement is such a harsh punishment (and one reason why skipping time-outs is a good idea), and it is why the past year has been so hard on all of us. Studies* show that the longer we are isolated, the more our social skills atrophy…but we can protect against it by maintaining contact with our friends and families throughout our isolation. (And the wonderful news* is that we are NOT doing irreparable damage to children by keeping them away from other children right now…they are still in contact with you and that’s the most important piece…and I can confidently say as I’ve witnessed it myself now, when children have the opportunity to connect with other children again, they will absolutely do so).
And since we can’t be physically with our friends, it’s even more important to really be with our partners. I know that in order to get it all done, many households have a divide and conquer mentality, and that’s how it has to be…but are there any tasks you can take on together5? Washing dishes, making dinner, folding laundry…or maybe a little more intimately: eating a late-night dinner with no distractions, connecting with each other before falling asleep, giving one another a haircut(!). If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times…attachment is formed (and strengthened and deepened) through care. Yes, we can brush our own teeth and dress ourselves now (even if we’re mostly wearing sweatpants these days. Anyone else?), but physically caring for your partner can deepen your relationship. Years ago, I was stuck in a hospital bed, in tremendous pain. My husband couldn’t do anything for the pain, but he noticed my hair was getting tangled so he gently brushed it out for me. And I fell in love with him all over again.
Again, this is something that you can do for yourself, as well as with a partner. So much of our self-care becomes rote and rushed…when’s the last time you enjoyed brushing your teeth? One of the things I’m trying to regularly practice lately is to be present and mindful…focused…on certain tasks. I have a couple of things I routinely practice mindfulness, but I’m also trying it in moments of impatience and irritation. It helps me stave off annoyance (temporarily)…I think because I’m talking myself through those moments…I’m really there with myself. It sounds funny when I say it that way, but it’s amazing what simply paying full attention does for me.
Yes, I’m working on cultivating a more mindful practice…and as much as I want it, as interested as I am in being more present, it doesn’t come naturally. I’m finding I have to set reminders, carve out some time each day to work on it, add it to my routine. It’s both a matter of self-discipline and finding space in my routine6. Way back in April, and perhaps a few times since then, I’ve written about the importance of routine for children…but also for ourselves. Predictability and routine are so important to our mental health and well-being. I know that I’m most balanced on days when I have a clear routine and plans for how the day will go. It’s great when it occurs naturally, on days like today when I have scheduled time for calls and writing…but it’s imperative on more open-ended days.
And last, but never least (and only last in this list…there is no hierarchy in the listing of the principles), is trust7. We are asked to trust that children will learn how to move and solve problems, that they want to be part of society and please their parents (even when they seem bent on driving them crazy). Trust in your partner is paramount…trusting that they are a good parent, even if they do things differently than you would, for example. That circles us back to the idea that we are all individuals and unique with our own points of view: of course your spouse will parent differently than you do, but they love your child, too, and their parenting comes from love, just like yours does. Perhaps more challenging, though, is trusting yourself…that how you are parenting is right. Is good enough. Trusting that when you make mistakes, you can also make amends. And trusting that that is part of the process.
I’ve wandered farther than I intended when I started this piece, so I’ll sum up by saying that RIE is about respect and authenticity. We practice it by slowing down, really trying to see the other person, clearly and honestly communicating with them, allowing them to feel their feelings and be themselves, helping when needed, but allowing for growth and development, spending time together and allowing for time apart. The Educaring Approach asks us to treat even the youngest person the way every person should be treated.
*I link to articles in the New York Times in this piece. If you don’t have a subscription, but do have a Los Angeles library card, you can go here and get a 24-hour pass to the paper. And if you don’t have a library card or a subscription, please write to me.
Here are RIE’s Basic Principles; scroll down for today’s reading from the Parents’ Tao te Ching.
1Sensitive Observation of the child in order to understand the child’s needs.
2An environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing.
3Time for uninterrupted play.
4Freedom to explore and interact with other infants.
5Involvement of the child in all care activities to allow the child to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient.
6Consistency and clearly-defined limits and expectations to develop self-discipline.
7Basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer, and a self-learner.
If you want to become a wise parent,
you must be prepared to appear foolish.
You must be willing to say,
“Why should I chase this way and that,
Unless you stop following the crowd,
how can you teach your children to be free?
To teach your children strength
you must be willing to appear weak.
You must renounce ambition and struggle
and embrace serenity and peace.
You must confess your faults
and embrace your failures.
You must face yourself with honesty
and find the truth of your nature.
Your children need a model of honesty.
If you pretend you have no weaknesses,
and cover them under masks and facades,
your children will learn to do the same
and the game will go on.
Begin today to see,
the real you beneath the role.