Backbone and Heart

It seems every conversation I’ve had this week has been around the concept of using backbone and heart. According to Mary Beth O’Neill’s book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, “Backbone means knowing and clearly stating your position, whether it is popular or not. Heart is staying engaged in the relationship and reaching out even when that relationship is mired in conflict.” I’d never heard of this before beginning my master’s degree in Executive Coaching last fall, but ever since I learned about it, I’ve found myself applying it not only with the child care program administrators I coach, but in many of my relationships with adults.

Bringing backbone and heart can be challenging, especially for those of us who haven’t done it much. Up until a decade ago, even if I knew my position, and held strong convictions about it, I’d shrink back from stating it, especially if it was unpopular. And rather than staying engaged in relationships that were full of conflict, I’d disengage completely in order to avoid it. More times than not, that behavior did not serve me well.

Then I had my children. Realizing they needed a mom with enough backbone to stand up caused me to grow a spine, and my desire to model what healthy relationships look like has enabled me to work through conflict appropriately in order to maintain them. Thankfully I was able to learn these skills later in life. Now I’m determined to teach them to my children early on.

For instance, this past fall when my 10-year-old, Liv, was going on her fourth grade trip to Camp Kern, each student was guaranteed to be in a cabin with at least one friend of their choice. To ensure this, they were to submit a list of four friends. Liv wrote down four names and was about to turn it in when another girl saw it and begged Liv to add her because she’d put Liv on hers. Liv likes this girl, but not as much as the girl likes her, so she did not want to be in a cabin with her. But she didn’t state her position. She didn’t want to be mean or unkind and she was afraid. When I found out what happened, Liv refused to tell the principal because she didn’t want conflict. Of course it turned out that she ended up in a cabin with the girl and not one of her close friends. She was miserable the entire trip and ran from her group to join her friends every chance she got. At the end of the year there was a cabin reunion and Liv was reminded yet again how the trip she’d looked so forward to was less than she’d hoped because she hadn’t either gently told the girl she liked her but had already put down who she’d like to bunk with or been honest with the principal when asked if she was ok with things the way they were.

I understand how difficult speaking up one way or the other would have been for Liv but not getting to be with one of her BFFs was worse. Because she wasn’t able to bring backbone and heart to the situation at the time, she’ll always remember what it cost her. It was a hard lesson, but we’ve talked about it a lot and I’ve noticed that Liv is learning to bring backbone and heart to various situations. In fact, I couldn’t have been more proud of her when she was at her father’s on Mother’s Day and forgot the card she’d bought me at his house. While en route to me for the holiday, she remembered the card and asked to turn around for it. When this was met with resistance she held her ground and insisted he take her back (backbone). She also reminded him that it was, after all, her mom’s day, and the right thing to do (heart).

As much as I loved the card and its admonition for me to do whatever I wanted for the day, just as Liv will remember the time she didn’t use backbone and heart, my card will remind me of the time she did.

You’re more than a parent!

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world… would do this, it would change the earth.”

- William Faulkner

Since my daughter’s birth 22 years ago, my husband and I have advocated tirelessly for her. While she was in growing in my belly, we had hopes and dreams for her despite the fact that we knew she would be born with a disability. Her diagnosis did not impede us; it just required paving a unique path for her.

We wanted to provide Gabrielle with limitless opportunities in an inclusive environment throughout her lifetime, allowing for her to learn, play and grow with others of all abilities. Our goal was and continues to be for her to thrive, flourish and to maximize her potential by having the best quality of life possible. But our journey has not been easy.

We’ve had to work on our advocacy skills from her first childcare experience where the director informed us that she “shouldn’t take those kinds of children,” to doctors, schools, camps and currently, adult day programs who see only her stroller, not the awesome, inspiring, capable young woman she is. To other families on a similar journey, I have this to say:

  • We cannot always influence or persuade others to come along side us. We need to learn when it’s time to move on or walk away.
  • Not every battle will be won, so choose which ones are non-negotiable.
  • Turn challenges into opportunities.
  • Don’t let your anger get the best of you. By being objective and composed, I’ve been able to effectively advocate for Gabrielle to help plan the best future and quality of life for her.
  • Find allies and like-minded individuals willing to help and support your family.

I cannot allow others to determine Gabrielle’s future, especially when they cannot perceive her strengths and want to limit her options based on those perceptions. I have been given the awesome privilege to be her parent and with that is the responsibility to fight for her and be her voice for as long as she needs me. If I don’t advocate for her, who will?

Let It Go

Whenever “Let It Go” is played in a public place, I hear women and children loudly sing along. The song clearly has an upbeat rhythm, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s more than the rhythm that has caught on.

If you listen to the words of this song, you may feel quite inspired. For me phrases like, “I am one with the wind and sky,” help to remind me that I am a part of something bigger. While the phrase “the past is in the past” reminds me that I can only move forward. “Let it go, let it go, that perfect girl is gone. Here I stand in the light of day,” encourages me to honor who I am and not be afraid to show my true self to others.

