Digging for Gold; Grow the Grown-Ups, Embercombe, Devon
As the 21st century unfolds, one thing is certain. Parenting in these times is difficult and tiring work. We try our best to juggle so many hats, all at once, and the hat we wear as parents, tries and tests us over and over again. Finding the tools to enable us to work as effectively as we can, can be particularly challenging. We are surrounded with so much pressure to produce amazing, all singing, all dancing and weather-proof children, whilst working furiously to pay the bills, be a wonderful mother, father, friend, sibling, stay fit and healthy…. And it can be enormously tricky to step back and see the wood through the trees, especially as for many of us this is a lonely road, without substantial support around.
Starting my own parenting journey, just over six years ago, like most, I was full of good intention. Having witnessed a few years before, one of the most self-assured women I’ve ever known, crumble inside, overwhelmed at the should and should not’s as she ploughed through book after book about early years, I bravely, possibly foolishly, chose not to read any literature before having our son. Instead, I had two premises that I intended to use; to learn him through listening as he grew and nourish within him the securest relationship with the earth I could, cultivating seeds of belonging for himself and his children to come. I wanted him to know a sense of time, connection and gratitude that has largely been forgotten today. And I wanted so keenly to follow the intuition I had deep inside of me and allow it to be the loudest and fullest it could.
But sleep, or lack of, started to get in the way. Our son took two years to ‘sleep through the night’. I could count on my hand the times I’d had a four-hour stretch of sleep within those long and strenuous first 24 months. And, without strong support around us, familial or otherwise, my husband and I struggled to cope with the extent of the exhaustion. My health suffered badly, my second pregnancy with our daughter took a heavy toll and stress levels rose even further when our son met toddler-hood and started scratching and biting other children.
This, which my mother had told me time and again, I had done the same, scared and shocked me. I didn’t know how to deal with it and freaked out. I knew I didn’t want to be putting a toddler into time-out but I didn’t know what the alternatives were. I became quick to react but didn’t feel I had the insight to know what to do. Just as with his sleep, I knew I didn’t want him to cry-it-out but I also knew my resources were running low to continue co-sleeping and feeding on demand. I fervently started researching in pursuit of a middle ground between the all-encompassing attachment parenting style and the hard edges of the staunch Gina Ford type methods. As my inner-confidence began to wane and doubt ebbed into my intuition, I desperately wanted to find something sustainable for all of our needs as a family. And throughout my quest, I longed for and fantasized about a support of community, a way of living as has been in the past, that would help shift the solitariness out of my parenting.
Finally, after many sleep-deprived and stressful nights seeking advice online, I discovered an approach that I wholly got. Firstly, I came across Hand in Hand followed shortly after by Peaceful Parenting. The fundamental belief of both is that to enable kids to thrive, they need connection. They need to feel heard, recognised and safely bound with our love and acceptance. And without this, they will ‘act-out’, misbehave and call out for our attention, until we begin really listening, attending and offering them our hearts and our presence.
Both Hand in Hand and Peaceful Parenting, as well as other similar approaches, recommend simple strategies to help us, as parents, start to really connect with our children. These effective and transformative strategies view challenging behaviour as an opportunity to enquire and reflect upon our own childhood experiences and change patterns and reactions that stand to have been handed down from generation to generation. Taking time to assimilate and put into practice, they require patience and to move forward gently whilst asking us to re-learn much of what we might have believed to be the ‘right’ parenting techniques before having kids. Yet treating our children respectfully as people foremost, in the midst of sleepless nights, meltdowns, refusals to get dressed and the like, can prove especially demanding.
Having grown up in an abusive household and experiencing severe trauma during my childhood myself, for the last three years or so, with the help of support groups online, I have been committed to this pathway. It has been a constant process of stepping back, trying to listen to myself and my children, and often thinking I’ve grasped it but knowing it is only the tip of the ice-berg that I’m beginning to grapple. And, for me personally, without like-minded others around me, it’s been a very lonely way to travel.
