The Summer I Saved an Alligator

Each year, at the beginning of summer break from school, my family and I go on a vacation to the cottage. It has become such a family ritual that that we start to anticipate it weeks in advance. It’s a chance for us to unwind, relax, be in nature, and an opportunity for us to get a break from our everyday life.

The timing of this time away is impeccable: I am in the middle of a three-month long course that is offered by the Neufeld Institute. While it’s simply named Intensive I, it’s actually a very in-depth course on attachment and how it helps us reach our full potential. So as I’m taking this course, things are coming to my mind’s eye around the behaviour and emotions that my children are experiencing. This year, I found the time at the cottage to be even more important as it’s a chance for us to be alone as a family. I’ve been noticing my younger child becoming more and more attached to her peers. As an Attachment-based therapist and parent, I know it’s my role to remain the anchor for my children. Being the answer for them helps them to live their life as fully as possible. Watching my daughter become more more attached to her peers even at such a young age has been an interesting experience for me as a therapist and parent who is making very intentional decisions.

So, in order to help re-connect and be that anchor for my kids, off we went to our week away from the world. The weather was glorious, we ate S’more‘s and we swam more than once every day in the lake. Even though it was rather cold, the water has always been our happy place as a family. We could be cranky, tired or bored beforehand, but we always emerged from the water happy, content and refreshed. During one afternoon in the water, we were playing with our beloved water donuts. I of course brought to my favourite doughnut-doughnut, and we also had on hand the inflatable alligator that had been mine as a child. This summer my daughter has a goal to work on her swimming and so she and I were playing with the alligator as an opportunity for her to feel more confident in the water. Luckily she was still wearing her puddle jumper water wings because in one quick moment, the alligator overturned and slipped from under her. My quick instinct tended to her to make sure she was safe and well we were cuddling and checking in together and the allocator quickly started to drift off. I had first thought it was going slowly in the direction that would take it to shore but then I quickly noticed it was actually going deeper into the lake. I’m pretty confident swimmer and had been on the swim team in high school so I was pretty convinced that I would be able to reach the alligator in time. Because in one quick moment overturned from under. My quick instinct tended to her to make sure she was safe and while we were cuddling and checking in together, the alligator quickly started to drift out. Instead of going slowly in the direction that would take it to shore, it actually went deeper into the lake. I’m a pretty confident swimmer and was on the swim team in high school so I was pretty convinced that I would be able to read to the alligator in time. I was wrong. After a leisurely paddle where i was in my donut, i soon realized i was not going to reach the alligator in time. I have memories of this toy from my own childhood, and didn’t want to lose it so soon after my kids were able to play with it. So, i ditched the donut (this time int he right direction) and started to frantically swim at full speed towards the bright green animal floating in the water.

Luckily, we were the only people in the water and it was so calm (or maybe that was a problem). I used all the swimming strokes i learned (front crawl, breaststroke, backwards) and there were a couple of times where i had to quickly assess if this damn toy was worth me drowning or having a heart attack. I have to say there was a moment of panic of not reaching the floating device in time. Of course i did, as otherwise i wouldn’t be here writing this, but wow, was it a stressful moment for me.

I was able to use some de-escalation tools to help me get there, i used all the positive thinking i could, and worked on some radical acceptance that it was truly okay if i did’t reach it. A part of me know it would come to shore eventually. Another part of me wanted to be my kids’ saviour – of the alligator anyway. And you know what?

They didn’t even notice.

They didn’t realize how hard it was to get the floatie. But my partner did, and he tended to me and gave me some space to breathe. Literally.

So on that note, because i’m a glass half-ful gal, i’m going to leave you with some links to great articles about how to embrace summer, and how to make it meaningful for you as a parent. I work from a place where setting intentions help me live the life i love, and that summer means as much for me as it does my kids. So, here are some great resources to help you if you are stuck:

10 ways to stress less and flourish more
Mothering Arts Best Summer Ever list
Summer vacation: Freedom from or freedom to
18 summers – though i think this is too much pressure and not only 18 years, the article has some helpful tips

What are some of your favourite summertime family rituals? How do you spend the summer doing things you love?

After the Vacation

For March Break this year, our wee family was gifted a vacation to Costa Rica, along with my partner’s extended family. It was a trip of a lifetime. I learned a few things about myself, my kids, and how to hold on to it.

I need to tell you first that in another life I was a hippie at heart, and feel like in an alternate universe I’m a surfing beach bum. So while I loved the adventures and walks in the mountains, I am truly one of those people who feels most at peace and relaxed on the beach. So I was able to enjoy my time away from home. I’m not going to pretend that travelling with kids is relaxing, but I did find ways to slow down and be mindful.

Luckily for me, we spent a week on a glorious beach, surrounded by lush rainforest, monkeys and sloths, and the most vast array of butterflies I have ever seen. It was a sensory overload but in the most fantastic way. I was able to eat fresh mango, see butterflies each day, hear the birds chirping, feel the warm salty water on my body, and smell the sweet orange blossoms. As a body and sensory based therapist, I definitely practice what I preach. We brought back a few treasures to help us hold on to this trip away. And now I can locate a specific place in my mind’s eye when I am needing to calm down or distract my monkey mind. These 2 DBT based tools are so great to help with a mind that is stuck or having racing thoughts.

