Parenting and Empathic Fathers, Society

Am I a Good Parent? Feeling Judged by Others

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I love my children. But sometimes I seem to stop loving them so unconditionally or looking at them through this (rightly!) blurred vision of a parent when there are other people around.

I notice myself thinking: “Oh why is he doing this/behaving that way?”. Whenever there are other people around, my children seem to become these total strangers that I suddenly feel ashamed of. What’s going on?

First of all, they are so easily excitable by visitors and then act in a way that I often find so hard to tolerate. I hear myself saying “oh they are very excited” to excuse them (and let’s be honest: try and convince my guests that really it’s not my fault they are like that!). The other day our landlady came around and my four year old was hiding behind me (which he REALLY! never does), the seven year old was whizzing around as if he hadn’t had been outside for days and was on a sugar high (REALLY not true!). Immediately, I felt judged “she will think my kids are not social/behaving oddly/need more parental input/stimulation/less sugar. AND, maybe worst of all: “he is not ‘up to it’ as a dad).

I think as a parent we often feel that we are judged as people by how our children look or act. So, we try and make them do things we wouldn’t ever do at home or even think are stupid to ask of them anyway. To my six month old baby I hear myself saying “be gentle” and anxiously wonder whether she will be an aggressive child because she is playing with another baby in a way a six month old baby does (poking at eyes, pulling feet, scratching…). Later I can laugh about how my own thinking is influenced by the fact another parent is watching. Of course, she will learn that we are gentle with each other, simply because she sees us being that way with one another. And, of course, I should not judge her for being the way she is: just a normal six month old baby.

I remember with shame those days I tried to get my two year old son to share. Just because it made me feel better in front of the other parents present. Even though I knew he wasn’t able to understand that concept yet at all. His needs suddenly became less important than other children’s needs. Putting other people’s needs first (and sometimes up to an unhealthy degree) is what we adults can do, but we cannot expect that of a small child. Even though I knew that at the time the need to fit in and be accepted as a father by other parents was so great, that I wouldn’t stop myself and just say “sorry, I think my child isn’t ready to share this yet” and stand up for him.

Secondly, they just adapt to other people, like I do. I need to accept they will take on a different persona when they are with certain people. One of my sons will sometimes just not answer people. So, if he is asked a question, he often stays quiet. I used to feel very ashamed that I still had to talk for him, way past the toddler years. Now, I mostly try and stay calm inside and accept it. He is old enough for us to talk about that and I tell him the impression that his behaviour might have on other people but ultimately I feel it’s his decision. I cannot make him do things, that would also go totally against our parenting philosophy. So, I will have to accept that side of him and free myself from making judgments. Tirelessly I will reject labels such as “oh he is shy/ introvert” because I don’t think they are true. He is perceived like that in this situation, but it is not a true description of his character. At home or with a different set of people he will talk non-stop and wouldn’t dream of not answering.

And when I think about it I know that I am the same. It is mostly hidden though, because I am an adult and have learnt to act differently to how I feel, but it still comes through. There are several “personas” in me for different people. I will feel more relaxed with my family and that means act and talk in a different way.

Our children are the best they can be in any situation. If they behave in a way we would like to change, then they are actually diverting our attention to a need of theirs that needs addressing by us! Not because they are “naughty”. So, if they act ‘impolite’, they might feel insecure or simply don’t know what to say. We can help them out, it’s ok, whatever their age.

I am working hard at being proud of who they are despite of how they are. I also, as my children get older, understand that they are not me, and are walking their own paths that have, in some respect, nothing to do with me. I am guiding them, but I don’t have control over their every step and they will make decisions that I might consider wrong, it’s not always to do with me.

I am working hard at being a better parent – yes, I’m talking about the best person I am possibly capable of becoming. That also means in becoming immune to other people’s judgments. This goes along with my own seeking not to judge others and becoming more compassionate. Towards myself and others. There is always a reason we and others behave the way we do and by loving my kids unconditionally I show them that it really doesn’t matter if they take up roles sometimes (as long as they do it intentionally and happily) or act out their emotions (which I sometimes, secretly, wish they would hide) and hopefully they will grow up self-confident and compassionate towards others and themselves, instead of worrying what other people think.

