Paying attention as the most exhausting part of parenting with ACEs

Kai in china

I used to sneak away for a hot bath as often as possible when my daughter was in the need-me-every-minute years. I’d soak long past when the water went cold and I felt guilty at times but sometimes I needed to be alone.

To read poetry.

To have some physical space.

To exhale.

I didn’t always know where or how to pamper or provide self-care to myself. There were few adults I trusted to help me. I believed in attachment-style parenting and wanted to be there all of the time for my daughter. And that even made me feel guilty when I craved alone time. Like any alone time I took meant not being present for my daughter.

She’d sit on my lap when she ate. Or I ate.

She’d use my body as a mattress. She could rest best when being rocked or walked. I wore her often when she was young.

She didn’t want to just be sitting near or with me, she wanted to be coloring, interacting and playing.

Sometimes it was bliss. Sometimes it was dreadfully boring. Always it was important and utterly exhausting.

I’d tell my friends, “I have to pay attention all of the time. All of the time.”

They’d look at me like that was the beginning of the sentence. It wasn’t.

Paying attention was so hard.

I had to be on all of the time, kind of even when sleeping.

Now, this is challenging for anyone.

But for those of us with a trauma history, a childhood of neglect and abuse, it is the OPPOSITE of how we’ve lived.

Paying attention and staying in our bodies and being attuned, it’s an entirely new way of existing.

To do this, without breaks or drugs or numbing food or booze….it’s a lot!

A lot!

No checking out or tuning out when the safety and care of an infant, toddler and child is your sole responsibility. No daydreaming for days or sleeping whenever or getting lost in a book. No zoning or numbing or hiding.

That’s part of being a parent.

I understood that. I valued that. It was my role. I chose it. My daughter deserved no less.

But I had no idea how to refuel or regroup or what all this “self-care” stuff was all about.

This being alert, aware, attuned, attentive and available was monumentally difficult for me.

I’d say to my best friend, in a whisper, feeling terribly guilty, “It’s like my bone marrow is her straw and she’s sucking every bit of life out of me.”

I’d admit, that though it was satisfying to be able to meet my daughter’s needs so often and completely, it took every fiber of my being. She needed everything I had.

It took everything I had — to pay attention.

I wasn’t sure if it felt that way to others.

I didn’t understand how people parented more than one child, managed social lives or creative work projects on the side. Did these other parents have super powers? more support? was life without PTSD way different?

How did people manage paying attention and sleep deprivation and really — anything else?

I didn’t have language. I just felt lazy, lame and inadequate, like parenting and being present to myself at the same time was almost a tug of war.

I didn’t even believe it was possible to do both.

It’s not like I even really knew at the time how present I had NOT been to myself. Not at first. I only felt the enormous effort, the shift and strain of being totally present (or as best I could) to what my daughter wanted or needed.

Was she safe or fed or upset? Was she clean, happy and getting enough love? Was she developing and healthy and okay on the floor for a second? Did she like this toy or that, or the sand or the water or whatever?

I hadn’t paid that much attention to my own body or needs or sensations.

Ever.

Strength, to me, felt like telling the body to knock it off and ignoring it a little or completely.

This wasn’t a choice as a mother or a way of parenting I wanted to provide, but it was the template I used for myself.

It was only years later that I would understand how unfamiliar being present felt, for me, so to be so intimate, close and connected with another human being was work.

Wonderful.

Suffocating.

Unusual.

Amazing.

To survive, as a child, I pretended wet clothes weren’t wet or that I wasn’t really cold. If I wet the bed I hoped others couldn’t smell me if I held my nose. I’d say I didn’t need a rain coat or an umbrella or that I didn’t want candy or food because I wasn’t hungry instead of the truth — that I didn’t have money.

I altered myself, my words and the truth to seem as though I needed less rather than admit, long for, ask for and not get the things others might have that I didn’t have access to.

This didn’t feel like a huge big deal.

It just was how it was.

It wasn’t until I lived another way that it felt like I was trying to get through life driving in reverse carefully rather than just plunging forward all of the time with my foot on the gas.

It’s not like I knew “I suck at self-care.”

It’s more I had no idea what the hell people who used words like self-care were even talking about. If anything, I judged them as rich or spoiled.

