I used to joke in a very serious way that taking care of my highly sensitive body was all the parenting I could do, referring to myself as needing care like a baby does. I could not imagine having another sensitive little body, new and growing and needing. How would I with my own needs and limits hold this delicate baby in a way that could support us both?
Parenting Is Different For A Sensitive Person
Nobody says parenting is easy. Everyone gets exhausted by it. Yet, some people planned to do it and did it many many many times in a row! I knew I was sooooo different than those people. When I found myself in the position of becoming a parent, it was so different than the cultural norms and narratives I grew up with. I was so different than I could have known or expected to be.
And I leaned heavily into the work I had already done with Sensitive Leadership. Developing a model and way of responding to, strengthening, and directing my sensitivity over about 10 years is the main thing I credit with my ability to get through birth and the early years of parenting…my child is 3 years old (PHEW! I made it this far!!) so we have yet to see how the rest goes…
How Sensitive Leadership Supports Parenting
Some of the main tenets of Sensitive Leadership that supported me majorly in parenting the way I do are:
- Everything is a relationship, nothing is fixed. Everything is elements and so if you want to get a different experience you need to relate differently to the elements.
- Everything is happening now. Specialness is this moment, not any one of the pieces in the moment. There is no way to create something special that lasts forever so its useless to figure out end goals, just bring support to what’s needed here and now.
- Everything is neutral. There are definitely traumas, damages, hurts, discomfort, pain that can happen as a result of interactions, but the pieces and parts are not malicious nor miraculous. Sometimes things fall through the cracks and if I’m the one who sees the crack then I can do something about it just because it feels better. No one else is in charge of managing the neutral pieces of my life. And there is no overall judgment that I am fundamentally good or bad as a person or at whatever I am doing. Just relational systems and feedback.
For me, parenting seemed like such high stakes for practicing Sensitive Leadership! A human life! What if, what if, WHAT IF???!!! Yet, I knew that leading my life this way had benefited me so much and I also knew that I was the one who counts in this child’s life the most, and that we count together. So if I could take ownership of my role and allow them ownership of their life, then that was actually more of the world I wanted to live in. Even though this was a brand new baby.
Sensitive Leadership Helped Me Set My Goals
I trusted that this was their life from day one. I realized that my parenting goal is clearly to help them know how to respond, not to fix everything or prevent everything. I wanted them to know that they are the center of their lives by seeing that I am the center of mine. I wanted them to experience their own desire and learn to be intuitive, to trust that inner guidance that only they have for themselves. So I needed to continue to do that myself by leading my life based on my own sensing. I wanted them to learn that trust is developed over time with experience in approaching one another, so that they would learn that even if there are mistakes they can always come back and I will always want that and I will always keep learning to relate to them.
I did not want to force anything, asking permission and honoring feedback as much as I could. Explaining what was happening when I needed to make an executive decision. Showing that what I cared about most in the process was the process. That it can keep going and it does keep going and there is no given about our relating. I saw almost immediately their own nature and inherent sense of interest in the world. It tended toward certain things right away. As much as possible, I allowed them to go where they felt called while I also continued to nurture my own callings in whatever moments I had to do so.
I carved out more and more time when I noticed resentment building because I wanted them to know that is an important way to be, to honor one’s callings. I set limits on sleep. I paid attention to food responses. They ended up being reactive to gluten and dairy. They loved different foods at different phases. They ate ten bananas in one sitting. I focused on childcare that was not about fitting them into a cultural track, but simply kindness and caring from appropriate adults with peers to engage with. To explore textures and relationships and creativity and colors and movement. And I fully expect and believe that this little one and I are creating this life together, not me more not them more. We hold different spaces.
The Goal And Practice Of Enoughness
In the spirit of this, I recently felt called to move back to NYC from Utah near my family. This is the opposite of what many people choose. I was definitely unsure how it would all work and am still taking it step by step. SO MUCH SCARIER THAN WHEN IT WAS JUST ME. I had no idea how to live in a place like NYC with the associations I had of it as a single adult while also adapting to the needs of a three-year-old. I’ve had moments of overwhelm. I have taken time in the trees. And I have seen this little person sit in trains full of people new to them and openly start conversations that are genuine and engaged. They tell me they are “making a friend” and ask about family members of the person sitting next to us. The whole train smiles. We walk slowly. We notice lights and birds and “train holes” and taxi cars and so so so much dog poop on the sidewalk. We are different here together, I am different here with this little one.
Somehow this is working. Somehow I am alive and they are too, fully alive. I am not saying I am doing anything more right than anyone else. I am saying that I have seen that maybe we can put more faith in little bodies if we allow our bigger bodies to hold the space for all of us to navigate the world through listening and responding based on needs and desires. Maybe we can trust bodies, even the littlest and newest. Maybe the goal is not safety or wealth or answers or fixes or perfection or rightness, maybe the goal is enoughness. For everyone. And maybe its not really a goal, just a reality that we can practice right now. That even in my hardest most challenging experiences of sensitivity and total sensory overwhelm with no sleep and constant sound, touch, and the burden of caring continuously for another what benefitted us both was my experiment with listening to my own self and trusting that I am enough for all I need, want, and can do as well as this little body. It was brutal at times, and yet here I am and here we are and it was this practice that got me here and continues to keep me grounded.