So, am I a good parent? The only people I will grant judgement of that are my children. The older they get, the more I have to face their irritated looks when I, again, have chosen the wrong tone ‘Daddy, you really don’t need to shout’ or come up with a stupid ‘rule’ and their reply is ‘Daddy, I can do that, it’s ok, really’.

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

Whose Needs Matter More?

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My sons race around the house, jump up the sofa and down again, while shouting something to each other. I decide to go to the other room. Hey, it’s nice they are playing imaginative games and have fun together, right? I, however, feel incredibly tired, the night was broken by far too many “I need the loo’s” and “I can’t sleep’s”…for the hundredth of times I wonder “WHEN will this child do this basic thing of just SLEEP at night?” My tired thoughts are broken when my sons come racing into my “quiet space” continuing their game around me. This is the point where I lose my patient- and-“oh they play so nicely”-feeling. I at first ask them, really nicely, to play their game somewhere else. It takes a while to get through to them, finally I succeed. They go into the other room, but sure enough, a minute later I am made part of the game again, a game I don’t want to play!

So, here we have it again: my needs (peace and quiet…if only for 20 minutes!) and their need to get rid of that energy and well, just play (in summer time we could go outside, but it is dark and rainy and I know I can’t get them outside now…). I become increasingly angry at their ignorance of my needs and they are becoming more and more agitated because they cannot live out theirs. In no time their game will turn into fighting with each other and then when worse comes to worse we are all shouting angrily at each other. Everybody is suffering here.

So, what to do? How can we make sure everyone gets what they need?

From my perspective, I as the parent, already lowered the expectations of getting my needs fulfilled to the basics. But those I need to keep sane and be an “as good as possible” parent, which is what my kids need (they really don’t need perfect by the way! Which helps!)

In many situations where one need has to be fulfilled at the expense of the other’s (siblings and us adults needs included) I ask myself: who is suffering most here now? It’s not always easy to answer this question, but sometimes it helps to see the picture more clearly. For example, if someone’s basic need is waiting to be fulfilled then they usually get this fulfilled first. You can’t be cooperative with an empty stomach for example. So, let’s have a break, have something to eat and then we find a solution. Or one child has had a difficult time/an illness etc. and needs his needs for attention for example fulfilled now before I can give attention and time to the other.

I decide that I need to stop the situation spiralling into the worst case scenario and say “let’s go and look at all the winter lights outside” or “shall we have a snack first?” I relent, but I have hopes… that when we come back they are more content to spend some time playing, without needing me, so that I can sit and have that cup of tea (hot, actually, you know, really tastes better, that way!) and daydream a bit, just switch off and get my energy levels up again. 🙂

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

My Dear Gentle Boys…

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My Dear Gentle Boys,

I can’t believe that you’re already four and seven years old. Where has that time gone? Didn’t you just crawl over the kitchen floor and made your first wobbly steps? It feels like yesterday when you said your first words, and I remember exactly the moment I saw you both dancing together in the garden.

Time flies. And that’s OK. Because now you’re not the Little Ones anymore. Soon another baby will be with us. All of us. And I know how exited you are. I feel the same. That bubbly, fizzy, I-need-to-jump-up-and-down feeling inside our tummies. Like a balloon just before it bursts.

You are unique and perfect to me. When I’m around you I can feel all your positive, creative energy and love. I listen to your stories and watch you dancing. I cuddle up with you or we rough house on the bed. I see all rainbow colours in your eyes when you laugh and I hold you tight when you cry.

You explore the world every day. Bravely you climb the highest trees and you will never stop asking questions until you are satisfied with the answer. Yes, you scream and stomp your feet when things go wrong. But you don’t give up. Every day I see you try again.

You surprise me . Your thoughts and the way you care. When I mess up, you forgive quickly. Yes, you fight with each other too, but you also create an inner peace and harmony in the blink of an eye. Your respect for others make this world a better place.

Here and now I want to pause for a moment and just tell you how much I love you.

Let’s keep walking together. You, Mama and I – and, of course, our little girl to come. I’ll be there for you, behind you, next to you. Keep your clear and critical mind. Don’t feel judged by people who tell you how and what boys should look like or how they should behave. You are strong. You are gentle. Keep playing with the toys you enjoy, care for your dolls as you would care for a baby. Wear the colours you like – let it be pink if you choose to. Whether your hair is long or short; whether you wear ‘girls’ sandals or not; whether you play football or skipping rope – I don’t care. What I care for is your happiness and health.