Parenting changed me.

It changed my ways of being and it changed my vocabulary.

But it happened slowly.

Very slowly.

I was the one who needed to provide my girl her with coats and sweaters and mittens and hats. I couldn’t just say, “Wet hair dries” or “Tough it out.”

I could and did put mittens and hats on her. Yet I’d still not wear mittens myself.

I wasn’t always living what I was teaching. I’m still not, not all the time.

I copied things others did or that I learned from books on how to build attachment.

It wasn’t intuitive or automatic. It still requires effort. Some of it was natural but much of it was not.

Which was also hard to admit. It’s still a little hard to admit. There’s the idea that as a mother we are just wired from birth knowing how to love, provide for and be wonderful.

These are the ways breaking the cycle is often done. Invisibly. The ways adverse childhood experiences impacted my parenting aren’t always extreme but are extremely important.

Being raised with ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) is an environment not a series of incidences that happened here and there against a great backdrop. Scarcity and lack was how I lived. Trauma was baked into my being as were my responses. I don’t always know how to nurture or notice safety, plenty and resources — even now that I have more. Normalizing adversity and living without can become a way of life that’s hard to shake even when the adversity is over.

As a kid I sort of pretended it wasn’t so bad or that I wasn’t all there. I had no frame of reference for how others lived.

It was coping, I can now say, but for decades it was just life. My life day after day.

I’m not complaining about it either but I am noticing and sharing.

I’m sharing because being present was something I had to learn to do and get used to. It felt taxing in a way I didn’t understand. And I was in my mid-30s, with a partner and a home and an income. I can’t imagine how daunting it would be to do young, alone and poor as well as with ACEs.

I wonder if others have experienced paying attention as the most exhausting part of parenting. In yourself and in the parents you know, love or work with who are parenting with ACEs, how do parents learn the verb of parenting, learn and balance care and self-care on the job?

 

23 responses

  1. Absolutely! I find it still a mindful act, even after 23 years……checking out, disconnecting (for me was a coping skill)

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  2. Thank you for writing and sharing your perspective on parenting with ACE.. to know someone else on the planet has walked the same road i am struggling along currently means so much. Thank you. I feel so much less alone.

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  3. Wow. Thank you so much for articulating this! It took me back to the first few days postpartum with my first born. I have huge anxiety but I felt something different after she was born- the alertness and responsibility I felt for her was a new experience. My OB and husband were all telling me I had to sleep. But I literally couldn’t turn “off”. I was stone set on not repeating the trauma I had growing up. I consciously and painfully taught myself to trust my husband when he said I could sleep and go “off”… That was the start of a slow painful journey to learn what self care looks like. I have more than two settings now (off/on) and am learning the gift of rest and being present. So thankful younput this into words.

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    • Dear Hannah:
      Thank you for writing. I thought of your words all day yesterday.

      Especially these:

      “I consciously and painfully taught myself to trust my husband when he said I could sleep and go “off”… That was the start of a slow painful journey to learn what self care looks like.”

      I think it’s hard for some to understand that self-care, though necessary, and life-changing, can be both slow and painful. The “more than two settings” made me think of anxiety and numbness or what has, for me, been off and on for a lot of life. The nuances and feelings, that come, over time, eventually include joy and savoring. But like for you, that has had to be learned and practiced for me as well.
      Thank you for writing!
      Cissy

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  4. Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    “I wonder if others have experienced paying attention as the most exhausting part of parenting. In yourself and in the parents you know, love or work with who are parenting with ACEs, how do parents learn the verb of parenting, learn and balance care and self-care on the job?”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Argh thank you for writing this. We started as attachment theory based parents and quickly morphed into radical unschoolers. With an ace score of 8 out of 10 parenting has been a hard slog. I am having to develop emotionally and socially alongside our children. Hitting my limit is the most notable thing. It’s a hard and unyielding limit where only self preservation and withdrawal is on the other side, which can be confusing and frightening for all involved. Over time it is taking longer and longer to hit my limits, as my development increases my staying power does also. But then there’s that corollary that children used to seeing me hit my limit, want to keep pushing and testing until it gets hit again, so a self fulfilling prophecy dynamic has already been created. The hardest thing I find is the perpetual shortage of time and space to recuperate; to rest, recover and process. Rewiring and ground up development requires a lot of recuperation I find.

