blog

  • a poem for the fall equinox

    Living in the Pacific Northwest, it seems as if there are certain poets who are especially cherished, certain poems that are handed on among readers. Mary Oliver is one of those poets, and this poem one of those poems.

    The Journey

    You do not have to be good.

    You do not have to walk on your knees

    for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

    You only have to let the soft animal of your body

    love what it loves.

    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

    Meanwhile the world goes on.

    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

    are moving across the landscapes,

    over the prairies and the deep trees,

    the mountains and the rivers.

    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

    are heading home again.

    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

    the world offers itself to your imagination,

    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

    over and over announcing your place

    in the family of things.

  • the presence of the caregiver and the still face

    Part of what Winnicott argues--along with others interested in what has come to be called attachment theory--is that babies come into an awareness of themselves only in the presence of another. But that other must be available to them with consistency and with presence. What happens when the other goes away--either physically or psychically--for extended periods of time?

    This is exactly what Ed Tronick set out to discover when he devised what is now known as "The Still Face Experiment" more than 40 years ago. In the initial experiment, he asked mothers to engage their babies in social interaction for three minutes, to turn away for a moment, and then to turn back with an expressionless, nonresponsive face.

    The effect on the babies was profound. Within seconds of encountering the non-responsive mother, babies first registered a kind of wary surprise, glancing uncomfortably at their mothers, then working hard to re-engage them with behaviors that they had developed in concert with their mothers over these first months of life: smiling, cooing, coughing artificially, reaching towards, and more. Then, when their mothers failed to warm to these bids, babies descended rapidly into distress, registering discomfort vocally, expressively on the face, gesturally, and posturally. These visible changes were accompaied by invisible ones, as blood pressures rose, respiration and heartrate altered, and hormone levels shifted.

    The experiment has been used by researchers to explore a wide variety of hypotheses about babies, learning, and relationships, but here, as we're thinking about attachment, relationship, and the development of the person, we can say that a consistent and responsive mirroring presence is so essential to a baby's wellbeing that without it--in the face of absence--the baby begins to come apart physically and psychologically. (If you like to see the experiment, please go here to view a clip that is narrated by Ed Tronick.)

    And the good news? That this effect can be repaired. Check in in a few weeks to see how. 

  • what is a baby?

    One of the best known, and arguably, most important statements by a therapeutic figure about babies is this, from D. W. Winnicott: 

    There is no such thing as a baby... If you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. 

    People sometimes take this statement to mean that babies cannot survive without the nurturance of another person, who commits themselves to the baby's care. And that it is accurate. In babyhood, we are profoundly dependent on another person to ensure our physical security and wellbeing.

    But Winnicott is saying something more than this here. He is suggesting that the very personhood of the baby is dependent on the ongoing relationship between the baby and person who loves her/him. That without that loving attention, the baby cannot become a person in the truest sense of the word. That to develop a self, and a sense of self, a baby must see her/himself reflected in someone's face, someone who mirrors back to the baby what it is that the baby is experiencing--and who in doing so demonstrates that the experience is bearable, that it is meaningful, that there are ways of talking and thinking and feeling about it, that it can therefore be shared, and that it belongs to the baby--that the baby is its own distinct person. Without that mirroring presence, the baby is lost in a morass of sensation that has no proportion and no meaning; without it, the baby cannot make sense of her/himself, or of the world.

    This, Winnicott suggests, is the way in which the develpment of the person unfolds, in the awareness of another who lends their presence to the developing person we call "baby," who helps the baby to be with their own experience by being with the baby, and who in doing so helps the baby to become a person. That person is what Winnicott calls--writing in the 1940s--"the ordinary devoted mother," the subject of a future post. 

  • connection and the circle of security

    I've studied attachment theory with a variety of people, among them the folks at Circle of Security International (COSI). COSI has put together this video about being in relationship with your child--about being biggerstrongerwiser, and kind while offering both a secure base and a safe haven. Those eight bold words are pretty much all you need to know to parent a child--and finding a way to live them takes lots of support and practice. Head on over to their website through the link, or watch it right here:

     

    I'm hoping to pull together a group of parents who are interested in supporting one another in this practice. Email me or call me if you're interested. 

  • what does empathy look like?

    Brene Brown has created this video to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy. You may have seen it already, but if not, give it a look. Offering empathy is a skill we can all develop, and it feels good for everyone involved. 

    Developing empathy can feel hard because we can feel pressed to respond to the distress we see in front of us, pressured to make it go away. I wrote recently about acronyms to remember when we find ourselves in challenging situations. Here's another. In those moments when someone shares their pain with us, we can WAIT. Ask yourself before you say anything: Why Am I Talking? Consider if your words are necessary. Maybe they are. Maybe they're not. Maybe your quiet presence is enough to start. And if you need to say something, maybe you can start with something like: "I'm right here with you." Or "Thank you for telling me." Or "You can say whatever you need to here." 

    Give yourself a break. Your being right there with that person, not sure of what to say, but hearing their heartbreak--that's a wonderful gift to them, a balm for their wounds. 

  • STOP

    Some therapists love acronyms. I'm not generally one of them. But I know that sometimes it can be useful for me and for others to have a tool those moments when we find ourselves overwhlemed, shut down, reactive--challenged to summon whatever it takes to respond appropriately to what is right in front of us. This acronym--STOP--is useful for those situations. Those times when your partner promises to do the dishes and you come home and they're still piled in the sink. Times when you're cut off in traffic. Times when your child looks at you with careful deliberation before slowly pouring their milk onto the table. 