It’s no wonder that this song has struck a chord – especially for women and girls. Many women move through life carrying with them the pressure to live up to the expectations of being a good daughter, sister, mother and friend. Add to that the role of caretaker, nurturer and fixer, and it’s easy to see that women carry a lot on their backs. What this song may be doing is giving women the permission to let some of this go. And maybe most importantly this song may remind us to help our young girls to do the same.

Girls are often taught that being “good” is accomplished by putting their own needs and desires aside. This is done to help prepare them for the years when they will be expected to nurture and rescue their children, fix problems and sacrifice their own needs for the benefit or success of others. And though some of these behaviors may be admirable, do these expectations hamper our young girls from freely being themselves? Are our young girls growing up worrying too much about what others think? And if our young girls are carrying this kind of pressure, then “let it go” is an incredible mantra to sing!

It seems to me that by letting go our girls will flourish. By helping them to feel confident about themselves, step into their own light and maximize their strengths we may be able to alleviate the pressure to fit in and be perfect. However this also requires that as mothers, teachers, aunts and mentors must let go as well. We have to intentionally let go of our self doubt, our needs to be liked and our fears that we are not good enough. Our girls will benefit from our example and our courage. As we are able to stand in our true light, our girls will see that they can be loved and appreciated for their own individual gifts and strengths.

Preparing Children for the Path

As my horse and I brought up the rear following a young stable hand, my nine-year-old Levi and my ten-year-old Liv on a recent ride down a steep, muddy path overgrown with tree branches, I was a bit surprised that no one from the stables had cleared the way for riders. Especially since we were paying for it! Swatting a twig out of my face, I asked the stable hand about it over the suction sound the horses’ hooves made as they struggled up a steep, sodden incline. She explained that, “We can’t tend all these acres, but we train our horses to be prepared for any terrain or weather conditions. As long as the riders, who can be as young as six, use the aids I showed you: pulling the reigns to the left or right to guide them, pulling them back to slow them down, and a gentle kick to get them moving faster, the horse will do fine on the path.”

Not only did this explanation ease my fears about the children’s safety as we cautiously made our way down a slippery slope, it resonated because it’s so relevant to this season in my life. Two of my stepsons have moved out this summer, and after two years, the young man who has lived with us is moving on as well. My head knows this is the natural progression of life – children move up and away, to be in relationships, to attend college and pursue careers and to just be on their own – but my heart still hurts. As parents we fret about how they will maneuver their way through the wild world.

Like with the horseback riding trail, we can’t always prepare the path for our children. But we can prepare our children for the path. We can equip them with the aids they need to successfully navigate the rainy seasons, the dry spells, the downhill sloppy spots and the taxing uphill climbs. There will be times when they’ll face crossroads where they’ll have to decide to go one way or another in order to stay on track. Other times they’ll need to slow down to regain their footing. And when the going gets tough, they’ll have to kick it into high gear to keep pressing toward their goals. When these times come, hopefully they’ll recall the guidance we provided as they saddled up for the great adventure we call life.

From behind I occasionally caught a glimpse of Levi’s profile. Instead of anxiety or fear, I saw pure, unadulterated joy. The same as I see on the faces of the three young men embarking on their rides. Hearing Levi tell his horse, Muddy, to “Giddy up!” as we reached a flower-filled clearing, I could almost hear the big boys saying the same thing. They’ve all got a trail to blaze.

To Roll or Not to Roll

To be honest, I have forgotten when exactly Schmee learned to roll over from back to front and back again. To be brutally honest, I don’t even remember when he learned to crawl. Too many sleepless nights as he continued to physically grow, adapt, learn new things and become a master of other things has turned my mind to mush. It’s amazing what children go through in such a short period of time. I do remember that he began walking on his own shortly after his first birthday. It all seemed normal to me and still does, which is why as I look at Sweet Pea smiling, laughing and playing and am not the least concerned that, at seven months, she won’t roll over.

To roll or not to roll, that is the question for this baby.

It’s not that she can’t, mind you. It really is that she won’t. “Refusal” would be an apt word to describe what appears to be her disposition when it comes to rolling. I know this because I’ve seen her do it. Late at night when she rolls to find mom to comfort a hunger pang or when she’s just got to have a certain toy – especially if it’s Schmee’s Dinobot – and no one is right there to help. Plus, her teachers share stories of her accomplishments and things she’s working on that shed light on her true abilities.

I was always fairly content with Schmee’s timeline for attaining developmental milestones, if at times somewhat jealous when other children his age were on to the next phase of their physical development like crawling, cruising or walking. He seemed to make up for it by being persistent with an activity, enjoy reading (a lot) and manipulating small objects with his fingers and hands. I was also the proud father of a child that at 20 months knew what a locomotive was and could pronounce it to boot (how I remember that one is a story unto itself).

