Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Empathy: A Lesson in saving my family

A woman was singing in the shower in the women's YMCA locker room yesterday.  Her glorious vibrato echoed along the tile floors and bounced off the metal lockers filling the room with her joy:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: 
How great thou art! How great thou art!

"Someone is happy!" said the woman getting dressed next to me "It's amazing that anyone could be so happy considering the weather we're having" she said as she piled on thermal underwear under jeans and a thick wool sweater. 

I hear the stars I hear the rolling thunder;
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!

Her sweet voice soaring through the laughter of children playing in the pool above. That's when I caught a glimpse in the mirror of the smile that had swept across my face amidst the rapture of hearing a familiar hymn in an unexpected location.  And then to my own surprise I started to quietly join in...harmonizing with sheer delight as I packed my bags to leave...part of me wanted to stay, to sing duets with a stranger...but alas my babysitting time was up and I had to collect the kids. But I left with a smile and a skip into the bitter Chicago cold. It's amazing how contagious emotions are. 
A woman who I never even saw was able to turn my day around.  A woman whose happy tune sang to my heart and carried me through the rest of the day. As a parent I'm learning so much about the power of my own emotions. 
For the past four weeks we have been struggling to maintain our control over Gunnar.  Through a lack of structure, sleep deprivation and abused authority our family unit was spiraling out of control until finally one night Gunnar's frustrations smacked me right in the face, literally.  He shouted, he screamed, he punched. I tried to maintain my cool and carried him kicking and screaming from the car to his room and closed the door which I had to hold closed for two hours until he finally stopped screaming and throwing his body and anything else he could find against it. As I stood there holding the door with one arm and a baby in the other I had time to consider how we got there. I noted that this child who thrives on structure, had no structure. This child who was used to having all the attention from both parents for the last 4 years now had next to no attention from either parent. I noted the child who used to love to please was now doing whatever he could to get under my make me snap. As I stood there with one arm holding the shaking, screaming door closed and the other arm holding a sleeping baby, I began to cry as I recalled the barking orders, the pushing away of kisses, and the fact that my almost four year old hadn't bathed in almost seven days. I could blame the little baby in my arms who has robbed me of a decent nights rest for three months straight. I could blame the stresses of teaching three "new to me" classes.  I could blame the stress of responsibilities in helping to run a theatre company.  I could blame the stress of running a small business on Etsy. I could...but I won't. There's no excuse for neglecting one of the most important people in your life.  There's no excuse. 
It's my fault. 
It's my fault.
It's my fault.
I have to fix it.
I have to fix it.
I have to fix it.
When the screams finally subsided I opened the door to find my son sitting calmly on his bed wiping tears from his tired eyes. "I'm sorry I hit you mommy." 
"I know. Mommy loves you buddy. We have to do better. Can we start over tomorrow?"
"Yes mommy" he said as he crawled into bed. 

Step One. Hatching the plan. That night John and I strategized for the first time in our history as parents. We sat down and planned dinner menus and daily schedules. We created structure to the havoc of our crazy life as working parents of two. 
We rallied. We planned. We changed. 
The next morning we woke up and went to church for the first time in months followed by a strategized trip to the grocery store. Together we conquered two grocery stores, armed with a list and recipes for 7 days. We walked down the aisles with purpose and drive, it felt empowering to walk on past the tempting shelves of microwave dinners and prepackaged meals without regret. As a team we walked out with seven days worth of groceries, spending less than $100 and our shopping took less than one hour, all this...with two kids in tow.  
If our arms hadn't been holding babies and grocery bags I'm certain we would have high ten'd, fist bumped AND patted each other on the back. Instead we hip bumped and winked at each other in gratified achievement.  
When we got home Gunnar helped me create a weekly schedule for him on poster board. He cut out pictures of things he likes to do and we glued them onto velcro strips which he could choose from day to day. We included daddy and mommy time to every day so that he could see and know when he will have our undivided attention. Dinner and bedtime would be at the same time every night. Bath time would now be included into the schedule. 