Let’s keep talking. I love sharing my thoughts and dreams with you. Your stories matter to me. Yes, sometimes I get lost in your tales. Then you roll your eyes and start patiently all over again. Until I understand.

Let’s keep dancing together. Turning up the music and dancing through the house. Getting the musical instruments out and having a spontaneous party. You dress up as fairies and I get three free wishes. You hold my hands and I swing you through the air. We are one.

No super hero on your shirt, no toy gun in your hand, no merchandise poisoning your mind. You don’t need them and never missed them either.

Real feelings, real love, real boys instead. You got me. You got Mama. You got our unconditional love. Forever.

In Love,

Your Father


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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

Say More YES! To Your Children

Yes

‘Papa, can I pitch up the tent in the garden?’, ‘Can you read me a book?’, ‘Please, I want to stay up a little longer tonight, just five more minutes.’, ‘Is there really chocolate ice cream in the freezer?!?’

I get those and probably a few dozen more (or maybe hundreds?) questions a day from my children. And not only me. All parents, I believe. The crucial point comes now: What do you answer? What do I answer? Sigh. I confess, I too often reply with an excuse like ‘Eeehm, maybe later’, or ‘Let me think about that’ (and not really thinking about it at all), or with a simple and straight forward NO! Full stop.

Often enough my NO will evoke disappointment, sadness or frustration in my kids. Yes, they might understand why they can’t have the ice cream right now, but why on earth is Papa not wanting to have a spontaneous campsite in the garden or isn’t in the mood for the favourite book?

The NO-word is easy to say. I’m the powerful parent and can decide and if I’m busy, tired, annoyed, stressed or simply not bothered many projects end up being dismissed before they even have a chance to take off.

Please, don’t get me wrong. There are very obvious and no-discussion-moments when you and I have to say ‘no’ to our children, to avoid danger and to simply protect them. Hey, that’s why we’re the parent and adult. And sure, children are more content, relaxed and co-operative when they know about clear and understandable boundaries.

No, here and now I’m talking about all those moments where I fired my NO without really thinking or reflecting. Sometimes just for the sake of my own peace and convenience. To get that moment of quiet or to enjoy the one little minute longer being on the sofa. And yes, that’s fine, too. We parents need to keep our sanity. But that doesn’t mean to use a NO as our power tool, or even worse, not take serious those things our children want to do.

We can make that change quite quickly and it doesn’t take too much effort. I started by taking my children’s requests for x, y and z more serious. When they asked me for something like ‘Can you play shop with me?’ and I just felt no desire at all in that moment, I decided this: give them the YES and just play for a few minutes. Honestly, a quick shopping trip to your child’s grocery doesn’t take longer than 3 to 5 minutes. I also asked my other son to join me and he went shopping as well. After a few moments they both were very busy with playing shop, so I could sneak out… I did my ‘duty’, gave a positive response by saying YES (even if I didn’t feel like it), but at the same time benefitted from it as both my sons were engaged in a game they liked and I could go back to – doing nothing.

(By the way, I prefer an honest NO (sometimes inevitable, I think) to ‘in a minute’, at least the child is not kept in the air and waiting. They know what to expect and continue in their game/do something else.)

Another way to show a more positive attitude is something psychologist Oliver James calls “Love Bombing”.

It could work like this: Spend this Saturday with the motto ‘Let the children decide!’ Yes, everything: from when they want to get up in the morning (hey, they might choose to stay in bed until lunchtime, so you have the morning to yourself), then the activities they chose for the daytime, their favourite food, to the point they decide it’s bedtime (agreed, it could be late!).

Oliver James says “I developed Love Bombing to reset the emotional thermostats of children aged from 3 to puberty. It gives your child a very intense, condensed experience of feeling completely loved and completely in control”. He advises to have a go at Love Bombing for a day or two or even a shorter period, followed by daily half hour slots devoted to it. He states that parents report a closer connection to their child and that Love Bombing balances the child’s behaviour and personality (read more about it here).

