In blogposts 1 to 5, I describe how ideas from Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) can be used to think about the relationship patterns that you get into with your child and how they can be drawn out in a diagram like this:
Later blogs explore what makes parenting so difficult and how important it can be to try to use the middle way and get back to the centre of the diagram. You can find out more about CAT here (ACAT website ), but a colleague in Australia, Dr Jennifer Wood, has written this guest blog for me. She is a mother, a clinical psychologist, and a director at “In Dialogue Practice”, a service specialising in Cognitive Analytic Therapy based in Melbourne. She is reflecting on the feelings she had of wanting to get it right and be in control when her baby was small, and how that got her caught up in unhelpful places on the diagram. Jennifer writes:
Parenting and the battle of control
I am also a therapist who is interested in how the principles of cognitive analytic therapy (CAT) can be used to help navigate the role of parenthood. I was moved by Alison’s blog to share my memory of when my professional learning and my life as a mother fused together.
I had been studying and practicing CAT for about five years before the birth of my first child. I had gleefully finished up my work and headed off on what I thought would be a delightful twelve months of maternity leave, that would leave plenty of time for catching up with friends, and pottering around the house whilst my new baby took all those naps they were meant to have.
Fast forward six months and I was feeling overwhelmed by the reality of life with a young baby, the copious amounts of conflicting advice and the feeling that I was failing at being a mum. I felt firmly entrenched down the bottom of the parenting map, feeling as if I was getting it wrong and exhausting myself in trying to work out the magic answer – a sleep routine? Was there an undiagnosed food allergy? Under stimulated? Over stimulated? Was it a wonder week? Did I have to give up coffee? (please no, I don’t think I’ll survive the day without it). What would be the thing that would shift it and catapult us to the top of the map – perfect mother tending to calm contented baby?
Needing a Solution
One of my saviours in those early months was a small, but delightfully supportive mothers group. The emails would zing back and forth through those long wakeful night times – Ah, the solace of not being the only mother at her wits end, rocking and nursing her baby through the telescopically long hours of the night.
During one of these exchanges, when I was yet again lamenting my inability to get my bub to sleep in the cot for any longer than twenty-five minutes at a time, the conversation was going round the different “sleep experts” we had all been reading up on. It wasn’t the first time the controlled crying approach had been raised, but there was something about the wording this time that crystalised it for me “what are you teaching them if you don’t do it? You need to show them who is in control”. Control. I had a visceral response.
Before parenthood I had been a therapist working with adolescents, and that word – control – came up with many of them. They hated feeling controlled and responded by out-of-control rebellion. I spent time working with them and their parents, slowly shifting their relationship style from the battleground of who would be in control (spoiler alert – no-one gets to stay in control, but everyone gets to feel controlled) to the roles of negotiating and mutually respected. It was clear to me that I did not want my default parenting relationship dance to be that of control, because I knew that if my approach was to be controlling, then in order to join this dance my child had to submit to being controlled. Gazing far into the future I didn’t like what I saw, either my child continued to submit to being controlled, hampering their independence, or they got sick of it and acted up like many of the kids I had worked with and we would end up spending the teenage years in battle mode. Neither one of these options I’d seen were very helpful or happy inducing.
I also had the unpleasant realisation that, though I hadn’t yet gone down the controlled crying route, I had, in other ways, been seeking control right from the start. Maybe if I learnt the tired signs and responded promptly, maybe if I got the swaddling right, maybe if I sang and rocked in exactly the right rhythm, I would have the secrets to getting my baby to sleep. I would take back control over my life. My baby didn’t have to grow up to be a rebellious teenager sneaking out of the house, drinking with friends and ditching school to beat me at the battle of control, they could do it from birth with that inconsolable cry.
This was my light bulb moment. This recognition that my pre-child life might help me through this unchartered territory of motherhood. Prior to my baby’s arrival I’d assumed that some training in developmental psychology and a capacity to stay calm in most situations would carry me through, but in the chaos I had lurched from one source of advice to another. This was my solid ground, not found in some book or google search result, but from my training – thinking about the relationship dance I was in with my baby, how was I relating in that moment to them, how were they feeling in response, and was this the dance I wanted us to be in? This allowed me clarity, a lens through which to look at each moment of difficulty, to sift through the mounds of advice and make a decision about what direction to take. Is this how I want my child to experience our relationship? What does it teach them about what to expect from the world? How will they learn to relate to others from this moment? What inner voice am I shaping in them?
It also helped ease the pressure to find “the answer”. There isn’t one middle ground position, there are many. For me this means trusting that there is usually no one right way to parent in any given moment, many approaches will be good enough. Even the relationship dance of controlling to controlled has a valuable place, in situations of safety with a young child it is entirely appropriate – “you need to hold my hand when we are crossing the road”. So rather than finding one magic answer, it is rather this capacity to reflect and think about what relationship pattern I am in with my child that has helped me navigate many a difficult parenting moment, or helped me recognise when my default ways of relating need to be shifted, for both of our wellbeing. I don’t do this mothering thing perfectly, but that is the point, not doing it perfectly doesn’t mean I’m failing, I’m being what my baby needs me to be, good enough.