I have mentioned already my love of surfing, or rather the idea of it. I have only done it a couple of times and my body is not quite the typical surfing body. I say this because I had an insightful talk with myself while in Costa Rica. I had wanted to take a lesson there. But then I saw a photo of me in my bathing suit and thought of the crowds of people that would bear witnes to my lesson. I also realized that my 20-year old self was the surfer, not the 40 year old one. I chose instead to body surf and boogie board. And you know what, that made me pretty darn happy too. I squealed with laughter and joy and realized that my body now birthed two babies and is 20 years more wise and strong. My initial shame around my body turned into a moment to enjoy the present. I also realized that I don’t want to model body shame or hesitancy to do things I love. So I put on that rash guard (to help me keep my bikini on in the killer waves – I have no idea how people surf with bikinis!) and I jumped on my boogie board.

Gordon Neufeld talks about how vacations can be a great opportunity to create a deeper connection with your kids. It acts as a time to get away from our daily life and the distractions that can get in the of the bond with our kids. Daily after-school activities, play dates, and time spent on gadgets are replaced with jumping in waves, spying sloths and eating quick-melting popsicles together. The key word is together. We took a couple of toys that the kids like but for the most part, the toys stayed in their bags. This really worked for my son, the eldest of my two kids. He said “I love you, mom” so often that my heart was bursting at the seams. While he has said that at home, it has never been to the same degree. The hugs and hand-holding were also so special. I see first-hand the merit in this purposeful time away as a great time to go deeper with your kids. It may fade sooner than I want it to, but I’m so happy to have gotten it regardless. That photo there is of me snorkelling and my son excitedly spotting me in the water.

Travelling with extended family can be a blessing. My kids got ample time with their cousins, and we created our own village of support. One thing I recommend is making a point to get time away from your kids. This helps you re-charge, especially in such a small space as a hotel room. I was able to indulge in a surf date alone with my partner, go on a spice tour sans children, and do a morning meditation routine most days. If I didn’t get this time alone, I don’t think I would have been as present and happy. It can be hard to navigate this request with family, but when you can share the responsibility and take turns with childcare, everyone wins. My kids were just as happy at the pool while I sampled vanilla products. So don’t shy away from asking for help, it’s your vacation too!

It was my daughter’s birthday while we were away. She was not happy about being on an airplane on her birthday. While we tried to highlight how special it was, looking back I don’t know if it was worth it to go then. Or at least I needed to prepare or celebrate it differently. We are a family that really values our birthdays. We all play hookie from school and work on our special days. For Miss M this year, we rushed through the day to get to the airport. As the youngest member of our family, I’m sure birthdays are even more special to her. Instead of showing her that Costa Rica was more important, I needed to focus on her. That is one regret I have. Luckily she is resilient and the most fun-loving person I know. So, she bounced back quickly.

My daughter is our resident risk taker, and she is a fierce, independent and friendly child who I’m raising to trust her body and instincts. Sometimes that instinct can be in direct contrast to what I need from her, but that’s another story. I noticed in this trip that she is clearly more peer-oriented than I thought, and some of her risks are in relation to her peers. That’s not exactly what I want so we had some head to heads while away. I also had to take pause and notice my own shyness or hesitancy, so that it didn’t influence her. She takes no shit from others, including her parents. One example of this was when we were on a cruise and there was a water slide that went directly into the ocean. I at first thought she was too young, small, and not a strong swimmer. She saw the slide as a great obstacle to have fun on. So, I took a deep breathe and stepped in her shoes – she is not me after all. And she slid down that super fast slide. Three times. But with my agreement and encouragement, and a great safety net in place.

We have been back 3 days and I am starting to feel the daily grind already. I have written before about the impactful going on vacation has on our mental health. So I’m going to work extra hard to keep the Costa Rica sun in my soul.

A Hallow’s Eve Exercise in Mindfulness

All Hallow’s Eve is my favourite holiday. I love it for more than the sweet little chocolates we get (though that counts a bit too). I love it because it honours community and being part of a village. What other day do we get to go to neighbours and get sweets from them? I also love it as we get to dress up and role play being a character that we admire or wish to become even for a day. I also love it as it celebrates magic, being brave, and has roots in Pagan spirituality and witchcraft – times before the patriarchy and medical model of care took over. But i digress.

What i really love is that kids teach us important lessons in mindfulness. Being able to see life through their eyes is a good reminder that staying in the present, being in the here and now moment is how we can take care of ourselves. It is also a great way to enjoy life and not let it slip away from us.

One of the rituals we do for All Hallow’s Eve is to carve the pumpkin a few days ahead of time. We brainstorm our ideas and we typically pick scenes or an image that resonates with us. It changes each year. This year, as my eldest is a diehard Harry Potter fan, that of course had to make an entry.