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    • Chris:
      Thanks for sharing some of your own journey. I hear you about developing along with our own children, a challenge to be sure and can only imagine how much more so with unschooling. Finding those ways to recharge, and then actually being able (or feeling able) to take them is so tough. Please join Parenting with ACEs in the groups section of http://www.acesconnection.com/
      as I think just being able to share about it is healing as well. And we can learn from one another!

      Cissy

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  6. Thanks for your eloquent expression of how difficult it is to be present as a parent with an ACEs history! For myself, having been raised in a family with good physical care and resources, but with a mom who was not present herself and very fearful, my ACEs score is low but I still struggle deeply to be present with my kids. I learned four years ago how ACEs shaped my own nervous system, as well as other overwhelming experiences I’ve had as an adult. Since then, I’ve been on a healing journey that has brought me to the place where I can actually begin to relax and enjoy being with my kids rather than just “going through the motions” of attachment parenting. For most of my kids’ lives up until recently, I realize that I was just doing what I felt was right and important for them, sort of on auto-pilot, without really inhabiting my own body and life. There was a point when I would feel completely overwhelmed by something as simple as having to make breakfast and school lunches at the same time.

    Now I am more truly present with my kids, though that’s not to say it is always easy. It’s still the most challenging thing I do. My practice is to try to notice and stay with the physical sensations of fear, or boredom, or frustration, or numbness, or confusion, whatever is underneath the impulse to physically or mentally avoid being present with my kids. Then, also to realize, “Other people feel this way” can be very helpful.

    Getting to the point where I can recognize and stay with the physical sensations that are underneath my struggle to be present has required much work, support and education over the past four years, but really I’ve had incredible change happen in a relatively short time. My own healing process has included Somatic Experiencing, Associative Awareness Techniques, dedicated meditation and mindfulness practice, and Focusing. I’ve found body-centered self-care techniques to be the most helpful. Also, Dr Daniel Siegel’s writings on mindfulness, attachment, and parenting are fantastic because of his clear communication, neuroscience focus, and trauma-informed perspective.

    I think the message that we can re-wire our brain so that we can have a different relationship with ourselves and with those we love is so amazing. I have found this to be true in my own life as I now build a new business as a massage therapist, develop mindfulness classes for moms, stay present with my kids more easily, connect with friends and family more deeply, and somehow am rarely overwhelmed. I am passionate about helping moms learn that our self-care can be woven into the fabric of our day, not just something we have to take time out for!

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    • Pamela:
      I’d love to share some of your experiences, as a parent and as a massage therapist leading mindfulness classes for moms over at the Parenting with ACEs page on http://www.acesconnection.com/ (under groups).
      It’s good to remember that impact from childhood exists regardless of the actual ACE score number. That there are things we all share and can help each other understand and brainstorm about.
      That not going through the motions of attachment parenting point that you made is so crucial though not always easy to pull off.
      Thank you for mentioning what you’ve found helpful as well ( Somatic Experiencing, Associative Awareness Techniques, dedicated meditation and mindfulness practice, and Focusing. I’ve found body-centered self-care techniques to be the most helpful. Also, Dr Daniel Siegel’s writings).
      Your comment is jam packed with useful insights and tools to explore. Thanks!
      Cissy

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      • Thanks, Cissy. I’d be glad to connect further! I’ll look at the page you mention. FYI, the web site for our mindfulness program is http://www.fullypresentmom.com. We are just developing the program as live classes and book groups in our local area at this point. Your blog post is inspiring me to think about offering a mindfulness class option specifically for moms with ACEs, especially since I have trauma training. I can’t believe that I didn’t think of that before! We will eventually have more resources offered through the web site, but I feel that creating face-to-face community is so valuable I want to start out with a local focus. All the Best, and thanks so much for this conversation! Pamela

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      • Pamela:
        Great blog name! Thanks for sharing the resource and please let me know (for ACE Group Manager and ‘I’m a mom that would use it reasons’ if you ever do a mindfulness class especially for Mom’s with ACEs. I’ll connect off line and I too believe face to face is a need. I have a place, the Heal Write Now Center, in Weymouth, MA that has expressive writing classes for just this reason.
        Cissy

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  7. Christine, you write beautifully and have touched me to my core. You capture some feelings I have always had but have not been able to understand or verbalize like “I altered myself, my words and the truth to seem as though I needed less rather than admit, long for, ask for and not get the things others might have that I didn’t have access to” and “Scarcity and lack was how I lived. Trauma was baked into my being as were my responses. I don’t always know how to nurture or notice safety, plenty and resources — even now that I have more.”

