Tag Archives: parenting

babies are people

Babies Are People

Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.

It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.

Difficult Times

My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.

Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.

He was not the easiest he has ever been.

My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.

My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.

Little Baby “Thoughts”

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While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.

Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.

But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.

And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.

No Theory of Mind

I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.

Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.

When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”

But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”

As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.

Being Present

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But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.

All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.

Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.

 

Cry It Out

It is not possible to spoil your baby. Anything that your baby wants, your baby needs. If that is food, if that is sleep, or if that is just your attention.

Attention is not inconsequential to a human’s life. Because we are social creatures, others attention a is fundamental to our survival.
We are used to saying that babies only have one means of communication: Crying. That is not quite the truth. Read anything about breastfeeding, and it will tell you to look for other signals before they start to cry. Rooting, chewing on their fingers, behaving restlessly. The quicker you are to respond to these small signals, the easier it will be for baby to remain in a state of emotional regulation.

Mild Deprivation
We know that extreme deprivation of parental care causes huge problems for an infant. Famous studies were done in Romanian orphanages where they found out that children who were not touched or paid attention to had higher rates of criminality and drug use. They were in worse health and more likely to suffer from mood disorders.
The literature is less definitive on sleep training and other practices that involve the intentional decision to allow your baby to cry without responding.
What the literature is very clear on, though, is that responding to your child’s cues is never going to be the wrong thing to do. Especially not for an infant.

The point of argument is whether or not cry-it-out, as it is know, is negative or neutral; not whether or not responding is a bad thing. There are some physicians who will tell you that without sleep training, your child will fall into sleep dysregulation–some go even as far as to call co-sleeping or nursing to sleep a “sleeping disorder.”

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Sleep Associations
We all use what are called “sleep association” to get us to bed. Very few of us just conk out where ever and whenever. If you look for tips on the best way to get a good night’s sleep, you will again and again come across two suggestions: (1) Make your bedroom only for sleep; and (2) create a routine. Because our brains are association machines, you will automatically be put into a state of ease if you use these tools.
Anyone who is calling using your mother as a sleep association a disorder is drawing an arbitrary and unhelpful line.
While evolutionary psychology is often just-so, I think it is useful to note that babies would have slept with and been nursed by their mother’s for most of human history. While we should be wary of people using naturalistic arguments to push their view, using our past is not a bad default to move from.

Cortisol
What made the children in Romanian orphanages ill equipped to handle life?
It has to do with their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a chemical that is released in response to stress. Too much of it is linked with bad health outcomes.
Since we know at least one of the mechanisms that leads to poor life-outcomes, we can ask specific questions. Does cry-it-out release enough cortisol to produce negative, long lasting effects?

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Hyporesponsitivity
One of the most fascinating things about babies and young children is that they actually don’t produce much cortisol, even when they are crying a lot. This is called the period of hyporesponsitity, and you can read more about it here.
Hyporesponsivity essentially means that while you see your baby or toddler getting red in the face, crying, or having a tantrum, their brains aren’t reacting as if they’re in a stressful situation. It is hard to illicit a boost in cortisol, even if we can see that our children are having a very difficult time.
We don’t know why the brain does this in those early years of rapid neurological development, but we know it does. We also know that brains bathed in cortisol early in life set up their organism for failure, so it makes sense that it has some way to protect itself.
There is one easy way to get a baby or toddler’s brain to start producing cortisol, though: Remove their caregiver.
Our small ones use us as a buffer against stress. We mediate their emotions because they can’t.

Distress vs. Eustress
But isn’t stress good for us?
We will encounter stress throughout our lives. Some of that stress will make us more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and some of it will make us better, stronger people. We can distinguish between these two kinds of stress. One is distress, which is negative; and the other is eustress, which is positive.
Eustress is short-term stress where we believe that we can cope with the demands on us. It is motivating. Taking on new job or hobby are examples of good stress. Distress can be long-term or short-term and it makes us feel like we do not have the tools we need to be successful. Unemployment and a death in the family are example of bad stress.
Are babies experiencing eustress or distress during CIO? Is it chronic stress or does it get interpreted as acute stress?

Inoculation
There is a phenomenon called stress inoculation. If you are exposed to a small amount of stress, you will slowly grow the ability to deal with more and more stress in your life. That is, you’ll subjectively perceive instances as eustress that you may otherwise have perceived as distress, if you have encountered similar struggles before. You will grow your window of tolerance for difficulty.
Studies have shown that baby monkey’s who experience short periods of separation from their mother’s in early life tend to be less anxious later in life.