    What's funny to me is that when I was sharing it with a client for the first time, I couldn't remember the last part of it. I started to explain it this way. 

    S is for Stop. Stop to buld in a pause before action. Stop before rolling your eyes at your partner. Stop before shouting at the other driver. Stop before sighing in exasperation wth your child. Give yourself just a moment. 

    T is for Take a Breath. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Then inhale. Notice how deeply you can bring the air into your body: into your nose? Your throat? Your chest? Still deeper, into your belly? Maybe not. That's okay. Just making the effort buys you a little more time before you react. Making the effort reminds you to bring your attention back to yourself, and to your own efforts to be aware of your reaction. And if you're able to draw breath, the breath may begin to calm your bodily response.

    O is for Observe. That's all. Just observe yourself with as much compassion as you can muster. Listen to your body first. Notice the feelings of tension: the sweaty palms, the fluttery heart, the clenched jaw, the tingling belly. Or the feelings of heaviness and of lightness. Whatever it is that is happening in your body, attend to it. Then be curious about the emotion below the sensation. You may notice anger or fear or hurt. Or something else entirely. 

    P is for... and my mind went blank. My client wondered--was "plan" the next step, as in planning one's actions? I didn't think so. That sounded so cognitive. I wasn't sure that a person could there so quickly. Maybe it was "be present"? That felt right to me. I had to go back to this article to be reminded that the next and last step is Proceed.

    P is for Proceed. Just go ahead and do whatever comes next, with the greater awareness that comes from slowing down, calming the body with the breath, and noticing what's happening in the moment. Maybe you'll go ahead and do the same thing. Maybe you'll make a different choice. Either way, the awareness you bring begins to create space between the trigger and your reaction. And you get to choose who you want to be in that moment.

  • the hub around which a person's life revolves

    Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only as an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild, but throughout adolescence and years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws strength and enjoyment of life and, through what s/he contributes, gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are at one. 

    John Bowlby (1980)

     

  • help for men experiencing postpartum depression

    Two weeks ago, I wrote about postpartum depression in men. There are many reasons why such depressions occur. A variety of studies, including this one published in the U.S.in 2007, or this one reported in Scientific American in 2010 point to factors as varied as biological factors like hormonal changes in men during the their partner's pregnancy and postpartum period and like sleep deprivation, to ecological factors like a sick baby, a difficult relationship, financial stress, and a lack of good role models for fathering to help us to understand the ways in which men can have difficult experiences as they enter into fathering. A more recent study out of New Zealand likewise points to poor health and stress as common factors in the lives of men who experience PPD. The Scientific American piece notes that being proactive is important: 

    If there is a history of depression, be prepared for a relapse and have plans in place for seeking treatment quickly. If there is strife in the relationship between the parents, seek counseling or other help before or during pregnancy. Or if a father-to-be is starting to feel anxious about his new role and responsibilities, he should enroll in a parenting class. 

    If you know a father who is struggling--or if you are that father--please know that there are many resources for you, both online at Postpartum Support International and locally at Baby Blues Connection

  • postpartum depression in men

    International Fathers' Mental Health Day was launched in 2016 to explore the transition to fatherhood, and the difficult experiences that can accompany that transition. As many as 10% of fathers will experience depression or anxiety after the birth of a child, and the fact of the child's mother experiencing a postpartum mood disorder is a significant risk factor for men. So IFMHD, which is celebrated on the day after Father's Day--on June 19th this year--recognizes the importance of letting men know that they are not alone.

    Postpartum Support International has created this video, an interview with David Levine, a father who is a pediatrician and a survivor of postpartum anxiety and depression--it's great. Please give it a look. 

  • baby steps

    The New York Times has been running a lovely series over the last few months that explores meditation in real life, offering suggestions about when and how to move into a more mindful state.This piece looks at how to be mindful while holding a baby. I am drawn to this piece, and to this practice, but especially drawn by these parts of the practice:

    If the baby you are holding is awake and content, notice the changing expressions on his or her face. 

    If the baby is interested, gaze into its eyes for some moments. Notice any thoughts or emotions that may arise as you do this. 

    If the expression on the baby’s face changes to unhappiness or you hear sounds of fussing, notice any emotions this brings up for you — sadness, compassion, frustration or anxiety. 

    If the baby begins to cry, notice how this makes you feel, as well as any thoughts about the future, such as “how long will this last?” or “I don’t know what to do.”

    Feel the feelings, as unpleasant as they might be, and return to the breath. By working at being with your breath, your body may become an anchor for the baby to find calm in the present moment.

    This interplay between child and parent, parent and child, is the essence of the practice, just as it is the essence of the relationship: observing the other with care, noticing and allowing whatever thoughts, feelings and experiences arise for us as we observe, and returning to the place of calm within us in a way that allows the other to feel that calm and to use it for themselves.

    I spoke with a group of parents yesterday about just this: how to mindful of what is happening for each of us as we live in relationship with one another at the same time as recognizing that our needs and our child's are not always the same. It’s hard work—work that often goes unacknowledged because it is described and/or dismissed as “natural,” meaning instinctual, effortless, lacking in intention. Good parenting is the antithesis of this: it is a skill that we learn in relationship with a particular child who has particular needs; it requires great effort, often when we are feeling depleted ourselves; and the more clarity we can bring to our lived experience as parents, the more easily we can notice those moments when we are or are not acting in accordance with our own values.