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© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002

The Comforts of Support

In this series of columns, I am discussing how to nurture the framework of a family, our child's second womb. That framework has four essential parts: the individual Self of each mother and father, the Team of the two parents working in a functional partnership, the Couple of a husband and wife trying to preserve friendship and intimacy after children, and the Community of relatives, other families, and institutions in which a family is nested.

In previous columns, we explored the key challenges to each part: stress and depletion in the Self, conflict in the Team, distance in the Couple, and isolation in the Community. We also have focused on the importance of caring for the Self of each parent. Parents are like the tentpole of the family, and when they are nurtured, when mom and dad have health and well-being, then the entire family stands tall and strong.

In this column and another to come, I will describe how to comfort the self of each parent. In my last column, we explored the comforts to parents of being instead of doing. In this column we will consider the comforts of support.

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The support of others comforts a parent with fellowship, listening, encouragement, and relief.

One day in the park, when our son was a toddler, a woman we didn't know walked over to Jan and me while her little boy played in the sandbox. She started talking with us energetically about kids, the hassle of buying groceries with a toddler in tow, etc. At first, Jan and I were guarded. Who was this person anyway and what was she after? I was also judgmental: if she was this friendly, there had to be something wrong with her! But soon it became clear that she just wanted to connect with other parents. Then our walls came down. Diane grew up in a large family, and she knew that the similarities among people are greater than the differences. Her son, Brian, became Forrest's first friend, and until she moved back to Iowa, she was Jan's best mom friend. She taught us that day that parents need each other, that we have to get past our judgments and find the comforts of common ground.

When a group of parents gathers, you can see the eyes sweep the room, the looks of recognition, a settling down into a natural place, a wordless and warm sense of belonging. There is a feeling of camaraderie, of being with others who understand without asking. Simply being "a part of" is comforting. It gives us the feeling that we are going through something together, that others are experiencing the same joys, the same ordeals.

And there are lots of ways to feel "a part of." About the time our first child turned one, still blown away by the changes in my life and the second-by-second sense of responsibility as a father, I said to a single friend that it seemed like there were two kinds of people in the world, parents and non-parents. I meant it with no prejudice, just an observation tinged with amazement at the defining event of becoming a parent. But it lodged in his memory, and when he married a few years later and acquired a dog, he assured me that there were two kinds of people in the world, those with dogs and those without! Then he and his wife had a child; with good humor, he proposed a special category, "parents with dogs"!

Mothers and fathers find a feeling of fellowship in lots of ways and places. Sometimes it is with one other parent, perhaps chatting on the phone, or bumping into someone at the store, or getting together with the kids. Sometimes it is in a small group. For example, one of the rewards of volunteering to help with children's' activities is the chance to do things with a few other parents. And sometimes we find fellowship in larger groups, such as a mothers' club meeting, our kid's Spring Festival, or sitting in the stands at Little League game. These gatherings can be scheduled or spontaneous. And the participants can vary. The other parent might have children the same age as ours, or even fully grown; parents further down the road have a special perspective and wisdom. Maybe that other parent is our husband or wife! We can look for a sense of camaraderie with our mate amidst the hubbub of the day, and try not to take it for granted.

Where do you experience fellowship with other parents?
About how much time each day do you have a sense of fellowship with another parent, including your spouse?
Is there a little thing you could do to enjoy more fellowship with other parents? Get together with a parent friend? Start a conversation with a parent you don't know well? Go to a meeting of your PTA, or a mother's club? Cultivate more friendships with other parents?

One of the best things about being with another person is the simplest: someone is listening. As he or she gives us attention, as we feel that our words and thoughts and feelings are being received, we shed a burden. When the jumbled words in our head come out, they don't usually seem as bad. We feel known by another; this feeling is so crucial to being human that it is one of the central developmental accomplishments of an infant's first year.

What we have to say doesn't need to be profound; in fact, it's usually pretty humdrum, perhaps a little story or a rambling internal weather report. In particular, sometimes we just need to vent. It's fine to gripe, grumble, and complain as long as we don't make a life out of it. (Obviously we need to choose the "grumblee," the receiver of our blast, with a bit of care, and make it clear that our beef is not with him personally and we don't expect any solutions.)

After listening, sometimes the other person will offer her empathy, the comforting sense that she really gets how it is for me. There is a challenge here, in that another person needs to know our inner world to be empathic, yet it can feel scary to be revealed. The gates open -- or at least a window is unshuttered. How can we receive the comforts of empathy while feeling safe?

I think the answer lies in two things: in choosing our listeners with care, and in being a bit assertive. First, some people are naturally empathic. They can pick up on little signs, and they have great emotional imagination. Other people are empathic when things are made plain, typically with words. And there are people who seem to have little ability to put themselves in another person's shoes. When we take the reality of the other person into account, we can seek out those who are highly empathic. If they are not available, we make a little effort to say things clearly to people who need things spelled out. And we can have realistic expectations about people who aren't very empathic.

Second, we can simply ask others to be better listeners. Oh, the effrontery! Sometimes parents can feel that empathy is one of those mysterious things which is wonderful to receive yet impossible to ask for. But in fact there is no rule anywhere that says you can't ask for empathy. Empathy is a real, objective characteristic of a person, and the word is in the dictionary if there is any confusion about what you are requesting. Another person can willfully choose to be more empathic with you. If he or she is reluctant, you can ask why. Empathy is not pity, flattery, or sympathy; in particular, it is not agreement. One can extend empathy without giving up one's position or "taking the blame." And empathy for you does not mean the other person's contributions or suffering are any less; there is no worldwide scarcity of empathy so that if you get some there will be less to go around. Would it be possible at this point for you and your spouse to agree to give each other more empathy? In my experience as a couples counselor, if a husband and wife can just start being a little more empathic with each other, it's one of the best things that can happen to their marriage.