Answers
This information my awareness of the need to focus on integration. My children and I need to be linked but distinct parts. Sometimes that calls for closeness and comfort, and sometimes that calls for standing apart.

As much as I’d like for the answer to fall definitively on my side–that what my gut tells me is right, is right–humans aren’t that simple. We might never have the answers we need to rest comfortable in our judgementalness of other’s choices.

Expectations

 

Your biggest problem is your expectations.

When you go out and you discover a flat tire on your car so you can’t go to see grandma and AAA won’t make it there for two hours and your husband isn’t answering his phone and the kids are crying, it feels miserable. And it is definitely not your optimal outcome for any particular day, but there is nothing wrong or inherently bad about the situation.

Your husband shouldn’t have had the phone on.

You shouldn’t always have access to help.

Your kids shouldn’t be happy about the situation.

Your tire shouldn’t be full of air.

All of these things can be in any state without anything being wrong, even all at once.

You’ve just drawn a line in the sand about how your day should go, and when it wasn’t that way, you decided that there was something wrong with the world.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

This isn’t about being a boyscout. You’ll be fine if you run out of a good. You can run to the store, call to someone to get it, or order it on Prime if you have a day or two. Some situations are of course far more inconvenient if you don’t have a particular thing on hand—but this isn’t our real problem.

Very few of our real our problems, our big problems, our Pareto principle problems, actually come from whether or not we have immediate access to a piece of fruit or even a diaper. It may suck to clean up poopy pants or a poopy car seat, but it isn’t going to kill you.

What is going to make today worse, and all of your days worse, is if you expect to not have to deal with problems like this, and you end up having to.

The Real Enemy

Expectations are the real enemy.

Not just in every day nuisances like lacking an ingredient you thought you had, but in your relationship with your child.

And your partner.

And yourself.

In believing that you or your son or your daughter or your partner should be something other than they are, you create an unwinnable.

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you lose the chance to the admire the beauty in its swim.

“Age-Appropriate” Expectations

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There was a popular infographic going around talking about the cognitive capacities of children, when it becomes appropriate to expect things from them. I think that the effort of this infographic was noble—reducing the frustration that parents feel with their children when they have unreasonable expectations. But I feel that it also had two implicit messages that I have a harder time supporting:

  1. Expecting it: If you have an idea that someone “should” be able to do something, you will get annoyed with the fact that they aren’t doing it. If it is backed by “science”, the backlash is even worse. Parents feel not only put out by their child’s behavior, but might begin to believe there is something wrong with them.

    Milestone-mania is already rampant, and there is no need to double down on that sneaking sense of paranoia in an attempt to allay anger.

  2. Reducing Agency: One thing that happens when we decide what people “should” and “shouldn’t” be able to do is stop attempting to get them to grasp concepts or build the tools to head in that direction. This is called the tyranny of low expectations. It is essentially writing someone off and letting them pay the consequences.

More useful than developing suitable expectations is having none, but to give your children the support and skills that they need to develop and strengthen their capacities.

It’s not as if, on their fourth birthday, all or even more kids have impulse control. It’s not as if most adults have even worked that muscle particularly hard.

What is happening is a slow progression to have more emotional control—a completely unpredictable path that will move backwards and forwards more time than anyone could possibly count. A path that your child will continue to walk through toddlerhood, teenagerdom, and well into adulthood. Skills and abilities that you thought they had will seemingly fade overnight, and that they should be able to do these things—according to science!–isn’t going to help you or your child get anywhere.

Try This Instead

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Let’s go back to that day in the car.

You have a lot of other options, outside of disappointment. Give yourself five minutes to feel those feelings, then move on.

Check what your options are to carry out your original plan: Consider an Uber, see if grandma can come over, or someone can pick you up.

Or just go inside, tell grandma sorry, and have a different day from the one you were planning.

If you didn’t have that plan, how would the day have gone? How would you feel if those things didn’t happen on a day you didn’t mean for them to happen?

We can’t always have such peace and clarity, but working on lassoing in our expectations bit by bit, we can stop trying to handle disappointment, and instead just go about with our days.

Self-Care Isn’t Fun

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I am making friends.

I am making friends because they are something my children and I will need.

I am making friends even though it is draining and often feels like a waste of time.

I am making friends even though the results won’t start to really shine for a couple of years.

I am making new friends as a form of self-care.

What do you think of when you hear the term self-care?