Until, that is, I discovered the Grow the Grown-ups programme at Embercombe in Devon. For the last week in May, my family and I, spent a rich, magical and hugely emotional six days learning how to grow more connected ~ to ourselves, to each other and to the incredible environment of both people and land, around us. Tears were shed, hearts were met, as my husband and I, with the kids embraced in the playful arms of the support team, were lead by the wise words, care and love of Joanna Watters. Eighteen families spent the week learning how to deeply listen to our own essential being as well as hold the listening space to allow others to listen to theirs. The safe, secure and non-judgemental space that Joanna held with her warmth and wisdom, enabled us, as individuals and collectively, to release the frustrations we meet daily as parents. We gave ourselves permission to scream and wail, tense and rage, to fall apart and, in doing so, establish a firmer, more solid ground beneath our feet. Through Listening Partnerships with each other, we learned how to really hear our own internal voices that tend to get stuck on repeat each day as we care for our children. And, with gentle hands, we were guided into courageously facing our own childhood pain and sadness of longing for recognition and acknowledgment and found nuggets of gold as we delved deep into our beings.
For the first time, the isolation I had experienced in parenting the way I had chosen, began to melt. For the first time, I began to hear others speak my thoughts. I heard and witnessed others express and totally connect to their frustrations and this privilege and resonance enabled me to truly feel I’m not alone in my conscious direction as a parent. We all share the same fears, perpetual worry and angst but sadly we seem to squash these down and never really give them the full space to be acknowledged. Grow the Grown-Ups has taught me how significantly this belly of anxiety deserves to be heard and released. Just as we wish and want for our kids to be fully recognised, loved and cared for, our ‘stuff’ ~ whether it’s anger that the kids won’t eat their supper or fretting that they don’t have any friends ~ calls to be listened to. To parent as well as we authentically can, we must learn to welcome, say yes to and love the part of ourselves that we so often try to quietly ignore and push away.
The greatest insight that was awakened within me within my short time at Embercombe, was my own self-neglect. I’ve known for a long while how my own needs have largely been un-met, particularly since our son was born. I have often blamed this on sleep-deprivation, lack of support, financial stresses or poor health, but the more I listened to myself throughout the week, the more I was able to remove the blame of circumstance, take responsibility and put myself in charge of the picture. Like many parents, time after time, I have chosen to put the needs of my children and husband first and, without realising, I had stepped into the cultural norm that historically has deemed mothers to be self-less. Regrettably, and unbeknown fully to myself, I had strived to do this this faultlessly; I had been playing out the role of the ‘perfect mother’ who sets her own needs aside to provide as best she possibly can for her family. And in having the space to really see and re-frame this, through a wide-angle lens, returning home, I feel greatly strengthened to put myself back in the centre.
Joanna invited all of us on the last day of working together to make a realistic pledge to ourselves before saying our goodbyes. I learned so much within the time how to better listen to my children, how to deeply cherish their hearts and of the power and significance of doing both. And there was enough weight and ground to these to choose this to be my pledge. But I realised now is the time to make a to pledge to myself; to listen more sensitively to myself and my needs than I ever have done before, to truly hold my own heart with love, wonder and joy and, most importantly, with grace. I had lost my ability to properly feed myself ~ my soul and spirit ~ because, for much of my lifetime, I have been intently trying to feed those around. My switch to take care of others before myself had long been turned on and I had been living in this mode, knowing its uncomfortable-ness and cause for exhaustion but not quite knowing where the key is to re-jig the motor. Grow the Grown-Ups has enabled me to re-discover my key, my missing jigsaw puzzle piece. It has enabled me to start re-claiming ‘me’, without guilt or shame but with instead tenderness, deep kindness, forgiveness of what I have believed to be my failings and acceptance. And without this, without reclaiming the need of my needs to be honoured and met, without learning how to genuinely mother myself, I can’t go forward and honestly give my children what they whole-heartedly deserve. I need to ‘put my oxygen mask on first’ before theirs and finally I thoroughly understand the full value of this.
My journey is not over. Shedding the patterns of learned self-neglect that stem from my childhood I know will take time. But the tools I have discovered through Joanna and her work, will far better equip me to parent in a sustainable way for myself and my family in the years to come. And my days spent exploring and excavating inwardly and beyond at Embercombe, ‘unplugged’ and suspended in time, will forever be in my heart; with the land filled with tears of healing, with the earth nourished and renewed daily with love and care, with the air that caresses softly and gently beckons, without stress, to let go, as the whispers of previous generations guide ourselves and our children forth to a brighter, more integrated world. Where past and future greet each other in the present and we become vessels for change and transformation, healing the wounds of our forebearers and nurturing new horizons for our children and their children to come. My gratitude is immense.