    I have not become a parent, though for many, many years I have longed to. I think I understand now some of why I haven’t. Thank you for sharing your story, which has helped me understand some of mine.

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    • RDR:
      Thank you for writing. I know many of us have chosen not to have children or more children than we have for pretty complicated and deep reasons other than not longing to, wanting to or even being able to in the ways people typically mean that.
      My hope is conversations and writing about these things help so no matter what our choices and experiences we can share. And it’s why over at Parenting with ACEs on http://www.acesconnection.com/ EVERYONE is welcome who cares about the intersection of parenting and ACEs and that does not mean just parents. I say that because I think many people who are actually SO VERY CONCERNED about if or how they would parent may choose not to parent and maybe even, because of concern for the child which seems pretty much like devotion to me.
      I’m not speaking for your reasons, of course, but just saying that it can be important and deep and something maybe to share. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR COMMENT which touches me deeply.
      Cissy

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    • Thank you Beth!
      For reading, commenting and all the advocacy and fabulous work you do as an adoptive mother, adult adoptee and former social worker helping kids out. I love your work at http://adoptionlifebooks.com/ and your passion and dedication.
      Cissy

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    • Mark:
      Can you summarize the Intense World Theory of child development for those of us who aren’t aware of it? I checked out your blog (love the opening letter) and the website link but wasn’t sure where to start. I’d love to learn more if you wouldn’t mind sharing for me and others.
      Thanks!
      Cissy

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      • Hi Cissy,
        You can start with that link to the interview with Henry and Kamila Markram from the Blue Brain Project, which doesn’t just pertain to autism. One main purpose of the brain is to regulate arousal. That capacity fluctuates from moment to moment in all of us, depending upon how organized and integrated our brain happens to be. Acute and chronic stress frequently compromises our ability to keep ourselves calm. The challenge is further complicated by the fact that some of our greatest stress is generated by … the thoughts we think. Noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls thoughts that upset us “secondary somatic markers.” An example might be getting upset while reading an email on our computer screen. In reality, in the moment, in the room we’re sitting all alone in, there’s no real danger. But the thoughts we think in response to the email flood our system with stress hormones as if there was a vampire hiding under our desk. Fearful thoughts about your kids replicate this process in spades.

        I love how Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes this process as her brain’s language centers came back online after her stroke … https://thefloweringbrain.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/dont-believe-what-you-think-when-it-hurts/

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  8. Thank you for sharing; it explains a lot. My boys are 12 and 14 now but when my oldest son was born I hardly slept and even when I could take a nap there was always this sense of alertness that kept me from falling asleep. I was 37 when he was born and had done a lot of therapy and read a lot about parenting because I did not want to repeat my parents’ patterns, but this was new: someone completely depending on you and as you say: no balance between taking care of yourself and of the baby. Even when my husband told me to go to sleep because he would take care of our son I just could not let go. I hardly slept but I had to do this the best way I could. To be there. It became better when he grew up though luckily.

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    • That’s it exactly. Alertness! An alert exhaustion that never relaxes or can get switched down even when trying to sleep. I too didn’t sleep for the first four years of parenting. My daughter had sleep issues as well but I never thought of it from the point of view that I couldn’t let go. But that’s it exactly. Like you, it was MUCH easier when my daughter was older. There were moments of respite and better sleep and maybe some increased confidence. But the early years, like the first 7 of them, when she preferred me over anyone and most anything, was wonderful and challenging in a way I couldn’t articulate but felt. It would have been great to have other parents who related or even articles where people talked about this. There was next to nothing. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and I’m glad it’s better now!

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