Developing the Observer

I had a weird parenting moment the other day… a moment of keen self-awareness where I was able to experience a moment and watch myself experiencing it at the same time, like I was an analytical observer taking stock of it from the outside. 

We were in the car on the way to a karate tournament, and things were NOT going well. I could detail all the things that had led up to this point, all the decisions I now regretted making or the factors that created this perfect storm of a moment (too much sugar, not enough sleep, and a plethora of teenage hormones were definitely part of the equation). But it doesn’t really matter what got me there, because messy life/parenting moments such as these are going to happen sometimes. Even when you can look back and see where things went wrong, or things you’d do differently next time, there’s often just no way you could have known things were going to get so derailed or prevented it from happening. 

So circumstances had led our family to this perfect storm moment of big emotions and lots of tears from one of my children as we headed to the karate tournament they did NOT want to do. And there I was… sitting in the front seat of the car, listening to my child struggle with emotions and a situation beyond their control. On the surface I was experiencing all the usual parenting self-judgment: guilt at having let ourselves get to this point, and the regret at not having listened to my intuition about the circumstances that led to feeling under-nourished and sleep-deprived, criticizing myself for not preventing this whole situation. [But let’s be honest, less junk food and more sleep totally might not have made any difference whatsoever, and even if it would have, self-judgment after the fact isn’t really gonna help us in this moment, now is it?]

Deeper inside, though, there was more. As the discomfort and frustration of the moment bubbled up inside me, I took a few deep breaths, and suddenly I could empathize with my child crying in the back seat… I could feel in my bones how much they desperately wanted to take control or rage in anger at the helplessness, and in that instance, I remembered what it felt like in those moments from my own past… the feeling of my own teenage rage bubbling up inside me… part of me desperate to rein in the whirlwind of feeling and keep it hidden, and another part desperate to let it burst forth like an erupting volcano too hot and powerful to be contained. 

In that moment, I could feel my own desire for control and wanted to do whatever it took to get rid of my own discomfort, to eliminate the cause by dampening my child’s display of emotion, instinct calling on me to scold and shame them into submission. Whether it was to take control of the situation, or simply to avoid the discomfort their expression brought up in me, part of me wanted more than anything to just get us out of this situation… no matter the cost. In the past, there have been moments when I did just that.

Fortunately, though, this is when the analytical outside observer in me popped up. She could see the layers of emotion (both mine and my child’s) and the ways in which the self-judgment and helplessness were conspiring to formulate the ‘scold & shame’ plan. She could also recall the previous times I’d stamped on my children’s emotions, and how the strategy might have been effective in the moment, but also made me feel terrible afterward. And she reminded me that, deep in my mama heart, I want so much to give my children the space to feel and express their emotions honestly, not just because I didn’t feel able to as a child but because we all deserve a safe space to let ourselves be human. My observer self helped me remember not to run from my discomfort, but to breathe through it.

I’m so grateful for my observer popping up that day… she allowed me to better understand my own feelings and create space to breathe through them, which also gave my child the space to express themselves fully. In turn, I’m grateful for all the practices and skills I’ve worked on over the years–mindfulness, emotional awareness, self-compassion, reflection, understanding my patterns and habits of thought, feeling, and reaction–that allowed for my observer to show up like she did and provided a framework of understanding necessary to comprehend and make sense of all that was coming up for me in the moment. 

This moment was years in the making.

Moments like these remind me why I practice these things: the mindfulness, the emotional awareness, the reflection and compassion and reparenting. Most of the time, this work can feel small or insignificant, like incremental change often does. But over time, I’ve felt their impact… on myself and on my loved ones. Though these skills don’t take away the hard moments, they have allowed me to learn new ways of navigating them, with more awareness and in a way that stays true to my authentic self, my heart space. They allow me to live in a way that honors the person and the mother I want to be in the world.

P.S. – We did end up having a compassionate conversation with my teenager about what they were feeling and how we could support them through this challenge before going inside for a very successful karate competition!