On June 4th, my daughter Lucy turns 8 years old. The day after she was born, we were still staying at the hospital. At night, the staff gave us the option of having her spend the night in the nursery or in our room. We opted for the nursery, figuring that we’d have plenty of sleepless nights ahead of us so why not grab some peace and quiet while we could? What we didn’t know was that the maternity nurses wheel your baby down to your room every time the kid starts crying. In doing so, they give you that oh so subtle message – “This is what your life is like now, pal, so start getting used to it!” It felt like they were wheeling a screaming Lucy down to our room on an hourly basis. Midway through a long, daunting night, I found myself doing some quick mental calculations; “Hmmm…ok she’s 2 days old. There are 365 days in a year so we’re roughly 1/183 of the way through the first year. Multiply that by 18 years and…dang! We’ve got a long way to go!”
Me and a nearly 8 year old Lucy with our “Sandville” masterpiece at Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA
Fast forward to today and we’re closing in on the halfway point. Parents won’t be shocked to know that my outlook on those lifeline fractions has changed dramatically in the intervening years. Ever since Lucy flashed me her first smile (the first that clearly wasn’t gas or a strange facial twitch anyway) when she was 2 months old, I’ve been enraptured with my kid. I’ve been blessed with a low maintenance, friendly, creative, little (Daddy’s) girl who makes just about everything the family does more fun than it would have been without her. So instead of calculating how soon we’ll get her out the door, I’m thinking about how much longer we get to keep her close at hand.
During the past 8 years, there have been plenty of opportunities for me to draw on experience from my professional life in my interactions with my daughter. Some of these have been fairly predictable – for instance, I spend a good deal of time speaking to parents about limit setting at my practice – while others have been pleasant surprises. From the outset, I had a feeling that being a parent would also affect the way I worked and thought about my work but I wasn’t sure how. While there have been plenty of subtle differences in my thinking, there have been two that I draw upon all the time. They both relate to interacting with parents.
When Lucy was in preschool, she had two very close friends in her class. She’d spend most of her time with them and didn’t reach out to the other kids in her class as often as she probably should have. At one point, her world was rocked when both of her friends announced that their families were going to be moving away. At first, Lucy took it in stride, and didn’t seem all that upset by the news. Then one day I was helping her get ready in the morning when she laid down on the floor and started crying, saying she didn’t want to go to school. She was normally pretty happy about going to school and when I asked her why she didn’t that day, she cried “Because nobody wants to play with me!” My first reaction (which I admirably kept to myself) was “What do you mean nobody wants to play with you?!?! Why wouldn’t anybody want to play with you?!?! You’re awesome! Who doesn’t want to play with you?!?! Let me at ’em!! I’ll tell them all the reasons they should want to play with you!!!” Then the semi-rational me took over. I was able to speak to her teachers about it and get some context and feedback that we were able to put into practice. That’s not the point though. The point is that that morning was about 4 years ago and, to this day, every time I think of her crying “Because nobody wants to play with me!” it feels like I’m getting punched right in the chest. I used to figure that parents who have kids with social/emotional/cognitive issues would build up a kind of tolerance or external shell that would help them get used to hearing that type of expression of pain. Now I know otherwise. Parents live and die with their kids’ successes and failures, no matter how many times either of them are repeated. Now I try to listen with a greater appreciation of that.
For a lot of the parents I know, the only activity that comes close to the enjoyment of actually being with their kids is talking about their kids. Most parents, myself included, will jump at any flimsy excuse to tell anyone all there is to know about their children. I’ve tried to bring an awareness of this widespread parental predilection to my work in training graduate interns.
Most of the interns I’ve supervised have either gone straight to graduate school after completing their undergraduate work or have taken one or two years off. They’re usually around 24 or 25 years old and feel a bit insecure when it comes to talking to parents about their kids. It’s not always obvious to them why a parent would place any value on what a 25 year old, single, childless person has to say about their kid. This year, I’ve been trying to push our interns to reach out to parents anyway. To have someone who works with their child call to talk about that child’s functioning in a social skills group is a happy prospect for many parents. Bouncing ideas around with an intern who is willing to listen and share their impressions can be immensely helpful for both the parent and the intern.
There are plenty of other ways that being a parent has impacted my work and vice versa. Most of the insight I’ve been able to gain by being a parent comes down to a full appreciation of the limitless love that parents have for their kids. You can be the most empathic person in the world but until you’ve experienced parenthood for yourself, you have no idea how overpowering that love is and to what extent it dominates your consciousness. The visceral awareness of these phenomena that I’ve developed has hopefully enabled me to become more helpful to the kids and parents I work with.