Friday, June 13, 2014


Nevertheless, Say YES To Life

I have a friend who is in great pain.  In response to my question “How do you manage each day with all that pain?” she replied “I tell myself this: you have to live the life you have”. 

You have to live the life you have.  It’s simple and profound.  Like Victor Frankl wrote, “Nevertheless, say yes to life”

This was the title of the book we know in the American version as “The Search for Meaning”.  In Frankl’s native language he wrote:  “Nevertheless say yes to life, a psychologist’s experiences the prison camps”.

 Frankl spent most of World War II in the prison camps, having chosen to remain in Austria with his parents, rather than teach in New York.  He felt they needed him in a chaotic time when Hitler took power.   No one knew that he, like many others, would eventually lose both parents and his wife by staying In Austria.  When he entered the prison camps, he was a physician and an analyst with his own particular approach to life’s suffering-with the search for meaning in the suffering, and the ability to make the choices that lead to a healthy and meaningful life.

Frankl knew before, during, and after the holocaust the deep suffering in life. 

Like my friend says, suffering is not only unavoidable, when it’s there, it is really there.  We are often angry when we hurt.  It feels unfair.  It takes away from our life.  And that impatience and anger often moves us to do something about it. 

But sometimes we cannot.  We suffer.  When we lose someone we love, we cannot go marching through death and drag them back.  We grieve and feel empty and angry and lonely for them.  We miss them and their company.  Whether we are war veterans, someone who has lost their job, accident victims, or victims of another deep trauma, we suffer, we hurt though we, for the most part, try not to.

As a therapist I know there is a lot of suffering in the world.  There has been deep suffering in my life as well.  Sometimes that suffering creates great strength, compassion and wisdom.  Sometimes it forces us to change.  Sometimes it just hurts.  A lot.  We can, as Frankl did, find meaning, acceptance, and a kind of peace.

But lately I have been thinking that this perspective of suffering gives us a deeper way saying yes to life.

When we are suffering, we cannot escape it, although we try.  It is easy to fall asleep to life, to push back uncomfortable realities with movies, tv, chores, social life, athletics. These, on their own, are not unhealthy distractions; in fact they make our lives better and deeper. It is the turning off of the self, the escape from feelings, from thoughts, from the feelings of suffering or loss.  Some days when I come home from work and there are dishes to be done, newspapers around the house, I am annoyed and complain, rushing past the chores, so I can get onto something important, like watching Jeopardy! or reading the current book.  I rush by the unpleasant as though it were unimportant to do something unpleasant, as though only the pleasant is my life and all else is intrusion.

Then, I realize this is the life I am living.  The chores, the waiting in traffic, the annoying phone calls, the to-do lists….these are my life.

Mindfulness for me means being awake and open to what is there.  When I am just angry and irritable, I move into it, listen to it, feel it and that gives me the power of choice in the moment.  Perhaps it is time to pay attention to my sadness, or sorrow, fatigue.  Perhaps it is time to care for my home, my neighbor, my mother, my child—or myself.  I can experience beauty, feel good about the gift of myself through cleaning, the beauty of the house, the making of money that sends my daughter to school.

Sometimes being awake to unavoidable suffering leads us to take on the root of the problem, to reach out to others.  Judith Herman MD recommends that instead of psychologizing away the anger of trauma, that victims may, once they have worked through the trauma, use the energy of the anger within the community, to take up the work of justice and work on behalf of creating justice.

This is the gift of mindfulness, of saying Yes! to our lives, to living the life we are given.  I am saying yes to my life, and to all its realities, pleasant and unpleasant, living it a little more deeply, with meaning. As we face our lives, in all the moments with courage, we bring a deep and abiding dignity to the everyday moments of life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How Attachments Begin:  the Good Story! 

Five day old Joyce had been crying on and off all day.  

“Maybe she’s hungry,” Russell said.

“No,” Maria was nearly wailing herself. “I just fed her.”

Russell bounced the baby up and down while Maria answered the phone. Russell strained to hear over the crying when Maria held the phone to his ear: “Just put the baby down and let her cry herself to sleep. She’ll learn not to cry,” Joyce’s great great aunt offered. “It‘s what I always did. She’ll stop crying eventually”. Maria made a face, but her voice was kind as she thanked her for her advice, got off the phone quickly and turned to her husband.

“That’s ridiculous.”  Maria said. “She’s crying for a reason, how can we ignore her?”

A day of frustration was in her voice, and Russell noted the exhaustion in her face as he bounced the baby, patted her on the shoulder, and said “there, there, it’s okay” in a cadence that matched the baby’s whimpers. 