Step Two. Implementing the new plan would be the biggest challenge of all. For ten years of marriage John and  I have coexisted without the slightest hint of routine. We've lived on the edge of our seats, making plans as we go. Taking spontaneous trips, random outings, winging holidays and never knowing what or where our next meal would be.  Our lack of structure and indecision has been the excitement of our relationship and at the same time has nearly ruined us a dozen times over. This week would be a test...and we would succeed.
Because within the structure we found freedom. At first the schedule seemed to be all the answer we needed to glue our family back together. Family dinners providing time to talk about our days. And thanks to daddy's terrific idea, we've started a new tradition of going around and saying what we are thankful for everyday. But despite the improvements somewhere along the line the barking orders, the nagging, and the yelling creeped back into my mouth. Physical battles with the almost four year old followed shortly and my soul snapped awake when I found myself yelling, lecturing my poor little boy about how ungrateful he is and blah blah blah dying children in Africa. Who is this person? Why is she talking like this to a little boy who hasn't even learned to tie his own shoes yet?

Step Three. Find additional help. The book. Love and Logic Magic. Ahhh...empathy. Empathy my old friend. Compassion. Empathy. The one thing I had excluded from my parenting for at least the last 4 months, perhaps much longer. A few months earlier I remember hearing John using empathy with Gunnar and being really impressed. Gunnar was frustrated about not being able to watch a movie at 5am...instead of giving in, I heard John say "Are you frustrated Gunnar? I get that." And with that...G let it go...Daddy understood. I made a mental note to try this approach myself. Unfortunately for me, pregnancy mental notes never stick...damn pregnancy brain. But now in reading this book,  here it was...proof that empathy always wins. I spent the better part of the day yesterday repeating "empathy. empathy. empathy" in my head, in hopes to show my son compassion and understanding.
The result astounded me. When I normally would have shouted "Stop throwing toys Gunnar! Do you hear me? That's it I'm throwing your toys away!" I replaced with "Oh...Bummer Gunnar, if you can't play nice with your toys, we'll have to find a new home for them.  I'm really sorry buddy I want you to keep your toys but they need to be with someone who will be nice to them" And when I found him over using toilet paper instead of  "NO! What are you doing? You never put that much toilet paper in the toilet!" I said "Oh...bummer Gunnar this is never good. It's okay buddy I know you don't know this but I just want you to know that if you use too much toilet paper the toilet might clog. The water will keep coming and the toilet might flood the bathroom." at which point I saw his eyes get really big "are you scared?" I asked. "Yes!!" and his eyes welled up with tears. "Oh buddy I know...that's scary isn't it? But do you know what the good news is? It's not going to happen today because I stopped you from putting this wad into the toilet...and now you know not to do you don't have to be scared okay? It was a mistake. Mommy's not mad. I love you. I just wanted to let you know." Gunnar hugged  me and said "I'm sorry mommy. I'll never do that again."
Turns out handing out consequences along with a healthy dose of empathy is the magic wand of parenting. 

Today I had an encounter with someone who snapped at Gunnar and looked at me with disdain. For hours after this encounter I was in a state of sorrow and confusion...what had I done to deserve that? Was it my fault? I carried this attitude with me into a store plastered with mirrors where I couldn't ignore the furrowed expression imprinted on my face. That's when it all made sense to me. This person had unknowingly transferred their emotion onto me. Emotions are contagious. No wonder Gunnar has been so upset all this time. No wonder. And then I remembered the woman who had been singing in the locker room the day before, the one who had unknowingly planted a smile on my face and helped me in my task of exploring empathy with my son with her good mood...

We all have hard times...we all have bad days...but today I learned that despite my own struggles I want to choose to be the singer. I want to choose empathy. I want to choose compassion. Emotions are contagious...

I want to spread the good ones, even when it's hard. 
So the next time my emotions needs a good might find me singing that old familiar hymn in an unexpected place.