Of course you would have to negotiate. If your offspring ask for a super expensive day out (yeah, let’s go shopping and then to the fun park and then to the cinema and then to the zoo…), let’s calm them down a bit. Having a fun day, doesn’t mean you have to go bankrupt. We often spend an afternoon doing crafts with our children. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Try to see the day through your children’s eyes. They will love it – and you too!

Do you know the saying: When the children are happy, then the parents are happy too? I think that’s right!

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

5 Reminders for All Great Dads

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I believe most of us try every day to be the best father in the whole world. And that’s great. But we also have days where everything goes wrong. For exact those days I’ve written my personal list of reminders. Hope those five points can help you too!

  • Love your children unconditionally. Yes, there a plenty of moments where they gonna mess up; where they drive you insane, and where your only safe place is the locked bathroom to get at least five minutes peace. Tantrums, scream fits, broken things and even lies. It’s all part of the package. But, there are still the most magnificent and wonderful people on this planet. So, forgive, reconnect, give the love you would have hoped for when you were a kid and screwed up. Why did I put it here as Number 1? Because it’s my personal reminder and the most important thing to me when it comes to parenting and fatherhood.
  • Spend as much time as possible with your kids. Since I’m a father myself I can confirm this: Time flies. It’s such a precious time. And your children are only little once. Before you blink twice they’ve grown up and go their ways. You’ll still be part of their life (hopefully), but it’s nothing compared with the first years. So, get down onto the floor, or in the sandpit, or into the woods and play. When you join their games be present and follow your kids’ rules.
  • Have a just-before-bedtime-talk with your kid(s). It’s a win-win for my son and me. This way I learn about what’s going on inside him and he sees how I talk about emotions and feelings, that I take responsibility for them and reflect on my actions and words.
  • Connect with nature. Going to the park is a good start. But I’m talking about a real connection. Go wild. Off road. No phone signal (yes, that’s the hardest bit). Take a tent, a fire kettle and a few things to ‘survive’. You’ll discover how little you need. Collect wood, make a fire, respect all creatures and life out there. I always find that spending time with my kids in the woods awakes the most powerful feelings inside me. I slow down, I feel a strong bond to my children and I feel somehow home. And it doesn’t cost me anything.
  • Take time for yourself. You’ve heard right. TIME FOR YOURSELF! Take a day or a weekend (it helps when you talk and plan together with your partner) and just focus on your needs and wishes. I’m dreaming of a weekend where I just go for a long bike ride (cycling I mean). A tent, a sleeping bag and my bike. Then, in the evening, somewhere in the countryside, I will make a fire, roast some bread and veggies and have a beer… Sounds awesome to me. Then coming back to my family, feeling fully recharged and energised. Oh yes, we all need a break from time to time.

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Pre-Birth Tensions

birthing poolIt’s so important: the time prior to a birth. Families and couples prepare themselves for the big moment. Ideally everything should be in place and ready for the moment when the baby decides it’s time to enter this world.

Ideally, indeed that’s a good word. We’re expecting our third child. Basically at any time now. Due date was yesterday. And, so far I had the feeling everything is fine, and with the experience of two lovely home births in the past I felt somehow prepared and relaxed.

A few weeks ago we started with first preparations. My boys and I inflated the birthing pool for the first time, our lovely midwife came around to talk things through, my wife and I have been listening to birth relaxation CDs, and we created a backup plan for the whereabouts of our kids when birth takes place. We even raided the kitchen cupboard and made some very delicious energy balls for the time of birth and after.

So, all good then?! Well, I must admit things have turned slightly against us and I get that panicky feeling of being stressed. Today my wife followed her nest-building-instinct: we started clearing and cleaning the house to make it more cosy. Since then everything went downhill:

The boys – running around full of tension, anger and temper. The birthing pool – decided to have a hole. The idea of peace and quiet – gone.

I could scream. Honestly, I was so looking forward to this special pre-birth time, when things quiet down and tensions fall off. The exact opposite is happening here. For about an hour I tried to repair the birthing pool with a combination of blu tac, a bike repair patch, sellor tape and swearing. At the same time my heavily pregnant wife chased after our youngest, who was on a mission to either destroy things or leaving messes in corners we just had tidied. Both results, repairing the pool and calming down the little one, were less than successful.