In this short scenario, we see the beginnings of good attachment. A wailing baby at first makes us melt, but after a while the baby’s crying becomes stressful. This makes sense, as this is exactly what the baby is feeling.  In the vignette above, the parents are sensitive to the baby’s feelings. Maria dismisses her great aunt’s advice to let the baby cry by himself and, fortunately, she does not worry about pleasing her relative; but she does worry about why the baby is crying and what to do about it. She is aware of what the baby is feeling, and she is involved in responding to her.  Bouncing the baby, cooing to the baby, talking to the baby - these show their little baby girl that they are going to try to make things right for her.   This is exactly how the healthy attachment forms.  It is more than  managing the behavior of the child, it is reading the behavior as a symptom of what is happening inside.

The baby is crying because she is unhappy. And because she is a baby, she cannot say why she is unhappy, and it is up to the parents to work that piece out. They have become detectives. More than that as well, they have become involved in solving the problem with her by listening, by responding.

Russell holds Joyce and gently bouncing her,  sensitive to her cries (mood) and involved (responding) by calming her. Russell  responds to the baby’s crying with a voice that matches the cadence, but lowers the sound, and though he doesn’t know it, he’s using a valuable calming technique. As she senses his sympathetic behavior, she will begin to calm down.

On this particular night, perhaps they will change very little.  Despite their feelings of despair, they are doing a great deal.  This small baby is learning that Mom and Dad fix things calmly.  They talk it out, they trade caretaking back and forth so each can keep as calm as possible and eventually the baby will begin to calm.

Eventually, the baby will begin to calm and somewhere inside to begin to react to their reactions.  The baby will learn to cry and that her expressions of pain are communications and that someone will listen!  

So when baby Joyce is 15 and finding herself in trouble, she will know who listens and who knows how to help.

That is the kind of attachment that every good parent wants and the kind of attachment that tends to keeps children safe.

The Opening Path Parenting Blog
Teaching Skills in Parenting that foster a warm healthy attachment
and create confident, effective adults

            “Oh…What’ll I do with the babeo….what’ll I do with the baby-0 what’ll I do with the baby-o when she won’t go to sleep-y-o.”
                                                              -----   An old Appalachian folk song

As I begin this blog, I remember how I felt when I became a parent for the first time.  I had a recurring nightmare during my months that preceded my first daughter’s birth….

In my dream, I am walking around on stage. I am comfortable in my jeans and old shirt.  I  look at the scenery and the props, and realize the stage looks just about ready to come together.  I hear the sound of people talking, and reach in my back pocket for the folded script.  It’s not there.  I am a little anxious, and wonder if I left it at home.  Then I think, “I’ll borrow someone else’s copy”.   Then I see that the other actors are in costume;  I must have missed that practice. Suddenly, it goes dark and quiet.  I ask about a script, but the actor looks sharply at me and touches his lips.  “Quiet”. I look out as the curtain lifts.  An audience sits there, looking expectantly at me.  I am center stage.  In my growing panic,  I realize they are expecting me to start.  “I never got the script,” I frantically whisper as the audience stares. My head buzzes with anxiety---what am I going to do...?  what am I supposed to say….

With twenty-some years distance, I can still feel a little of the panic of the dreamed the replayed during the last trimester of my first pregnancy.

Some of us enter parenthood without a script. Other start with some confidence, but the realities of parents challenge us more than we planned. The truth is that babies come without a manual. Not only that, they are, from their first moment, enormously dependent on us, even needing us to hold up their heads. As parents, we assume an awesome responsibility.

I responded to those nightmares by researching, hoping to become the best parent I could be. Not so surprisingly, the research wasn't exactly consistent. My first teachers were Dr. Spock (given to me by my mother) and Penelope Leach.

Unfortunately,m they couldn't have been more different. While Dr. Spock was teaching me to let my baby cry herself to sleep, Penelope Leach gave me permission to let my baby sleep with me, and  telling me to be totally available to her.

This was the confusing beginning of my journey as a parent. I wanted hard science that would tell me what worked. It didn't happen overnight; finding the answers to my questions has taken over 24 years. This blog shares the results of my journey, covering my studies as a therapist, continuing independent research, along with my experiences as a mother and co-parent.

Penelope Leach was the first researcher I really trusted. She gave me a strong vision of a loving parent. My other influences included Mr. Rogers, who taught me to play; Margaret Mahler; Thomas and Chess's work with temperment; and Stanley Greenspan and T. Brezleton's incredibly research.  

After many years, I have finally got a script.  Of sorts.  Because the truth is, parenting is a blend of good knowledge, attitudes, and improvisation.