Wrestling With Shadows

I once told expectant parents that having a child is akin to carrying a constant mirror that shows you both the depths of your infinite love as well as the darkness of where your heart stops itself in closure. Parenthood continues to humble me in unexpected ways. As with any mirror, we can choose to look or not look, and today, I’m struggling to look.

Spiritual masters across time have said that equanimity is a true mark of maturity; How humbling to have equanimity tousled like a fierce wind blowing up leaves I didn’t even know were there. Sometimes parenting stirs up new winds that I can tame, and other times I’m blown to the brink of utter exasperation: where the shadow within the mirror image is far from graceful, calm or centered. How quickly the tides can change when negotiating with a two and a half-year old. These past few weeks of travel and breaks in routine have found my son and I in two such moments where I have in a flash been forced to wrestle with the shadows of impatience and frustration; the shadow of shallow breath and raised voice and the shadow of not-knowing how to curb the fire of a 2-year-old tantrum and most importantly, my own response. I can feel myself doing the dance of mindfulness: trying to slow down, reach out, make eye contact, speak patiently and lovingly…And, I see myself teeter to my edge where I too loose my shit and want to freak out in an attempt to stop the madness. (Let me give you a snapshot. Parents of toddlers, I know this will sound all too familiar: At Whole Foods, blow out diaper needs changing, a struggle towards the bathroom stall with kicking limbs, my 5 month pregnant body struggling not to drop his flailing 25 pound frame on the ground, poop everywhere and my son is trying to hit me in the face because he WANTS to sit in his poop and he wants to leave poop all over his clothes and how dare mama try to change his diaper. Screaming, pushing, a full-blown tantum on the floor of the bathroom stall with poop smeared everywhere from the struggle and SNAP: I have to force the kid to be still so I can clean him and SNAP I yell at him to STOP! I’ve fallen into the pit of mutual misery where we are both flailing to maintain “control.” Each in our different ways, of course). Another morning, same thread: awakened at 5:45am by cranky son insisting its time to get up. Tired mama rises while sick papa needs to stay in bed. Time to change shirts and BAM: full on fit because he doesn’ want to take it off…I’m again taken to the place where I want out. I want to fight the moment too because I’ve reached my limit of tolerance. Its the place in me that doesn’t want to deal with what is arising and rather wants to turn away and go back to bed. I’ve had it. I’m done. I’ve lost composure and I am angry at everything for the situation at hand. Instead of holding the line of compassion and sanity (or choosing to let it go and return to the shirt change later!), I’m headed off the deep end as I wrestle the shirt off my son’s body.

This is the painful window into a facet of parenthood too often reserved for the shadows. We don’t talk often enough of the moments when we are faced with our own raw edges and our ability to respond with equanimity is taxed to the brink. For me, the moment is the most painful sort; To respond with mutual tantrum is to succumb to the winds of impatience. It is a moment of profound resistance. It is a complex moment of trying to find the loving masculine force of holding a firm and necessary boundary, but doing it with strongly expressed loving force. It is a moment of artfulness if it can be mastered. A moment of grace and mutual learning and connection – if only we as parents can hold the line of boundary steeped in infinite loving presence free of the need to “react” in our own immature ways.

Spiritual masters also point to the impulse to grow as a mark of maturity. If we can stay with the mirror that our own children offer us, we can continue to grow. We can respond differently next time. We can return to the moment and talk it over with our children. We too can say “I’m sorry” and “I was sad and frustrated, just like you.” In this way we can embody and demonstrate personal responsibility for our actions and admit when we too “weren’t being nice.”

Because the infinite love for my child is also a constant mirror, so then too is the pain of not living as fully in the light of that love as I am capable. Pain is magnified, as is the impulse to grown and be a fuller embodiment of how much I love my son. Herein is one of the most marvelous conundrums: if we can sit with the raw pain of letting ourselves and our children down, we can also grow. We can connect with the vast heart impulse that our children beckon more alive in us, and practice growing ever more into that impulse. The mirror simply shows us where that impulse shops short of its potential infinity.

It’s no wonder one of my most difficult moments with Rowan was in a bathroom stall with shit flying everywhere. What a gift to deal with so much shit! Never again will so much literal shit be in my face than this period of motherhood. We can face it and deal with it and stay connected with our impulse to grow, or we can shut down and turn our backs and glide past the rough spots with randomness…(and a million responses in between! Not to mention the baggage many carry from our own childhoods; All of the sudden so much is at a head and so much is at stake…)

Like putting money in a piggy bank, so too we are tasked with doing our own inner work and taking time for ourselves. In this case, I needed to take time to feel my own grief and sadness about my own limitations. I needed to face the parts of myself that get ‘fed up’ to the point of cracking into my own tirade where the inner dialogue gets stuck in “I’m so sick of this! Get me out of here! Are you kidding me? Is this really happening??” I needed to attend to my own emotions and regret so I can re-enter the sacred ongoing bond with my child knowing I’ve done the work required of me in order to show up as present and as clear as possible…Most importantly, I needed to bring the wrestling with my own shadows to light. In this ways, just as the sun returns to its brighter and longer revealed status this time of year, I can also bring more of my experience into the light of loving truth and acceptance.