There were moments I lost all sense of time and it required me to live singularly wherever I was because if I looked to the future I only saw more sleeplessness and more needs to attend to, more constant stimulation and depletion, which brought no comfort. It forced me to be so present to whatever I could hold and experience right at this second in the most enough way possible. I am not saying I recommend parenting, but I am saying it was a helluva bootcamp for practicing what I preach. And I do also think there are huge burdens placed on those who care that need to change socially. I think that social change comes through more of this, openness about realities and practicing enoughness.
How I Applied Sensitive Leadership
If you are looking for some specifics for how I applied Sensitive Leadership in my parenting, here is a list of things I do for myself and also that I did for my child:
- Literally from birth I spoke to them. While language is not something we are born with, I do think we can experience intent. I also wanted to communicate through my telling them everything I could that I respected their ability to know and that I felt they should know what we are doing. I did not want to communicate at any level that my knowing was more important than theirs or that there were any things they should just blindly trust me on. I told them we were going grocery shopping, I held an apple and said it was red and called an apple. I explained why we nap and rest and eat. This may seem silly when you see a three month old watch an adult in a regular tone of voice (NO, I didn’t do a high voice) state the mostly obvious. YET, I saw the impact that this had with my child almost immediately. They ask me and trust what I tell them. They believe I care about their knowing. I do the same with myself.
- I asked permission for every unnecessary thing and respected their response. I taught them basic sign language before verbal language was present so that they could clearly communicate the basics of yes, no, more, less, etc. For necessary things that I needed to make the decision on I told them why. I accepted their tears and validated that they might feel sad. If they said they did not want to get in the car to go to daycare yet I needed to go to work, I explained that to them and validated that it might feel sad right now but that we could get through it. I wanted them to know that I value their ability and need to make decisions for their own body as much as possible and encouraged their exploration, while also making it clear that there are some limits that should make sense to them. It’s ok to challenge limits and different people have different limits, but they are there. And they are for the enough-ness of all. Again, I do the same with my own body.
- I let eating be intuitive. I offered many foods while also noticing what they were drawn to and asked for to have those on hand. I noticed reactions and adjusted foods based on reactions, while explaining to them why I was adjusting a food. I want them to know that food is not good or bad and they are not good or bad for what they desire, that they can be affected differently by different foods and they can make decisions that feel best to them. I did not want food to be rigid or controlled or mindless. They eat a wide variety of foods, have some favorites, have some foods we don’t eat due to reactions, and on their own generally moderate their intake of what works for them. Same for me.
- When I noticed resentment building in myself and a feeling of pure agitation I knew it was time to set a limit. Sometimes I was holding space to allow for their pure experience. Sometimes I could feel that was edging into dependence and I was irritated by it. At those times, through tears and resistance (mine and theirs), I set limits with explanations about where I was drawing the line and why. The next day or two always showed the benefits of this for both of us. We were more relaxed and self contained and free to enjoy each other. Relationships are not receptacles. Nor are they enforcers. I was holding the line for myself and it benefitted us both. I have seen how they do this now as well. They express their own limits and feel ok to tell me no. They see when they are not getting something they need and tell me about it. Same for me.
- I am very cautious with binaries. I know binaries exist socially and I know that the way things appear is something we label and make associations with as humans. I teach they/them pronouns as a default and if they say he/she I just listen. They refer to all appearances of people as he or she or they at various times and I don’t know how they make that decision. I don’t say things are good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, etc. I talk about impact and process and the effects I notice. I ask questions. I make decision-making based on preferences in the moment and permission from others and self. They have toys that appear in all array of colors and genres and types of play. I avoid books or toys that ascribe a rigid way to be for any person who appears a certain way. I offer experiences and toys that reflect as wide a range as possible of the full spectrum of appearance and life. They don’t choose things based on labels and arbitrary attribution, they choose things based on how they feel in the moment and how they work in the moment. Same for me, as always.
- Simply feeling and expressing is always an option. Sometimes when they are upset about how something is going they may ask for help or options. Other times they simply state “I just want to be sad about this right now” or “I just want to cry about this”. They know that is an option. There are other options too, but there is no punishment for feeling or expressing. I do set limits based on my own needs about it. If they want to wail and yell, I tell them they can do it in the bedroom with the door closed because it is loud and unpleasant for my ears. Not because it is bad. There are times I sit with them and hold them while they wail. I think both experiences are valuable. I want us to know that sometimes discomfort is ok to be in with someone, and sometimes its not yours to be in and it’s theirs alone. I do it with myself too.
I believe more than ever in the power of strengthening sensitivity. I get agitated and exhausted and bored and lonely and lost at times. I still come back to these basics over and over and over. I never wanted to be a parent and I still do not strongly identify with it. I am me and my child is who they are. And I love that they are in the world. I love that I get to know them. I love that I get to be in relation to them this way. And I will be thrilled when they are even more self-sufficient and I can have alone time at will (OOOOOOH WHAT GLORY!). And if these practices are anything at all, they are what has helped me through this. You can love what you’re doing, you can do it because you want the outcome, you can do it because its necessary, and you can just do the best you can. It does not really matter. I know even deeper than ever from being in the position of parenting that we can lead with our sensitivity at the most important and the most minute moments. It’s not often fun but its functional. And then we get to be fully alive, and that can be pretty incredible. Through the disappointment comes your appointment. Even as a parent that never ever wanted or thought they could be a parent, here I am…me.