By Catherine Liggett
I am a highly sensitive, deeply empathic, introverted mother to a strong-willed, extroverted, enthusiastically expressive 2.5-year-old daughter.
Before I became a mother myself, I had this beautiful idea of what parenting would look like:
I would get out of the way as I allowed the miracle of this perfect being to move through the world directed by her own innate wisdom. Yes, she would need guidelines, but I would provide them softly and gently, keeping her free from shame. I would be completely present for her, nurturing every need and validating every feeling. In this way, she would come to feel deeply safe with me and the world, and she would know and trust herself for life.
Nothing could prepare me for the boots-on-the-ground reality. From the moment my daughter was born, it was a full-on system overload for me.
As she’s grown, the flavor of overload has changed.
As an infant, the overload I felt mostly came from the impossible demands on my physical body, in addition to the postpartum hormonal roller coaster. But as a toddler, the overload has been intensely emotional in ways I never saw coming.
Hard Lines And Heartbreak
It turns out that my comfort zone of being soft, gentle, and adaptable has massive limitations.
Take a scene that happens pretty much every day:
We need to be at preschool at 9 am. I’ve allowed plenty of time for what I know will be the struggle of getting G out of the house. I use playful, creative ways to help her take each step needed to prepare to leave, making sure to connect with her so she doesn’t need to use behavior to get that connection.
And yet … I can’t play this soft game forever. Most days, it doesn’t work to play and connect with her all the way into her car seat. There comes a point when we need to leave now.
It’s this hard line that is absolutely foreign, terrifying, and even hateful to me. Every part of my body reacts against it.
We have to get to preschool, so I take a deep breath and brace myself for boundary stage 1: the request.
“Please get into your car seat. You can climb in yourself, or mama can help you.”
She keeps running circles around the car, having a fantastic time.
I stand there, watching my innocent child do what she’s made to do. The light in her eyes and that huge grin are joy itself. The absolute last thing I would ever want to do is stifle this precious energy in my beautiful daughter.
Tears in my eyes, I feel metal panels begin to form around my body, Iron Man style. Under this armor, my tender heart is breaking.
“Ok, mama will help you.”
I scoop her up, and her joy becomes rage. She screams “STOP!” at the top of her lungs and kicks hard. Somehow, I get the straps over her, restraining her powerful writhing body with great difficulty.
Within one minute, she’s cheerfully singing in the backseat as we drive off.
Me? I am heavy, heartbroken, defeated. I’m not in my body anymore. I can’t be. This is too hard. I am not made for this.
My mind repeats the all-too-familiar line: “What am I doing wrong to make this happen? Behaviors are calls for connection, so I must not be connecting with her enough. How can I do better?”
The old hat of self-judgment is always right there, tempting me to put it on again.
But the truth is, as easy as it would be to go there, I’m growing out of my old pattern of self-condemnation. My eyes are open wide, and I see the bigger picture.
The bigger picture tells me that this isn’t just a simple equation of right and wrong, and the easy road of me blaming myself.
The bigger picture shows me that there’s something deeper within me that needs to shift for me to be truly present for myself and my daughter, instead of stuck in patterns I learned to survive my childhood.
Here’s the question that opens the door to this underlying truth:
What if what needs to be shifted isn’t anything I’m doing or not doing, but my belief that conflict is inherently damaging?
Growing up as an empath in a dysfunctional family, of course, I have this belief. I felt the pain of conflict acutely, and no one was there to protect me, or to help me work through it. Conflict meant pain, and I was left to feel pain alone.
The ideal vision I had of parenting before becoming a mother was a conflict-free scenario. It was based on two harmful assumptions:
1) Being a good mom means avoiding conflict.
2) Conflict is unhealthy for my child.
When I see these assumptions with open eyes, I notice how misguided they are. 1) These assumptions make it my job to control life by being “good,” and 2) they ignore the research that shows us how essential it is for children to experience conflict so that they can learn skills to navigate it.
It turns out that the huge discomfort I have with boundaries isn’t necessarily my intuition telling me it’s wrong, as I used to think. It’s the child-self within me who’s reacting to the present as if it were my dysfunctional past.
What do I do in light of this realization? When I’m having those moments of heartbreak and collapse while setting a boundary, I hold myself with enormous compassion.
Returning to the car seat episode, this is what I did while sobbing in the driver’s seat … I spoke silently to that little girl within me, saying: “I see you, sweetheart. I’m here with you. This is really hard.”
As I arrive with my young self who’s struggling so much, tears flow down my face. I soften. She softens. She is healing.
And with each day, I notice that setting boundaries with my daughter gets just a tiny bit easier. It’s never perfect, and some days, my heart still breaks just as much.
The biggest difference is I don’t blame myself anymore.
Some of my favorite words on parenting come from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
I used to interpret these words as extolling a kind of boundary-less, hands-off parenting. But now, I see deeper wisdom there.
My desire to avoid setting boundaries was a control strategy, based on my own discomfort with conflict. This passivity was getting in the way of her becoming fully human, denying her important lessons about herself and the world.
Setting boundaries with my daughter gives her the gift of knowing who she is. When she screams, kicks, and punches, she hears her voice and feels her power.
She is the daughter of life’s longing for itself. She is here for it all.
Now I am, too.
*** Catherine Liggett is a mama who helps sensitive people heal themselves and their families through shadow work. You can get her free ebook, “The Step-By-Step Beginner’s Guide to Shadow Work,” and learn more on her website here.