18 thoughts on “Wrestling With Shadows

  1. I love the book ‘Parenthood as a Spiritual Practice’ by the Kabat-Zinn’s. They have a chapter ‘Losing It’. The next chapter? ‘Lost’. They are super dedicated practitioners, and the wife of the team describes slapping her teenage daughter. I read that chapter when I need to feel compassion for my own struggles. We are human. The wound of love is real. I’m glad you can talk about the darkness, we need more of that! Kali is the great Mother. The Light AND the Dark.

    1. Leigh – thanks for the reminder about this book. I have another of their books and do reference it for inspiration…and to know i’m not alone in this journey! that is also why i have to write here. It is so good to hear from so many of you mamas out there doing the careful work of mindful parenting…Love to you, deb

  2. Wow Deb- you have a gift here…you are a gift. This is so well said and profoundly transformative giving me more spaciousness to see more clearly what those hard moments are about and how to have a good perspective on them. Thanks for the shadow light!

  3. Oh Deb! I see you so clearly in Whole Foods, calmly carrying your flailing, poopy-pants boy to the bathroom… I’m so sorry you had such an extreme and, well, totally horrible experience! I also love how, in true Deb fashion, you manage to see the underbelly of learning, growth, deepening connection and awareness to your self and your son. And then very eloquently share the gifts of insight you have mined from the experience. You are a gem. How lucky Rowan is to have you! (And you, him, of course!) Oh, and I have lost my shit with much less provocation! Thanks for sharing this so honestly. xo

    1. I just drove by your house and was wishing you were here still! thank you so much for sharing here! i am trying to see the learning in it, and integrate it – even when utterly exhausted!

  4. Devon

    Love your reflection here, Deb. It sounds like you should send me your boy for an hour or two of playing sometime soon….or that sleepover we have imagined 🙂

  5. Heidi

    deb thanks for sharing!!! one thing that keeps coming back to me is this quote. “99% of the time humans have lived on this planet we’ve lived in tribes – groups of 12 to 36 people. Only in times of war, or what we have now, which is the psychological equivalent of war, does the nuclear family prevail, because it’s the most mobile unit that can ensure survival of the species. But for the full flowering of the human spirit we need groups – tribes.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist. True we can always look to find more peace and love within ourselves for our dear babes, but also I think we need to find more support for them and us! (for we are all One). My child is wired to connect with others, i fear she will “wire” herself to “things/materialism” if i don’t provide her a broader tribe of just me and her dad and occasional visits with other family members. I’m really wondering what kind of tribe I can share with her. I guess our society is still at war with nature, is this why we still live in family units???? just some rambling thoughts….

    1. Heidi – wow. this is such an important perspective. i totally feel this, especially being sick right now. i’m trying to figure this out too…let’s keep connecting on this. how do we cultivate it? your comments remind me to prioritize this… love to you, d.

      1. Heidi

        hope you feel better soon…. i wish all my friends lived next door, separate “homes” but REAL close, then we could all take turns, let the little ones play and interact and each momma(dadda) could have some downtime inbetween!!! have any friends who live in a co-housing situation like this? i would so love to hear from them! 😉

    2. Such an interesting quote about he nuclear family, Heidi. Wow. And I’d never thought about the need to connect to others being misguided into materialism, but it makes sense. Objects replace people.

  6. Laura Krouch

    Wow! This blew me away! I have been thinking lately how my three boys are like mirrors that constantly show me everything about myself good and bad, light and dark. I can never turn away from them. And this constant often painful mirroring can either drive you deeper into unconsciousness and suffering or bring about an awakening to live from an embodied authentic place. After seven years and three children my awakening has begun.

    1. Laura, Thanks so much for your comments here. Forgive my delay in responding! you know how it is with the juggling act we are always doing! I am about to have my second son in a few months. I can only imagine the journey ahead. By never turning away from them, as you wrote, we truly do make ourselves available to awakening, growth, immense personal insights…It is a hard path to stay present, but so worth it! Blessings to you as you continue to live from an embodied, awakened place… Deborah

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