By Lisa Yarger
Getting support for yourself as a mom with a listening partnership
We live in interesting times! We’re in the midst of a pandemic, a climate crisis looms, and on top of everything else we’re already doing, many of us are now with our children around the clock. Given the current situation, you might notice a few feelings bubbling up!
Maybe you’re anxious or scared about the future, sad about all you and your kids are missing out on, or stressed by how little time you have for yourself. Or you might feel numb, which is also a feeling.
Parenting is hard work, and even in the best of times, there’s not enough support for parents in our societies. Because of sexism, there’s especially not enough support for mothers. Right now it may feel as though we’ve been left all alone with our kids, with no safety net and no end in sight.
No parent can manage by herself. We all need help. One of the most effective ways we can get support for ourselves as moms? We can find someone to listen while we talk, laugh, and cry about what’s hard about being a mother
Parenting is messy!
Our child has a public tantrum, and everyone glares at us. We get blamed when our kids struggle. We make mistakes; we don’t always get things right. We lose our temper with our children. We yell; we lash out in anger. Or we just don’t know what to do in a particular situation when we think we should have all the answers. All of this can leave us feeling inadequate and ashamed, but the fact is, family life and parenting are messy.
What would it be like to give up the pretense that everything is always going well? To give up the conviction that you are the one who’s supposed to make parenting look easy?
It can come as a great relief to show another adult our struggles, especially if we know we’ll be listened to with caring and warmth, without blame or judgement.
Why listening partnerships?
In the best of worlds, you’d have a friend in whose arms you could cry whenever you needed to. You could tell her how frustrated you get when your pre-schooler whines, or how furious it makes you when your teenager rolls his eyes at you for the 20th time that day. If you already have a friend like that, congratulations!
If you don’t have someone like that in your life, or even if you do, you can set up a listening partnership.
Find someone you like and trust. Ask her (or him) if she’d like to try out something with you.
Set up a time to meet. In-person is best, but at the moment, that’s not possible. So you can meet on the phone, or over Zoom, Skype, or any platform.
Split the available time in half, with each of you getting the same amount. You’ll find a great pay-off from being listened to for an hour each week, but even fifteen minutes or so will make a difference in your parenting.
Decide who’ll speak first and who will listen. You don’t want to be watching a clock, so set a kitchen timer or use the timer on your phone.
What’s new and good?
Before you begin your turns, ask each other what’s “new and good.” What’s going well in your life in general? What’s going well for you as a parent?
Sometimes it feels as though everything is horrible. But when someone patiently gives you attention while you think, you can usually come up with something that’s going well. (My toddler gave me a great hug last night… My teenager and I laughed together at a video she showed me… I noticed some pretty blue flowers on my walk yesterday…)
You’re the expert on your own life
Start with the assumption that each person is good, deeply loving, and intelligent. And each person is the true expert on her own life and relationships. So when it’s your turn to listen, you’ll help your partner hone in on her own thinking and experiences. When it’s your turn to speak, she will help you focus on your thinking.
Your turn to speak:
When you are the speaker, you can talk about anything on your mind. Some suggestions:
* Your current struggles as a mom. Where are you having a hard time? Where are you feeling inadequate, frustrated, furious, sad?
* Cry about mistakes so you can let them go. Tell the story of what went wrong. This is not a time to be hard on yourself. You are doing the best you can, under difficult circumstances. But you do get to make space to talk and cry about how you wish things had gone another way. If you take time to do this, you’ll find it easier to forgive yourself, move on, and try something different the next time.
* Time travel back to when you were the age your child is now. What was your life like then? What was happening? Often the struggles we have with our children are rooted in what happened to us when we were little. Dare to look back and see what you were like at your child’s age. Where did you get support? Where did you struggle all by yourself?
* Celebrate victories. What did you do as a parent lately that you feel especially good about? Take time to feel really pleased about the job you’re doing as a mom, and notice that your listener is pleased for you, too. (If you can’t see that she’s pleased, ask her to tell and show you!)
* Appreciate yourself as a mom. This is a powerful way to contradict feeling bad about ourselves, feeling that we aren’t doing enough as parents. Remember: you are doing the best job you can do, under really difficult circumstances. Always!
Your turn to listen:
When it’s your turn to listen, just listen and show your caring.
Keep a warm, interested expression on your face. Even if the other person is telling you something sad, you’ll want to look pleased with her. You’re sorry that she’s going through something hard, but you’re pleased she’s getting a chance to talk about it.
Listen with complete respect.
Pay attention to her issues, not your own. This is different from a normal conversation, when we might jump in with, “I know just what you mean! My daughter also…..” Put aside your own issues and experiences and focus completely on your partner.
Don’t give advice. Your partner needs a shoulder to cry on, not someone to tell her what to do. The more she can talk, cry and laugh with your warm, relaxed attention, the more she’ll be able to think and come up with her own conclusions and solutions.
Don’t interrupt and don’t reassure her, especially if she’s crying. Crying is one of the body’s ways of releasing tension and letting out feelings. Messages such as “Don’t cry,” or “It’s not so bad,” however well-meant, get in the way of us healing when we’re hurting. It’s okay to say, “I’m here,” or “You’re not alone,” or “Tell me more; I want to hear,” but mostly you’ll just show your caring through your attentive listening.
After her turn, ask your partner a light or silly question to help bring her attention back to the present. “What’s your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?” “How many purple items do you have in your closet?” The question should have nothing to do with the topics she spoke about during her turn.
Keep everything your partner said in her turn completely confidential. Don’t mention it to anyone else, and never bring it up to her again, unless she brings it up herself and wants to talk about it.
The more you show of yourself, and the more you make a safe space for the other person to show her struggles, the more trust you’ll build between the two of you, and the more effective your listening partnership will become.
Reach out when you feel horrible
I recommend swapping listening time once a week. Additionally, you can call each other spontaneously when things get hard. You know those days when your fuse is short, when you feel annoyed by everything your child says and does? What would it be like to call another mom and ask: “Can you listen to me cry for five minutes?” Try it! Then offer to listen to her for five minutes, too.
You are a good mom
Our love for our children is at the core of our work as mothers. Given how hard the job is, and how little support we have, it’s no wonder we struggle. There is nothing to be ashamed of when things get hard. The more we can show our struggles to other parents, and the more we can talk and laugh and cry when things don’t go the way we’d like them to, the more relaxed we can be with our precious children, and the more fun we can have as moms.
You’re a good mom, and I wish you all the best.
Lisa Yarger is a writer, a writing workshop leader, and the co-owner of The Munich Readery, an English-language secondhand bookshop. The mom of one teenaged daughter, Lisa uses listening partnerships to work through issues connected to her parenting, her writing, her relationships, and pretty much every aspect of her life.