Sweet Pea will someday choose to roll. For now, she’s content with sitting and reaching for objects until she flops on her stomach. She doesn’t need to roll, she’s applying her ability of leaning forward to achieve the goal of reaching for that object! Wow, children are amazing. They each create their own methods to discover the things in their world. We all grow up, but we all do it differently, too, and not necessarily in the “right” order.

I might not remember the day that Sweet Pea rolls from front to back and back again either, but I know that I will enjoy watching all of her days because each day brings with it new tricks, new ideas and humble experiences that add up to a treasure in my heart and  that is all that matters.

Babies Don’t Keep

As the end of the school year approached in late May, I readily admit that I couldn’t wait for summer. This past year was my daughter’s first year of school and while it was a new, wonderful experience, I was ready for a break. Bring on summer, I said. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!

"We feel we have all the time in the world to enjoy or children, but..."

It is now mid July and I am still waiting for that break. It seems we are always going somewhere or doing something. We have been on the go: to camp, field trips, cheerleading practice, parades, Kings Island and festivals, just to name a few! My daughter is having a blast, but most days I feel like I could use a nap. Lately, I have found myself complaining that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. While we have been out having fun the laundry and dishes have been piling up (literally and figuratively). Thank goodness I do not have any friends or family who like to drop in unannounced because I and they would be completely mortified by my housekeeping skills, or lack thereof.

And so, one night recently my husband came home from work and promptly told our daughter, without conferring with me, that we would go to the park after dinner as a family. If looks could kill, he would have been a goner. I was furious. I didn’t have time to go the park. Didn’t he see the state of our house? Who was going to do the dishes? Who was going to make the beds? Who was going to go the grocery store? Who was going to give our daughter a bath? To his credit, my husband immediately realized I wasn’t happy. He asked me what was wrong and I quickly began giving him an exhaustive laundry list of chores that needed to be done. How did he not know? He looked at me and calmly said, “It will all still be here tomorrow. Why does it need to be done tonight? We’re taking Maddy to the park.”

And I had to admit, he was right. It didn’t need to be done that night. We had dinner, went to the park and enjoyed a relaxing evening as a family. And the world didn’t end. No one was waiting for me at my house when we returned to tell me I was a bad housekeeper or mother. The only person judging me was me.

When I think about how quickly my daughter is growing up, I am daunted. We feel we have all the time in the world to enjoy or children, but, in reality, their childhood moments are so fleeting. I am doing my best, with my husband’s help, to savor the time I have. When I was a child, my mom had a poem in her home that says it best:

Babies Don’t Keep

I hope that my child, looking back on today
Will remember a mother who had time to play;
Because children grow up while you’re not looking,
There are years ahead for cleaning and cooking.
So, quiet now cobwebs, dust go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep.

Tough love?

Recently I caught myself watching the Dr. Phil Show. I am not a typical fan, which has less to do with Dr. Phil and more to do with the show broadcasting personal family trauma. Many of these families seem to really be in need and the way to get help is to get on camera and share their issues for all the world to see? Is that ethical?

Tough love? For this #parent, only as a last resort.

Regardless of my opinion, what hooked me the other day was a story related to “tough love.” The show featured a single mother struggling with her teenage daughter. The daughter’s behaviors were placing her at extreme risk of harm and her overwhelmed mother was at a loss. It seemed that this mother was trying to use a “tough love” approach but was coming up short.

I found myself caring deeply for this mother, and I think it’s because the concept of “tough love” has been an approach with children that I have both avoided and found hard to carry out. It’s not that I don’t see the need for it. There have been situations with adults in my life in which I believed tough love was the answer. However, even for adults tough love is – for me – a last resort.

And maybe it’s this “last resort” concept that caused me to connect with this mother’s pain. She appeared to be a mother who truly loved her daughter. Yet, her back was against the wall and she was being encouraged to “mother” her child in a manner that was unnatural for her. Her tendency to understand her child’s feelings, talk it out and show outward signs of compassion were being squelched. She was being encouraged to draw a firm line, show no emotion and withdraw her support.

In the end she was willing to take on this new role in order to ensure her child’s well-being. She was willing to sacrifice her own needs to be the one to rescue or be “liked” by her daughter – and isn’t that what being a parent is all about?

Don’t get me wrong, I am still not a fan of tough love, especially when it comes to young children. I would also contend that tough love only be used as a last resort and when children’s behaviors are placing them at risk. Tough love should not be a standard parenting approach. Parents can be firm and consistent without being “tough.” Toughness infers an unwavering stance in which children’s needs are ignored – overall not a great approach.

For those of us lucky enough not to need to use tough love, don’t! For parents who have had to deploy this approach – my heart goes out to you.