What i forgot was all the mess it makes. I was ready to see if my kids could carve their own pumpkins – thank goodness for child-friendly knives. So in my head i pictured we would all scoop out the seeds and insides of our own pumpkins and then work as a harmonious little team carving alongside each other. You can imagine where this is going.

Lesson One
Of course my son was disgusted by the mess of his pumpkin; he hates the feeling of slime and goo on him. Unless it’s fart sounding play doh and pretend slime of course. I noticed i had to bite back my anger for him not doing his work, and notice instead that i know that he doesn’t like this texture. I visited my Wise Mind and reminded myself that the point of this supposedly fun activity was to have Jack o Lanterns as a result. And that each of us play our part. My daughter, for instance, doesn’t mind getting dirty and her pumpkin in fact had hardly any insides to scoop out. My son kept us busy with a song and dance routine, and Harry Potter commentary.

Lesson Two
We typically take turns as parents to go out for the door-to-door aspect of the night. This year, it was my turn to, and in fact i love it more than giving out candies (as a side note, we give out these amazing local cookies and i just love them). Our street is a small side street that most people forget about. But we know our neighbours and our children are loved by them. The lesson here is to follow the kid’s lead wit where they want to go – follow their map. I realized there was a reason behind the madness of zig-zagging around the street. My kids want to visit all the neighbours they know first. Sweet gesture, and the reason escapes me. I tried to reason that we can just go up one side of the street and down the other. But at one point i had to remind myself that this night, and the tradition of Trick or Treating is about and for children, not this party pooper mom.

Lesson Three
Speaking of party poopers, we decided to treat (pun intended) the kids to a walk to a much busier and more fun street. So, we put our cookies in a bowl and all 4 of us went. It was already pushing close to bedtime for our youngest. So my partner started to remind them after every house that we had to go quickly and get back home. How do you rush a kid who is getting free candy, and walking on a street after dark? You don’t. My partner and i quickly bickered debated on the street that we had to remember that this one night is about the children. And yes bedtime would be messy, and probably the next day. But it is a wonderful reminder that staying in the present and witnessing the kids’ joy and excitement (over candy, being out after dark, costumes, being with neighbours) is a great lesson.

Bonus Lesson
And yes, we did pay for it the next day – a Halloween Hangover was surely felt at our place. How about yours? Even the Good Witch couldn’t help the kid’s sluggishness. I take that back, my son was happy as a clam to get a much hoped for book and Harry Potter Lego figures – he just took forever to get ready. My daughter (the younger of the two) was a beast. Was it worth it, yes oh yes it was. Case in point – here she is later that day with her new unicorn stuff the Good Witch got her. The lesson here is to notice your sleeping babe, enjoy the silence and beauty in the cuddles. And know that you played a role in that.

(the sunflower pumpkin at the top of this post is from my friend’s porch – i love everything to do with sunflowers as the represent resiliency, strength and beauty)

I Want to be My Children’s Compass Point

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I was listening to a CBC segment a few weeks ago, with a writer who shared her philosophy on this whole ‘parenting’ movement. While she too wrote a book about it, she wonders if we are doing ourselves a disservice with all this pressure and industry around parenting.

There are a lot of books, workshops, and ‘experts’ that are available to us these days. Each is designed to help you be the best parent you can, and also to find solutions for places that you are stuck. While i guess we fall under this category a bit, i prefer to see our practice as an extra support to you as you guide yourself to the best parenting path. That said, we can be overwhelmed when other parents or even just the regular folk who are waiting in line at the grocery store, ask you if you are an ‘attachment parent’, ‘free range parent,’ or a ‘peaceful parent’ or even a ‘helicopter parent.’ There is just so much pressure and pull to be defined as ____ parent: I just want to be the best parent i can for my children.

So i hope this doesn’t sound too contradictory to that writers point: i really love reading books and finding ones that speak to what i hold dear to me, and what our family’s values are.

As someone who really values being attached to my children, my partner, and to the people closest to me, i relish the chance to integrate this bond in any way i can. Having read Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Mate, i wish all new parents can read this book. In it, they describe how attachment can play out between our children and ourselves, to the better of our relationship and also for our communities.

Neufeld goes on further to explain that attachment is not just about the practices – things we do like wear our babies in carriers, co-sleep, stay with our babies all the time, and exclusively breastfeed. Rather, it is a relationship between the child and parent. This relationship gives a context to how the child is raised in the family and grows up in the world. I so love the idea that we are to be our child’s compass point, and that it actually puts them at a disadvantage when we hurry them to stop being dependent on us. There is a dance of attachment that we go through with our children, and in order to keep that bond alive, it is our job to remain the alpha in their lives. It may sound daunting in this day of technology, and peer orientation, but i also really hope that my children come to me No Matter What when they are in their teen years. The work i’m doing now fosters that future attachment.

What that in mind, I’m really excited that Dr. Neufeld is coming to Toronto at the end of November, to flush out this theory of attachment and development. He is giving two talks – one is a two-hour discussion on how play can help build attachment, and the other is a full day workshop on resiliency and attachment. If you want to learn more about this theory, why don’t you come check it out!