If you think of chocolate covered strawberries and $150 massages, then you are thinking the wrong thing.

True self-care is not about what feels good in the moment. It is often the things that we don’t want to do. It is about restructuring your life so that you don’t feel you have to run away from it. It is about creating habits that make you a healthy, energetic, centered person.

Self-care is about reducing the influence of people who you love dearly who are unhealthy and unhappy. Even if they’re not toxic to you, personally. Because they are dragging you down physically and mentally. And it isn’t correlation.

It means delaying gratification. It means working 10 to 20 minutes a day on some project or skill and seeing no results for a long time. It means reframing your thought process and not being able to take a picture of it. It means focusing on immeasurables with little to no short-term payoff and no end in sight.

While meditation may some day feel good, you might hate it. But it doesn’t matter.

While exercise may some day feel good, you might resent it. But it doesn’t matter.

While journaling may some day feel good, you might look down on it. But it doesn’t matter.

Self-care is about doing these things that make you happier and healthier in the long run.

 

Many of the people who do them regularly do not enjoy them. Most of the people who work out 5 times a week are not thrilled to be going to the gym again; and many of the people who meditate feel like idiots with racing minds half the time when they sit down.

But they do it any way. Not because it is fun or because they’re disciplined, but because they know they need to in order to have a life that doesn’t scare and exhaust them. They do it because they’ve created automaticity for all of these healthy habits—they’ve set up a systems that make them feel odd if they don’t do these unexciting practices.

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Self-care is about creating those systems.

About adding extra steps between yourself and the easy, destructive thing you want to do; and creating fewer steps between the difficult, healthy thing you know you need to do. It means putting the soda in the garage and putting the toothpicks out right next to your toothbrush.

It means getting rid of things that clutter your house, the stuff that reminds you to be sad or to have a drink. It means setting upper limits on your sugar consumption and setting lower limits on how much time you spend walking each day.

Self-care is about recognizing the things in your life that matter and take work, and then working on them, even though you can let them slip by on any given day and it would be hard to notice.

It means putting work into your relationship each day so that you aren’t just coasting along on comfortable until your partnership succumbs to entropy.

It means seeing that you’ve addressed the healthy mind platter to make sure you’re getting all of your little mind-nutrients so that you can be fulfilled.

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Treating yourself can be nice. Go get the massage, have a piece of chocolate, take a vacation.

But this is not what self-care is. Self-care is making the decision to build up the nitty gritty habits that take away what makes you feel frazzled, hectic, and beaten down, and replacing it with things that make you feel full.

Bids for Attention

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We took our evening walk at the park next to my house. There had just been a storm, so there were worms all over the ground. They were laying on the walkways, almost all of them dead from being stepped on. There was one survivor.

The boy was about 9 years old. He saw the one worm wiggling there, and it stirred some kind of emotion in him. He did not want to touch the worm, but he absolutely had to save it. He used his hands like two scoops and tried to quickly flick it back into the grass, hoping that the briefer the contact, the more limited was your exposure to worm germs.

It was a sweet. I’m not sure that it was helpful, but it came from a good enough place. After completing his mission, the boy ran up to his family to tell him the story of his heroic effort and success.

First, he tried his older sister. “Sarah,” he said, “I just saved a worm! He was on the street and I got him in the grass.”

She doesn’t even look at him.

He jogs up a bit further to tell his parents. He has added texture to the story in that short time. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I just tried to tell Sarah that there was a worm in the street. He was going to die, and I saved him.”

They don’t even look at him.

I hear him try for a third time. They nod in his direction.

Our paths diverged at this point, but I could see a flash of the future. All four of them get in the minivan. David—I’ve now named him—is trying to get people to acknowledge his story. To listen to a cool thing he accomplished today. Something he maybe was only interested in doing because he wanted his parents to be proud of him.

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He says (again!), ”When we were at the park, I saved a worm! I took my hands and…”

“Enough, David! We’ve heard enough about the worm, okay? Just be quiet!” his Mom snaps.

This is a common story. Parents refuse to acknowledge that their kids are speaking, and then they get annoyed that their children say the same things over and over again.

This is the exact opposite of mindfulness. You are not paying attention to where you are and being with who you’re with. Unsurprisingly, your child is disappointed that his bed for connection is ignored.