Who lets you know, sometimes without words, that he or she knows what you are going through? Would it work to talk more with this person (or persons)?
Is there someone that you wish were more empathic?

Try starting more conversations, especially with your spouse, by saying essentially "You're not the target, and I'm looking for just listening and not help."
Try speaking empathically with others. Examples of empathic speech include: "My guess is that you're feeling _________ ," "That must have been hard," "You probably feel tired," "When that happened, were you thinking _________?" "I'm sorry you feel so ______ ," "Wow, that must have been exciting!" "So for you it's a mixture of _______ and _______ , is that right?"
Try asking another person to be more empathic with you. It may help to give concrete examples of what you mean.

The root meaning of encouragement is wonderful: to give heart. Encouragement heartens us, cheers us on, comforting us with inspiration, hope, and reassurance.

Much of the work of raising a family seems perversely designed to bring a parent down to earth -- or even under it! Wiping the rear of a baby, being barfed on, quarreling with a spouse, reworking budgets, listening to your seven-year-old tell you that every other parent in the world is nicer than you -- it's easy to lose a sense of inspiration, of the ideals that move us as parents, of that which is grand or uplifting. Where could you turn for more inspiration? Perhaps there are books, or spiritual teachers, or settings in nature that inspire you. Perhaps there is someone, maybe a wise aunt or a family friend, who is inspiring through their own example, who returns you naturally to your highest ideals.

Many things can give us hope that things will work out, that things will get better. For example, sometimes the gallows humor of other parents is weirdly hopeful. Once I was grumbling about getting no sleep with our infant daughter. My friend, whose son was soon going off to college, drawled "Don't worry, it's just a phase. It'll be over soon -- in about eighteen years." We chuckled together, he at miseries past and me at miseries to come, but I felt the hope that he got through it and could still laugh about it. If other parents could, I could too.

Reassurance comes in many forms. A friend can help us see that we are not a bad parent, that the baby won't die from a wet diaper. Or she can put things in a realistic perspective, perhaps reminding us that some phase will pass, that young children do ultimately learn how to sleep through the night.

Sometimes just the efforts of others to reassure us help us feel better, even if we can't take what they say too literally. For example, when Jan was scheduled for the C-section for our second child, we waited together for the procedure to begin. She was very nervous, and she worried that her nervousness would make the operation go bad, which made her extra crazy with fear. She told me to say something, anything, to help her feel better. Out of my mind with concern, I started babbling a story about how our baby daughter was like a little fish swimming around, peaceful and happy inside a dark pool, and she was looking forward to the light, to the sweet net that would come and catch her up into a boat full of loving people who had lots of blankies and treats waiting, and they would always love her, and she would grow up healthy and happy and strong. Of course, I didn't actually know squat about what was going to happen in the operating room, but Jan was reassured anyway.

Who or what cheers you on?
Who or what inspires you?
Who or what gives you hope?
Who or what reassures you?

Spend more time with sources to you of inspiration, hope, and reassurance.
Try letting one or two people know that you could periodically use a bit of encouragement.

Can you remember one of those days when your child was really a handful and you were alone with him and the hours dragged by and then AT LAST your spouse walked in the door and lent a hand and you could finally get a break? Can you recall a sense of the relief you felt?

Sometimes the most comforting thing of all for a parent is -- nothing. No task, no talk. Just blissful emptiness, the ending of effort, of pain, of strain. Quiet. Peace. Time out. Tune out.

Relief prevents stress from growing to the point of critical mass. For example, most parents can care for young children alone for four to six hours without a meltdown. But by the seventh or eighth hour, a typical parent is in Condition Yellow -- and maybe Red. By the ninth or tenth hour, most parents are redlining: the needle is pegged against the end of the scale, and the internal warning systems are screaming "Alert! Dangerous overload. Shut down!" The bodies of most people can handle stress up through Condition Yellow quite well. It is extended periods in the Red Zone that do the most damage. This is why it is so upsetting when a spouse comes home later than promised. If a parent gets some relief at the point that he or she is heading into the Red, the timer gets reset to zero (or close to it), and then the parent can again bring a refreshed body and mind to caring for the family.

Relief for a parent usually means the concrete support of others. It's often modest: a spouse puts one child to bed so we can spend a more relaxing time with the other child, someone swaps carpool with us, we trade childcare with a neighbor, or we take the afternoon off work. Relief can be informal or more structured. For example, a wonderful form of organized relief is the "in a pinch" support offered within many mothers' clubs.

What pulls you from Condition Yellow into Condition Red?
Are there fairly predictable events or schedules that are likely to put you in Condition Red? Is there anything you could do consistently to prevent that (such as one parent arranging to start work half an hour earlier and come home half an hour sooner, or perhaps feeding the kids first before settling down to a quieter dinner of your own)?

Create a brief time of respite in each day, perhaps half an hour or so, in which you do not have to do anything.

Sometimes parents can feel that they shouldn't need the support of others, that they should be like some kind of solitary Western hero, the sherrif alone at high noon taking care of the bad guys. Not true! No one can parent well without the support of others. No one. It is through opening up to support, asking for support -- and frankly, sometimes, demanding needed support -- that we receive what we need to give to our children.

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In my next column, I will discuss another other key form of comfort: gratitude.