As a music therapist, I’ve been teaching early childhood parent-child music classes for nearly 14 years. I’ve always loved it, but when I had children of my own, my practice began to take on another dimension.
I suddenly realized that the mothers who brought their children to my classes, like me, were sleep-deprived and frustrated. They couldn’t figure out how to get their toddler to eat his breakfast, or stay in his new bed at night, or use the potty like all his friends were doing. They didn’t know when they should wean their baby, or which preschool they should choose, or how much Disney Jr. was too much. I had empathy for them. We made each other feel more normal. Suddenly I was able to tap into more than just the developmental needs of the toddlers and preschoolers who came to my classes; I recognized the significant needs of their parents and caregivers as well.
Right now I’m training my very first music therapy intern. She’s in her twenties, and she doesn’t have children. I don’t think it’s essential for someone to be a parent in order to work effectively with parents of young children. It helps, it makes it easier, but it’s not necessary. Does every therapist who works with people who have survived abuse need to have experienced abuse? Of course not. Are all addictions counselors former addicts? I suspect not. However, I realized early on that it was my job to teach my intern to have compassion for the mothers who come into our classroom each day.
Here’s the thing—our classes aren’t perfect. Sometimes parents are late. Sometimes they talk too much and it’s hard for me to get the class to focus. Sometimes the kids behave badly and their moms don’t respond. I’m a Type-A, Highly Sensitive perfectionist; of course I prefer that chaos is minimized and every single thing go the way I want it to. Sometimes I get annoyed or frustrated because of my desire for order, but I’m always able to tap into my compassion for the moms, because I am one. So how do I teach my childless Millennial intern to empathize, particularly when so many moms are themselves guilty of judging other parents?
I decided I needed to give her a behind-the-scenes look at what any parent, at any moment in time, could possibly be going through. And of course this doesn’t apply only to parent-child music class; it could be the mom who is always late for preschool drop-off; the mom on her iPhone at the playground; the mom who is just sitting there while her child runs amok at the mall play area. The possibilities are endless.
The mom who is always late:
- Her baby poops its pants every single morning at 9:00 am just as she’s leaving the house.
- Her toddler refuses to put on shoes or a coat.
- She’s up all night with kids who don’t sleep…but they sleep in until 8:45 every morning. Like she’s going to wake them up to get to class on time!
- All she wants is to leave her house not looking like crap, and it takes her forever to shower and get dressed and put on makeup with a clingy, whiny toddler in the way.
- She’s exhausted, as she hasn’t gotten a good night sleep for two years.
- Her husband travels for work and she’s on her own getting the kids ready to leave the house most mornings.
- She is in the middle of potty training, and every morning includes unpleasant bathroom power struggles.
The mom who is too busy chatting to pay attention:
- She hasn’t spoken to another adult all week. She’s lonely as hell.
- None of her close girlfriends has kids yet, and she has no support from other moms who know how hard it is to be a parent. This time is all she gets.
- She feels like a failure as a parent, and she wants to know that other moms are struggling, too.
- She needs advice on a pressing parenting problem: potty training, bedtime battles, struggles over food, hitting or biting behaviors, new baby adjustment.
- This is literally the only time she will leave the house all day; she feels isolated.
- She quit her job to stay home with her kids, and she had no idea she would feel so bored, lonely, or unimportant. She is desperate for some social contact with other women who get it.
- She is juggling a full-time job and parenting; she takes an hour off once a week so she can do something fun with her kids and feel like all the other moms.
- She has no time to hang out with girlfriends outside of class; all her other friends work full time, and it’s too hard to get together. She feels too guilty to leave her kids alone with her husband so she can go have Happy Hour with a friend, and weekends are sacred family time. Talking on the phone? A joke.
The mom whose kid is behaving badly and she just sits there:
- She is seven weeks pregnant and is nauseated all the time. Every movement makes her want to vomit.
- She has a new, colicky baby who doesn’t sleep. She is too fatigued to run after her kid every time he misbehaves. She chooses her battles carefully.
- Her toddler is extremely challenging; she spends all day chasing after him, saying “no,” and trying to prevent disasters. She just wants to sit still for thirty minutes, dammit.
- Her family of origin was dysfunctional, she has no support system, and she frankly has no idea what types of behavior are unacceptable. She’s just happy to have stopped the cycle of abuse in her own family.
- Her child was just diagnosed with autism. She is numb.
- She’s in the middle of a divorce. She can’t believe her life has turned out this way.
- She has postpartum depression. Getting out of the house is the only thing she will manage to do today. Just sitting in this class without crying will take all her energetic and emotional reserves.
- Her kid woke up at 5:00 am, and the last three hours have been filled with power struggles, tantrums, pleas for cooperation, nursing a new baby, and guilt. She can’t believe she has to make it through 10 more hours of the day until bedtime.
- She’s a stay-at-home mom, and doesn’t love it. Playing with her kid makes her crazy and she feels completely unfulfilled. For 45 minutes, can’t somebody else just be in charge?
- Her husband is a terrible partner, and she gets absolutely no help parenting their kids or keeping the house together.
- Parenting isn’t coming naturally. To be honest, she has no idea what she’s doing. Some days she wishes she hadn’t had kids.
The point is, when we begin our classes each morning, we have no idea what the parents have been through that day, that week, or even that year. Maybe they are grumpy, disheveled, and show up in sweats, or maybe they are dolled up, looking perfect, because it’s the only time all week they get to do so and it matters so much to them that they feel a bit like their old selves. Maybe they are loving their new motherhood gig. Maybe they hate it. We have no idea. But before we judge them—before any mom or non-mom or teacher or clerk judges a mother—we would do right to dig deep and find our empathy. This is certainly not exclusive to moms; wouldn’t we all be better off if we applied the same principle to the irritable DMV worker or slow waitress? As the popular quote reminds us,
Every person we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Be kind.
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