With a younger child, this won’t be just repeating the story. It will be ever-escalating attempts to get your attention. A good example of this is babies and breastfeeding. One of the ways you can have a baby that cries less is by acknowledging the early signs of hunger. This includes rooting and sucking on their hands. If you are mindful of these more subtle cues, then your baby will, not cry out of hunger, because you will feed him before he gets too hungry.

If you do not pay attention to the clues baby is sending though, you should not be surprised that after he has asked several times, he feels the need to scream and cry to get what he wants.

What would you do if you asked your partner several times to pass the mustard and he just looked at you, and then looked away? Never passing you the mustard.

Maybe you wouldn’t scream and cry. But what if it was a problem you couldn’t solve yourself? What if you kept asking your partner to help you by putting laundry in the basket instead of on the floor when they get undressed, and they never do it? This might turn into screaming.

When our early attempts at getting understanding and acknowledgment fail, we escalate until we are heard. Not just babies, not just children—all of us!

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Bids for connection are extremely important in maintaining a healthy relationship. It is useful to reflect on this as an important tool not just in romantic relationships, but all of them. This may be a joke, a touch, a story, or any other gesture designed to communicate the desire for connection.

Poor David just wanted someone to look at him and tell him it was a nice thing he did. If they disagreed with him touching the worm, they could have said they appreciate his effort to be a caring person but that there are other considerations. They just have to acknowledge it.

I’m not saying your kid won’t tell you the same story three times. I just mean it won’t be five times. In a row.

If you get down and face them, listen, and acknowledge what they’re saying, you’re less likely to have a situation that is escalated to the point of a tantrum. But you have to truly listen, not just say the words as if you’re listening.

You’ll maybe hear the same story later that night instead of two minutes later. You will be building a stronger relationship with your child because they trust you to respond sensitively to them. You’ll be practicing your mindfulness.

As a parent, it is difficult to acknowledge but important to remember that your kids will grow up and decide whether or not they want to visit you and talk to you regularly. Build a strong, good relationship so that when that time comes, you’re a person whose bids for attention they turn towards.

Making Mindfulness Easier

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Meditation practice is not just about clearing your head for five minutes. It is meant to improve your ability to be mindful. All the times. About all the things. It strengthens the decision-brain. It makes choices and paying attention simpler.

While the goal is to always be more mindful and centered, we aren’t monks. We’re lay-people. Our job is to operate in the modern world, which means we cannot completely eschew being judgmental. We can’t always focus on our breath. We have to make decisions very often, and often very quickly. We don’t sit in a monastery and meditate non-stop. We will likely never have the strength of mindfulness of the Buddha.

Instead of pretending we can accomplish in 10-minutes-a-day what monks take 20 years to accomplish, what we can do is make it easier to be mindful. Easier to feel focused. Easier to remain calm. Easier to feel present, in the moment, with the people you’re with in the place that you are.

In light of this, below are 5 tips on how to make being mindful easier.

1) Early Rising: First thing in the morning, get the things done that you absolutely know will bug you all day if you don’t. People, in general, are creative in the morning. They’re also likely to get better grades, and be in better moods. This includes your children. They’re likely best able to entertain themselves in the morning. Take advantage of these natural tendencies and complete things when you wake up, so that you aren’t thinking all day about the letters you have to send.

2) Always Be Done: Break down different tasks into manageable bite-sized pieces so that you will feel that they are accomplished. This can be done by allocating a specific portion of a project that you have to do or by allocating a specific amount of time that you have to do things. Leaving things unfinished is hard and distracting. There are many things that take way too much time to finish, especially in the framework of a busy household and children’s whose needs you cannot schedule.

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I set aside 15 minutes to write every day. For many people, also setting a time period during the day to do it is helpful—say 9 a.m.–with the flexibility requisite for a parent. You know your family, so no one else can tell you what this time frame should be.

If I wanted to break it down by portion-blocks, I might write 1,000 words every day.
Shoot for a minimum. If you end up getting more time, feel free to either allocate another block or just go until you feel like quitting.

If you cannot get five minutes alone, I suggest that you start working towards that goal. You can look to Janet Lansbury on how to encourage independent play in children.

3) Declutter: This will create a more mindful space for your children and yourself. There is enough research showing that cluttered desks leads to poor cognitive performance to know that this is a good trick for being more mindful.

This will also help your children with their five minutes alone. You probably have too many toys. You should get rid of them. The less toys your child has, the less likely they are to make a mess with them, the easier they are to clean, the easier it is for them to focus on what they’re doing. Get rid of some toys. Try toy rotation.

