Meeting Your Own Needs


The very worst part of mothering, if you ask me (which you did, by coming here to my website) is packing school lunches.

“Wait, Seema,” you may be thinking. “Have you forgotten about childbirth and nursing all night and diapers and cleaning puke up from the carpet?”

No, friends. I assure you, I have not. I remember all of those things very clearly. And yet. Packing a damn lunch is the worst. They may or may not eat it. 87% of the time they will complain about the contents. They will most certainly forget to UNPACK the lunch they wasted on Friday and you will come face to face with a limp half-eaten string cheese on Monday morning. Monday morning is bad enough without yellowing cheese and squashed grapes under your nails. I’m also pretty sure that the teachers are grading parents based on the lunches, in some secret separate report card system that goes along as an addendum to your child’s record. They read this report before parent teacher meetings so they know who they’re dealing with. Then they look at your messy hair and scuffed boots and paint splattered phone case and think: “Ah, yes.”

Sometimes I worry that I’m showing off about my kids. Because in addition to loving them, I like them a lot. Even the things that are frustrating sort of charm me. They sit on either side of me and reach across me to punch one another, and this annoys me but I think it’s kind of funny and they absolutely know it, and when they annoy me on purpose, I think it’s the funniest. They are really clever and sweet and smart and thoughtful and it’s probably really obnoxious when I moon over how amazing they are. But fuck it. There was a sentence I was going to put here about the many things that aren’t great in my life, to temper my tone, but why? They are stunning, I can think so. I work really hard at learning how to parent them, which is not something I knew how to do instinctively.

I was young when I became a mom, really broken and breaking and married to a young man who loved me the absolute best he knew how to, but was broken as well. I was fuzzy on how to make a life with another adult, but for the next ten or so years I kept parenting at the top of my list of things I absolutely needed to learn about. My parents loved me a lot, and kept me safe and fed, but they weren’t very intentional about parenting. They were motivated more by putting out fires than building a foundation. They were in a strange country and they had fled a war and they had their own grief-filled upbringings to overcome.

So learning how to do things differently as a barely nineteen year old kid with this beautiful tiny baby with odd blond streaks on his newborn head was a lot of work, work I’m glad I did (and still do). Though I hope he does not find himself a parent any time soon, I think being so young actually made me more intentional, because I didn’t have the illusion that I was even supposed to know what the hell I was doing. I knew I had to read lots of books if I wanted to not fuck this up royally. What I learned and continue to learn in my role as a mother guides my study and work today.

I first got Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg in a parenting class long ago. Though I’d flipped through it then (and found the class really helpful–look up PEP parenting classes), I had not read it the way I read things now—with notes and underlining and flags. This past weekend I reread it and in an act of unprecedented efficiency, also annotated it. My post today is long as a result. I’m splitting it into two parts, we’ll do a second part of the book next week. Maybe you’ll have ordered it and read it too by then!

Dr. Rosenberg studied with Carl Rogers—which is to say, he is of the school of love. During his life, he did amazing work with Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in the resolution of a range of conflicts–he traveled to do political negotiation, work with labor unions, corporations, schools, and prisons.

According to Rosenberg, the process of communication is comprised of each person experiencing in varying degrees of consciousness and constructiveness:

The concrete actions we observe

How we feel in relation to what we observe

The needs, values, desires etc. that create our feelings

The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

The tendency to make moral judgments on people (including ourselves) based on their actions contributes to this idea that they (we) “deserve” to be punished. This language is not only unproductive, and hurtful, this habit may be a contributor to actual incidences of violence.

The relationship between language and violence is the subject of psychology professor O.J. Harvey’s research a the University of Colorado. He took random samples of pieces of literature from many countries around the world and tabulated the frequency of words that classify and judge people. His study shows a high correlation between frequent use of such words and frequency of [violent] incidents.

When we accept moral judgments of others, we can look away from the terrible things that happen to them. We can refuse to acknowledge our roles in creating or perpetuating suffering, or believe that certain people don’t deserve to be treated with kindness and dignity. We can even allow ourselves to believe that we don’t deserve to be treated with respect. Rosenberg quotes French novelist and journalist George Bernanos on the danger of not taking responsibility:

…it will not be cruelty that will be responsible for our extinction and still less, of course, the indignation that cruelty awakens and the reprisals and vengeance that it brings upon itself…but the docility, the lack of responsibility of the modern man, his base subservient acceptance of every common decree. The horrors that we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untamable men are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase in the number of obedient, docile men.

On Thursday I went to this 2.5 hour training at the hospital that I’ve been putting off forever. I kept thinking, “Ugh, it sucks. I have to go to birth month training.” NVC asks me to think about why I am really going. The truth, of course, is that I choose to go to this training so that I won’t get a million emails about it and eventually no longer be allowed to do this job that I love. So I choose to go to training because I love my job. Which puts the responsibility on me. Similarly, if I’m asked to do something I really disagree with, I might prefer to say that I have to do it, but that’s not true. I might choose to do it rather than lose my job, but I don’t have to. It’s not an easy part of this to swallow. That I have autonomy means I can’t blame anyone else for my decisions, for the state of my life, for the amount of time I have free or locked up each day. Balancing my own values/needs can be really tricky.

For centuries, the image of the loving woman has been associated with sacrifice and the denial of one’s own needs to take care of others. Because women are socialized to view the care taking of others as their highest duty, they often learn to ignore their own needs.

I think this is true of men as well–particularly parents. Maturity basically means delaying or even denying gratification, but sometimes we take it to a level that is unhealthy, and then we eventually lash out. But it’s our own doing. No one is making us. I am responsible for my own choices and for deciding to meet or not meet my own needs. It means that I don’t have to feel so completely helpless and carried away when I find my time taken up doing something that puts my own immediate needs on the back burner—if I can think of it as a choice and really articulate to myself why I’m doing it, then it can either feel like less of a chore or I might realize that the reason isn’t good enough and decide not to do it. Most of the time, if I reason it out, I’m going to choose to do the things that keep life moving in the direction I want it to move in, but also will recognize to cut it out when I’m motivated by something stupid like wanting to post on Facebook that I’m at a cool event.

The prompt this week is one that Rosenberg wrote about as an example of his own work overcoming this feeling of “have to.” He was feeling really overwhelmed by the things he was doing and made a list of his least favorite, least joyful, most dreaded tasks–at home and at work.

Then he wrote “I choose to” in front of each one and “because” after each. And really thought about his motivation to do each one. He was able to let some things go, because they didn’t serve him enough to warrant that kind of dread. The things he chose to keep doing were still chores, it wasn’t as though he magically loved doing them but he was able to be less grouchy about doing them because he could remind himself of the reason he was doing them. Make your to do list. That’s why I’m posting on Monday this week. here’s one:

I choose to pack lunches because one time I made the mistake of going to the school cafeteria to join my younger son for lunch and I saw what goes into my kids’ bodies if I don’t, and I care about that.

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