I have spent most of the last 14 years feeling overwhelmed by parenting. Thankfully, this has eased up a lot in the last few years but that familiar feeling still comes to visit. It feels much more subtle than it used to but it can still have me in tears and even make me feel sick. I felt the classic signs of a cold coming on this week. When I lay down and meditated I felt the familiar heaviness, exhaustion and despair that overwhelm brings.
What are the other classic signs of parental overwhelm?
I feel the urge to complain, and it is usually about my children.
I want to blame somebody, and it is usually my children.
I get grumpy, irritated and reactive towards my children.
I burst into tears at the drop of a hat.
Overwhelm has many causes. I have previously written about my tendency to get caught up in too much doing and not enough Being. Over-doing and overwhelm can be driven by a whole range of myths and confusions about parenting. Beth Berry explores some of these myths here.
My old pattern of over-doing to the point of overwhelm no longer really bothers me. I have questioned so many of the thoughts that underpinned the pattern that it has pretty much collapsed and dissolved. The piece that remains to haunt me occasionally is about over-giving. It is a habit of pushing myself to give to my children more than is comfortable or satisfying for me.
It is not so much about physical effort or even physical tiredness. Both of these are an inevitable part of parenting. It is more to do with the emotional strain and negative reactions that come when a certain threshold of giving is reached.
I think there are at least two types of giving and they have completely different energies.
The best sort of giving arises out of the natural flow of love and care for others. It is aligned with peace, joy and kindness. It does not feel like a struggle. When the flow of positive energy and intention is strong it can even carry me past my assumed physical limits. Like most parents, I have stayed up most of the night with a child in pain. I was amazed that I felt mildly euphoric and deeply satisfied to be able to give this help and comfort when under normal circumstances I completely crumble under even mild sleep deprivation.
This positive giving can easily flip into a more negative type. Sometimes the flip is so subtle that I don’t notice the change until sometime afterwards. My giving becomes strained. I sigh in resignation or roll my eyes in dismay at what is being asked of me. I feel tension building within me. I begin to feel exasperated and uptight about the situation. If I ignore these warning signs and keep giving this might progress to snapping at my child in anger or bursting into tears of frustration.
Once I experience these stressful emotions my giving has ceased to be helpful to my child. Instead of sharing true love I am polluting the the energy field that is the essence of our being with negativity. I may try to hide my stress and annoyance. But my child will always feel it. This negative energy inevitably also affects the practical, physical care and support that I offer to my child. The whole atmosphere of the moment changes.
How can transmitting negative energy ever be helpful?
The crazy thing is, sometimes even when I realise what is happening I feel compelled to keep giving anyway. Why would I do this? For the simple reason that I believe my children need me. This is the core belief that underlies my pattern of over-giving.
To many parents this belief is unassailable. “My child needs me” trumps everything else.
I hear it most often among my friends who are into attachment parenting or some variation thereof. I don’t describe myself as an attachment parent but I have undoubtedly been influenced by thinking that puts a great deal of emphasis on the needs of children, particularly when they are young. According to this thinking, if children’s needs for closeness, connection and attachment are neglected there is a risk of lifelong negative consequences.
I don’t have any argument with attachment parenting or attachment theory. My question is: attached to what? If I am caring for and giving to my child with an energy of joy, there is obviously no problem. If believe in the absolute priority of my child’s needs to the point that I reach overwhelm that child is now closely connected and attached to a stressed parent emitting negative and even toxic energy.
What is the solution?
The solution I am drawn to most strongly is to question every thought that brings stress into my life. I sometimes use the questions taught by Byron Katie (read more about this here) and I sometimes just ask my own questions and see where they lead. I know that there are no right or wrong answers. My only guide is whether my questioning ultimately results in greater calm and clarity for myself.
I have questioned the deeply entrenched belief “My child needs me” by breaking it down in to as many separate questions as I can think of. These are some of the questions that I have come up with:
Does my child really need me or do they just want me?
Is this an expression of the physical body for for food, drink, comfort, more sleep or relief from pain? Is it urgent? Can they help themselves?
Do they really need ME or can someone else help?
Can my child’s wants be met in a way that doesn’t put me under so much strain?
Do they need it right now or can it wait 10 minutes or an hour while I take care of myself?
Will my child really be scarred for life if I don’t give them what they want right now?
Are they more resilient than I think?
Is it possible that they have an innate capacity to recover from emotional upset and to heal themselves?
Am I projecting a belief in my own neediness on to my child?
Do I also have the innate capacity to examine and heal my own neediness and emotional wounds?
Does my child really need what they are demanding or is there some deeper issue wanting to be heard? Would listening attentively without reacting help to uncover this deeper, unresolved issue?
If my child wants something that I don’t want to give them can we join together to find a solution that we are both happy with? Is this possible even with very young children?
Remember: these are just questions. If they resonate with you, try them out for yourself. If not, just ignore.
When I started asking these questions I realised that I had been unconsciously projecting my own emotional neediness on to my children. I had long struggled with feelings of neediness. I had also felt the effects of clinging to people who emit strong negativity. The way to healing was to inquire into my own childhood and my beliefs about my own suffering.
I was sure that as a small baby I had needed more comfort, closeness and responsiveness than I had received. I was cared for according to the beliefs of the time (the late 1960s.) I was convinced that Dr Spock and my parents had a lot to answer for. I was filled with righteous indignation; How could they have left me to cry, all alone by myself? How could they have ignored my needs like that?
I carried this belief in my own unmet needs into adulthood and projected it onto others. Boyfriends and husbands were my particular targets. I desperately needed them to hold, comfort and care for me and I needed to be needed in return. This was not a recipe for stable, nourishing relationships. Then I had children. This intensified the pattern. On the one hand I felt more needy and vulnerable. I also unconsciously projected this neediness on to my children. My belief in my children’s neediness drove my pattern of over-giving to the point of overwhelm.
I decided to inquire deeply into my own childhood experience. I imagined myself back in the room of my babyhood. I remembered lying there crying. I asked myself “How would I be, lying in that room by myself, without the story that I needed my parents to be with me in that moment?” I meditated on that question. This is what I discovered: No matter what the circumstances, there was always a part of me that observed my distress but was not affected by it. There was always a part of me that was undisturbed and OK. When I notice this part of myself I am aware of an underlying calm. I can feel deeper into this calm. When I do, I realise that I have always been OK. My thoughts have told me otherwise, but the reality is that my needs have always been met. Lying there in that room by myself I was not only fine, I was better off. It was peaceful in there. I was not being exposed to my parent’s stressful emotions. They had, sometimes, been giving when it was no longer helpful.
Inquiring into my own neediness brought me to a deeper understanding. I am unlearning old beliefs about myself and my life. I focus less on my thoughts and more on the calm, loving presence within me.
Asking myself all of the questions above has greatly reduced my feelings of overwhelm. This process has taken time. Change didn’t happen right away, but it did happen. I recognise much more quickly when my giving is no longer helping. I take more breaks. I nap when I can. I ask for help more often. I sometimes say “No. I am not available to help you right now.” I trust that we can find solutions.
Above all, I focus on my own state of well-being. I know that my own peace and joy are the greatest gifts that I can ever give my child.