Declutter doesn’t always mean being a minimalist. Not everyone agrees with keeping everything beige. In an interesting episode of Primal Happiness, host Lian Brook-Tyler and guest Maggie Minor talk about different ways to make rooms suited to how you would like to feel in them, which can be colorful and can include as many things as you absolutely love.

The sentiment expressed in this episode is echoed by productivity experts who say that you should design rooms based around how you want to function in them. Make your bedroom for sleeping and your office for working.

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4) Routine: Routines are not only for children. They don’t just help children feel calmed. As I’ve mentioned before, adults are not fundamentally different creatures than children; we’re just more developed. We still have strong feelings, and we still have a hard time with transitions.

Routines are not the same as schedules. They mean that after we do this, we do that.

This doesn’t mean getting rid of spontaneity in your life. In this episode of Achieve Your Goals, IMPROV experts discuss how routines can lead to more spontaneity. Since everyone is centered and knows what needs to be done, it is easy to know if you can repriortizie. It is easy to get back on track afterwards.

5) Note taking: Offload your cognitive burden. Don’t keep saying in your head “Pick the kids up at 5 o’clock.” all day long. Just put it in the calendar (two, if you’re worried; schedule a friend to call you if you’re very worried), and forget it until if needs to be known.

Get rid of the notion that you can remember a lot. That’s great. The point is you don’t need to.

If you take these steps, then you won’t need to work so hard to be mindful in every moment. Getting rid of distractions, both physical and mental, is the best way to be where you are, and be with who you’re with.

The Ultimate Career

“All other jobs exist for one purpose one, and that is to support the [homemaker].” -C.S. Lewis

What would you say to a person who was working 98 hours per week?

You’re crazy! You need to relax. Take time off. Spend it with family.

What would you say to a person who was putting effort into something they deeply loved and wanted for 98 hours a week–that is 2.5 full time jobs?

I’m guessing your answers are quite different.

Frames are how information is presented to us, negatively or positively. For instance, 20% chance of rain and 80% chance of sunshine mean the same thing, but they resonate with us differently. We use framing any time we deliver information. I can say 1 in 4 homeless people are women, or 3 in 4 homeless people are men. While they mean the same, they clearly put the emphasis on different parties.

We often accept the frames that we are sold. We might accept that we have to do well in school in order to be successful people. We might accept that love asks nothing. Or we might accept that because motherhood takes effort, it is the same thing as work.

Motherhood is a gift.

Does that mean that it isn’t tiring? That there isn’t a lot to do? Of course not. All things in life take effort. The question is whether or not that effort is worth it. Framing things solely in terms of hours spent doesn’t give us much information.

Man spends 40 hours a week lifting!

Boy spends 120 hours sleeping a week!

Child spends 2 hour in front of screen per day!

Woman spends 168 hours a week breathing!

How old is the boy? For a one-month-old boy that would be a reasonable amount of time. Does the man “lift” 40 hours a week because it is part of his job? Without any way to put these times into context, they’re meaningless.

Reportlinker did a survey about time spent cooking meals at home. It found that 23% of people said they spend more than an hour cooking each night. This may seem a huge amount of time. But a great deal of the people report doing it because cooking is a passion. These people aren’t doing a chore; they’re participating in their own gratification.

The average person does not have a very fulfilling job. Gary Keller says, “Success is getting what you want. Fulfillment is giving what you’ve got.”

Hal Elrod, an author and speaker says, “The more value that you give to people, the more value that you get out of life.”

All signs point to motherhood being very meaningful and fulfilling. It is out of line to compare someone working at McDonald’s or even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with a mother.

We have been sold the frame that mothering is a curse on our brows, that being a mother is a million jobs tucked into one.

It is not. It is not 2.5 jobs.

You don’t always have to be happy. Things are allowed to be difficult. Life is hard.

But we don’t need to compare our effort as mothers and wives to careers. And we certainly don’t need to be martyrs that are bearing a cross. Unmartyr yourself.

When you believe that motherhood is a burden, it will feel that way. Most of the time, people portray parenting as torture—funny torture, that is eventually worth it, but torture nonetheless.

In fact, parenting can be pleasant. A great deal of the time. If you come at it from the right perspective and with the right energy.

More than ever, the mothering community is putting an emphasis on self-care. As well it should. We cannot afford to not take care of ourselves. And not just for ourselves, but for our children. We have to have the mental energy to re-frame a culturally constructed narrative that tells us that this is unpaid labor, when it is really our unpaid purpose.