In blogposts 1 to 5, I described ideas from Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) about how our babies come into the world with extreme states, either things are perfectly how they want them to be, or they are unbearable. Part of our task as parents is the fill the gap in the middle by managing to offer good enough care, and healthy relationships, most of the time. In CAT, we draw out the patterns we get into like this:
You can read more about Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) here (ACAT website), but I believe that it can be helpful for us as parents to notice where we are on the map, using our “observing eye”, and try to get back to the middle place. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well over the next few blogs I am going to explore what makes it so hard for so many parents to stay in the middle ground. I am going to start with the general idea that “good parenting” is a resource, like money, or bread, or milk. There needs to be enough of these resources in the house, to meet the demand. Taking the example of milk as a household resource, however much we seem to buy in our house, we are constantly on the verge of running out, probably due to the high number of teenage boys passing through to spend time with my son. I have been known to get very upset and angry with my two children about the supply and demand of milk in our house. I remember one day in the summer holidays when I left for work in the morning saying “could someone go round and buy some milk, please” to my two teenage children, who were mooching about in their pyjamas. Only to return after a busy day, desperate for a cup of tea, to find no milk in the house. That really sent me down to the bottom of the diagram, feeling hurt and rejected that they could not be bothered to do the one thing that I had asked them to do. I think I may have even flipped up into the angry/rejecting role and told them, angrily, how much I did for them, making them feel hurt and rejected in turn!
Anyway, enough about milk, but hopefully you get the picture, if the demand for “good parenting” in your household is greater than the supply that you have available, then someone is going to be hurt and disappointed and it will be difficult for everyone to stay calm. It is going to be very difficult to stay in that middle ground place. So what kind of things affect the supply and demand of “good parenting”? Well, one way of breaking it down is to think about 1) social factors, 2) Child factors, and 3) Parent factors.
This will include how much money you have, the quality of your housing, how good local nurseries and schools are. The energy you have to put into sorting these things out, will mean you have less energy to spend on your parenting. I often think about how difficult it must be as a single parent who has to go out to work, and will have very little time or energy leftover to provide quality parenting when they get home. I was so lucky to be able to work part time while my children were small, and to be able to pay for really good childminders and nannies to take care of my children while I was not there. Since these people loved being with small children much more than I did, and had a flair for entertaining them, I sometimes think my children got even better quality parenting than they would have got from me, if I had been a frustrated stay at home mum.
The more children you have, the greater the demand is likely to be although, of course, you can get to the point where the older siblings start to add to the amount of “parenting resource” available, by looking after the younger ones. Some children are likely to be more demanding, and to need more “parenting resource” than others. Children with developmental problems, such as those on the autistic spectrum, those with ADHD, or children with any chronic health problem, are going to need an extra dose of calm, consistent parenting from their carers. Having twins or triplets immediately doubles, or triples, the demand for parenting from the very start.
Last but not least, the quality of your parenting will be affected by your own wellbeing and happiness. Do you manage to get enough sleep, healthy food and exercise, with the bonus of some “me-time” during the week when you can reconnect with your hobbies, your partner or your friends? Did you have Traumatic experiences growing up, or do you struggle with Mental or Physical health problems? These can really reduce the amount of “parenting resource” that you have available to give, as it may be taking all the energy you have just to get through the day. Your own experience of being parented will also have an impact on how easy it is for you to get back into the middle ground, particularly, whether those middle ground roles come naturally to you or not. For example, if feelings were never talked about in the family you grew up in, you may have to work extra hard to provide that aspect of being a parent. Staying calm, validating your child’s distress but also setting realistic limits will take a lot of emotional energy. I see so many parents who are determined to do a better job than their own parents did, but seem unable to cope with their child being upset or angry at any point. This can mean that they are trying to be perfect, never letting their child down and never expecting them to help out. These parents have exhausted themselves running around after their children, doing everything they can. They will say that they are doing it “for a quiet life” but it only works like that in the short term. In the longer term, their life is anything but quiet as they are rushing to meet more and more demands from their children. OK, maybe my reaction to the lack of milk in the house that day was excessive, but my children got the message and were more respectful of my requests after that.
Take a moment to think about the supply and demand of “good parenting” in your household. You might want to write out the factors that have affected it and think about anything you might be able to do to increase the supply or to reduce the demand. At the very least, try to use your observing eye to be kind and compassionate towards yourself if there is an imbalance. This may be something that you want to talk about with your child, so that you are both able to express your wishes that things could be different.
If these ideas have made sense to you and you have had to cope with some of the pressures described here, and you would like to write a guest blog about how you have managed to get your supply and demand back in balance, then do get in touch.