I remember lying in the bath with my daughter when she was just a few weeks old, feeling simultaneously exhausted and utterly overwhelmed by the intensity of my love. Tears began to flow, and at some point I became aware that I was weeping for myself. For what I’d never had.
My mum got pregnant with me when she was eighteen. Unsupported by her own parents, she made an unsuitable marriage to my father and descended fast into post-natal depression. When I was two she couldn’t take it any more. One sunny afternoon she took two photographs of me on London’s Turnham Green – and then she left. I lived with relatives for a year. My mum later told me that she didn’t know what love was until my half-brother was born when I was five.
As I held my newborn baby in my arms in the bath that day, letting the tears flow down my cheeks, I resolved that my daughter would always know the strength of my unconditional love for her.
As part of my work for PowerWood I’ve had the privilege of meeting lots of parents of intense and sensitive children. Their children’s overexcitabilities all look quite different, but every single mother has told me she only discovered she had OEs herself as part of the process of trying to understand her child.
That was my experience, too. I went to a PowerWood workshop to find out what was going on with my son. Little did I suspect that within a few hours I’d be crying tears for myself, for the very first time feeling accepted and understood for who I really am.
Over the weeks following the workshop I got to thinking about how my own mother’s sensitivities, like the way she has to rush through the Ikea marketplace because she can’t bear the smell of the candles. And I thought about how her mother, my grandmother, used to complain constantly about her ‘nerves’ and was once addicted to tranquilisers.
Our children’s sensitive, hyper-reactive nervous systems are a product of their genes. Genes our ancestors carried down the generations, way further back than we can remember.
What this means is that most of us were raised by sensitive, intense parents struggling with their own OEs and without anyone helping them with the daunting task of bringing up a family of spirited children.
How did they manage? Our parents did the best they could with what they had. They taught us to suppress our strong emotions because they thought that would serve us best in the world – and to keep them sane enough to raise us. 😉
Many of us, especially if we were girls, grew up suppressing our anger, our anxieties and our idiosyncracies. Some of us learned to act like completely different people from who we were inside.
And then we had our own children. We felt that unconditional love and we resolved to do things differently. But when we resolve not to repeat the patterns of our own childhood we’re up against a couple of obstacles:
(i) Evolution. Like it or not, we’re programmed to repeat what our parents did. As far as our neurological programming’s concerned, it worked. We survived our childhoods and lived long enough to have kids of our own. Evolution doesn’t favour change.
(ii) We lack role models. The more challenging our own childhood, the less of an unconscious example we have of how to raise kids the way we want to. (And of course we also have a dearth of conscious role models showing us how to parent our non-average children.)
To overcome these obstacles and forge our own path as parents requires a huge amount of energy, time and practice.
We’ll make mistakes – they’re an inevitable part of learning. We need to take care of ourselves so that we have the energy to make the changes we want, and we must be gentle with ourselves when we stumble.
When our children get angry and upset, when they never stop talking or shouting, when they lash out and throw things, our OEs are triggered. We get angry and upset. We might even throw things too.
We’re shocked by the intensity of the emotions our children arouse in us – emotions we were told not to feel, were never allowed to express, and so never learned to manage.
But it’s not too late, for us or our children. Our kids need us to be their place of safety. They need us to be in charge of our emotions so that we can help them deal with theirs.
So let’s be kind to ourselves. Let’s meet our practical, emotional and intellectual needs. Let’s forgive ourselves for our mistakes. Let’s surround ourselves with people who understand what we’re going through. And let’s remind ourselves that what we’re doing is good enough.
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Thanks to Simone de Hoogh for sharing the ideas I’ve talked about here, and for unfailingly reminding me to be kind to myself.
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How were strong emotions dealt with when you were growing up?
What have you discovered about yourself since having children?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on the Love, Laugh, Learn Facebook page.