I could scream again. Well, no, I just decide to take a short break. Really, it doesn’t help now to get worked up about things I can’t change or control. Yes, the boys are tense, no wonder. For weeks and months they have been waiting quite patiently for this time. It must have been like an endless journey for them. So, all their anxieties, joy and excitement is bubbling up now. The pool, well, it’s not ideal but it will be alright. Stop worrying, Torsten!

I tell you what I do now. I’ll go down and make a cake. A nice almond-coconut cake. The boys can help me and things will be alright. After we had the cake we can carry on in building our nest. Not long to go until our little one will be here. Let’s take a deep breath and carry on. I see you on the other side… in a few days… or hours…

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Parenting and Empathic Fathers

The Third Child: Yes, I’m Ready to Go

31 Wochen (4)‘When is the baby coming? Today? Now? I want the baby to come now!’ – These words are being said by my nearly 4-year-old every day. Every day for the last three months. You see, there is a little pressure and some expectations on us – the parents – or, to be more precise, on my wife. Come on, bring the baby on!

We’re expecting our third child this May. If everything goes by plan, birth should take place at home again, as with the other two. I feel ready for it. More or less.

Looking back I realise how little time we took to get prepared for this birth and the arrival of our baby. I remember the long evenings prior to our first birth. We sat on the sofa and chatted about everything baby related: how life will change, how to fold cloth nappies and we even practised the baby sling with a dolly inside (well, that was actually for me who needed a bit of help there… yes, I did manage dolly in the sling after twenty or so minutes). Everything we did or said was with the focus on baby or birth.

Things shifted slightly three years later when our second child came along. Yes, we were more exhausted and the evenings often ended with us going to bed the same time as our toddler, just to catch up. Still, we had great moments where my wife and I could sit down, reflect, relax, think, talk, laugh, cry and enjoy ourselves. With that kind of confidence the second birth went very smoothly and peacefully.

But life geared up again. Both our boys are wonderful and curious explorers. Most of the time anyway. Our days start normally around 6.30-ish in the morning and the eldest should be in bed around 8.30pm – but, hey ho, life is not like that and quite often the evening routine gets delayed. After we re-established a certain order and tidiness throughout the house we fall into bed as well. And in between I just finished writing my first book.
So, all fine by me. But, and here comes my point, we just noticed how little time there is for us. Not only time as a couple but also time to get prepared again.

Well, we already went through two home births, babymoon, sleepless nights, toddler tantrums & co., why should we need more preparation? Good question. For me it’s about celebrating that very special, beautiful and unique moment when a child enters the world. It doesn’t matter how often I’ve seen or experienced it before. This new life deserves the same attention and care I’ve given to my other two.

And, it’s about my wife. She, who went through the last 34 weeks, struggling with sickness, fatigue, heartburn and the general exhaustion pregnancy brings. She, who gets up every morning to be with our very active boys, seems to have quite endless energy and patience to deal with all the difficulties and joys parenting can bring.

So, taking that time to get ready again is also an important way to say ‘Thank you’ to her. To show respect and empathy. Yes, there is less time available now, but I believe in these small but important moments of kindness. For me to get up a little earlier in the morning to prepare her some breakfast and tea in bed; to let her nap in the afternoon while the boys and I are somewhere outdoors, or to give her a nice and relaxing belly massage (even when I’m terribly tired) before we go to sleep – I know it’s no big deal but it does help her.

Belly MassageWe also try to involve our children in the whole pre-birth celebrations. They love to use the natural belly massage oil (the more the better) and when the younger one can’t wait for his turn to massage, he then has a go at my belly (bliss). Or the other day they both helped me by inflating the birthing pool. Of course the hosepipe had to be tested and this way they found out that they can use it as a mega cool telephone…

Yes, time is tight. But it’s really up to us to make the best of it. Tonight we have planned something very special. It all happened quite spontaneously with the support of friends: My wife and I go out!! The eldest will stay with friends and the youngest with our adopted Granny. So, from around 5pm till tomorrow morning we’ll have time to ourselves!

The only plan we made is to go out for dinner – and then… let’s see. No plans, no pressure, no hurry. Just us. What a treat! Yes, we will talk about birth and the baby – of course! But we will also just enjoy ourselves – the couple, the lovers, the two of us. Recharging our emotional batteries for the weeks to come. I can’t wait. For both.

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