Book Recommendation for Tired Moms of Differently-Wired Kids: "Burnout"
This week I finished the audio book "Burnout" by Emily and Amelia Nagoski (twin sisters!) while on the treadmill at my new, beloved wellness center. This book hit home so profoundly that I suddenly started looking forward to my runs simply because I could listen to these two brilliant women talk about the empirical research behind women's chronic burnout in this country and science-based strategies for doing something about it.
The authors begin by presenting the idea of "Human Giver Syndrome"- most women have it and it's perpetuated by the patriarchy and the Bikini Industrial Complex. What's more, when women feel like, Hey wait, this isn't what I signed up for as a mom, as a wife, as a member of a corporate team, as a part of the human race... they are gaslit and told, Yes it is. Your role isn't as a human being in the world, you are a giver, meant to facilitate other human beings' wholeness and wellness. No sir, say my friends Emily and Amelia.
“Human Giver Syndrome - the contagious belief that you have a moral obligation to give every drop of your humanity in support of others, no matter the cost to you - thrives in the patriarchy, the way mold thrives in damp basements.” (pp.102)
This quote encapsulated so perfectly my newly-minted struggle as the mother of a differently-wired kid and a woman who reluctantly no longer works outside of the home. But at the same time, it confused me at first, because I am a natural giver and I like that about myself. I like to teach and help, explain things with patience, kiss boo-boos and snuggle, cook healthy meals and make a home cozy. And furthermore, my husband is a feminist. So does this all apply to me? Yes I think it does. Neither of us immune to the culture we live in, nor do we operate outside the current rules of the game. The point the book makes is not that giving is not women's work, it is that it is also men's work. And that we should all be givers.
And what I have found so interesting about this book - and many of books that have drawn me in since we moved to Michigan - is that the insights spill over into the healing process I am observing in my son, as I watch him learn to live with Sensory Processing Disorder. In particular, there are two concepts that my buds Emily and Amelia imparted and that hit the nail on the head for me at this moment in my life. First, stress is a cycle that must be completed. Second, healing is painful.
Completing the Stress Cycle
This was an idea that I first learned about in Emily Nagoski's first book, Come as You Are, which I thought was going to be about female sexuality - and it was - but it was also about stress (and a great read). In both books, the authors explain the necessity of "completing the cycle" of stress as part of a body-based process, not a cognitive one.
I found this point to be an "aha" moment for me, as the notion that I could "think" my way out of T's challenges permeated the nearly five years before our move, yet did not bring success. Interestingly, most of what has been effective for my son was initially counter-intuitive to to me because it focused on the body, rather than his behavioral patterns. The idea was that healing began in the body, and once that was on its way, the mind could work better. We have approached this through occupational therapy, therapeutic play, craniosacral therapy, and listening therapy. And we have had great results thus far.
And in a strange way, I think a body-based route to true healing may be necessary for me as well. Two months ago, I walked into a new therapist's office and basically told her that I already knew my issues inside and out and I have been in talk therapy on and off since my mid-twenties, but I am stuck. And so into the body we went, through EMDR therapy and little hand-held buzzers that I cling to as I recount T's birth and the aftermath, which is to be discussed on a different day at a different time.
So anyways, what my pals Emily and Amelia tell us is that when things in your daily life stress you out, it triggers a fight or flight response (whether small or large) in your body. The physiological reaction is complete with adrenaline, cortisol release, racing heart... the works. In evolutionary terms, this type of response made sense - you needed to empty your bowels or vomit to prepare to run away from that caveman, and you needed your adrenaline to pump and cause laser focus to fight off that mastodon.
But guess what?, you don't actually need this physical response when your boss yells at you or when your kid is having a meltdown, because you aren't actually going to run away or punch them, even on the worst of days. But your body doesn't know that. And the physical response and all the juices that come with it get stuck and fester, eventually causing things like fatigue, chronic illness, and, the research shows, untimely death. Woah. Ok, then.
But do not despair, there are things you can do about it. You can complete the fight or flight response. In its most efficient form, this is done through exercise. Literally, running away from that boss or melting down kid, albeit hours after the fact with a podcast or some Beyonce in the background. Other things they suggested, that I have tried and thought were kind of awesome: kissing someone you love and trust for six seconds (husband, obvi) and standing over your center of gravity and embracing a trusted person for 20 seconds. They recommend other practical ways to complete the cycle, but rationalizing your way out of the feeling isn't one of them. And they emphasize that you need to make time for this every day. For yourself. A half an hour at least, no matter what. Doctor's orders.
Healing is Painful
I know this is a simple concept and one that feels obvious when we talk about broken legs or getting over bad break-ups. But I don't often hear it applied to the less discrete body parts or life moments, like for example, our lifelong relationship with our bodies. The sisters offer the following reminder,
"Here is a fact about healing that most self-help gurus are not honest about: healing hurts. If you break your leg, it hurts. And it keeps hurting until it's not broken anymore. And there is no moment between the moment your leg breaks and the moment it's healed, when it feels better than it did before you broke it." (pp. 201)
I loved this section of the book because it gave language to the idea that healing and therefore, pain, occurs even with large and nuanced aspects of our lives, not just broken bones or break-ups. It reminded me that this can include things like moving across the country or our son's (sometimes wayward) progress with eating, cognitive development, and self-regulation. That pain can come even when you are pretty darn sure you are moving towards a place of health in the most expansive sense, but in the moment, things are hurting like hell and you wonder, Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed where I was before? Kept the trains on track even though they seemed to be barreling in the wrong direction?
It is the pain that emerges when you have decided to make things better in a serious way, and then everything gets worse and more challenging for a while. This type of pain was certainly present - and until recently was quite acute - when we moved here. All the rational reasons in the world - being closer to my sister and family, a smaller affordable town, a good school district, etc. - did not detract from the inevitable daily slog through the shit of a really stressful move where you have to start over, relearn everything, and figure out who to call when your kids are home on a snow day.
Because as my husband and I cut the threads of stability in our old life in D.C. - to known and trusted childcare providers, the memorized layout of our Whole Foods, the names of the neighbors, the knowledge of which oven rack to use to cook asparagus - the pain started to creep in. It crept into the space that remained when we gave up the implicit knowledge of a place, even if it was the wrong place. And the pain is still there, dulled mostly, but still not healed to where we feel stronger than we did when we left last October.
The idea that healing is painful is also helping me keep faith with my son. Recently, we started another therapeutic listening program, and his self-regulation seems to be slipping as he delves into the difficult work of re-learning sensory-based skills and releasing some developmental patterns that were set in place when he was a toddler. His eating has regressed. The plain bagels he would eat without a fuss, now need to be cut into fourths and toasted one by one. So I am trying to trust that my son is simply feeling the pain of releasing and relearning and that he will reach a place of strength and confidence on the other side.
And finally, now in the safety of my home state, and without the pressure of being constantly "on" and presentable in my work environment, I decided to heal a little myself. With each EMDR session, I find my body jerking and shaking (apparently this is common with dissociation and bodily trauma) and then I come home and feel like I need to take a two- hour nap or feel surging emotions of rage or anger. The process is bringing up memories that were tucked away into the dusty corners of my psyche, a place where it feels like maybe I should have stayed. And again, I am trying to trust that on the other side of the healing and the accompanying discomfort and resistance, I will be stronger, less reactive as a parent, and more at home in my own skin as a mother.
So for anyone in the thick of a healing process, I will end by sharing something a wonderful yoga teacher in Madison, Wisconsin used to say to all us stressed out PhD-students as we tried to warrior-away our anxiety. Because she knew, just like my besties Emily and Amelia, that you have to complete the stress cycle.
The only way out is through. The obstacles in your path are your path.
Our old home in the D.C.-area.