Finding Strength for the Long Haul

Kim Arthur, clinical research scientist at Seattle Children’s, holds both of her preemie daughters for the first time in May 2013.

My daughter pushes my hand away abruptly and the spoonful of food goes flying. I turn to her twin to coax her to eat a spoonful of puréed lentil soup, and she promptly gags on the tiniest lump and spits it out.

Typical case of the terrible twos? No, they are 3 and a half, and they are not just your average picky eaters. They were born prematurely at 26 weeks, and after five months in the hospital they had to get surgically placed feeding tubes in their stomachs because they weren’t able to breastfeed or bottle-feed.

And here I am, three years later, doing everything in my power to coax them to eat enough food by mouth to get rid of those tubes.

I turn away and say out loud, “I can’t do this.”

It’s not the first time I’m saying these words. I either say them or think them every time I sit down for practice meals with my girls. We are supposed to practice eating four times a day in order to get them to eat enough that we can get rid of those tubes.

I am so frustrated I want to cry. This is my fault. What am I doing wrong? I should be firmer with them. But if I’m firm with them, they just push the food away.

I should make this more fun and pleasant, like the feeding therapists recommend. But how am I supposed to make it fun when I feel like crying every time we sit down at the table?

For almost three years, I have been playing these words on repeat several times a week. It doesn’t feel good. But it feels like the absolute truth.

If I’m in a different mood, there are several other tracks to choose from — and I have composed them all myself with great creativity. There’s the track about how I must have done something wrong that caused them to be premature. There’s another one about how I’m not learning enough sign language to help them learn to communicate. Or there’s an old classic about how I should be exercising regularly and taking care of myself.

I would guess that every adult, every adolescent, and probably every child once they reach a certain age has tracks like mine.

Why do we criticize ourselves like that when we would never dream of saying something so harsh to a friend in need? I would never tell a friend with a parenting challenge that it’s all her fault.

I knew that playing those self-critical tracks in my head over and over was going to do me a lot of harm in the long run, and I certainly didn’t want to set that example for my girls.

A spoonful of self-compassion

I started looking for a way to find the strength to keep facing these challenges and to be the best mom I could be. I decided to take a course at the University of Washington Center for Child and Family Well-Being called Mindful Self-Compassion. It’s an evidence-based course developed by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer that includes some meditation and, more importantly, what my teacher calls “compassion to go.”

Compassion to go is about recognizing when you’re being hard on yourself and then using simple strategies to give yourself a break. One of the strategies that helps me relax is just to put my hand on my stomach when I notice that I’m feeling tense. Another strategy is to offer yourself some kind of acknowledgement that things are hard and that it’s OK to feel frustrated or overwhelmed.

It’s not a magic cure-all, and in fact, self-compassion isn’t actually about “curing” anything. It’s about learning to recognize what you’re feeling — even the feelings you may not be proud of — and to give yourself some grace. Considering that the challenges of parenting were not going to go away anytime soon, that sounded to me like just what the doctor ordered.

This March, Seattle Children’s Center for Children with Special Needs offered a shortened version of the class for the first time to parents of children with health conditions and disabilities.

My teacher, Yaffa Maritz, led some of the activities from the original Mindful Self-Compassion course for a group of 15 parents. Now our project leadership team, which includes social worker Kathryn Thurber-Smith, local psychotherapist Ron Rabin, and a fellow mom and yoga teacher Krista Hanson, is designing a special course using the feedback from the first parent participants.

We are also fortunate to have Patty González from the Arc of King County, Dr. Lenna Liu from Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and Dr. Felice Orlich from Seattle Children’s Autism Center on our team.

We will be offering our new course, which is called “Finding Strength for the Long Haul,” later this year thanks to the support of the Nesholm Family Foundation. The course will draw on many activities from the original Mindful Self-Compassion course because the parent participants in our first trial course expressed great interest and enthusiasm.

However, we will draw on their feedback to decide how we can adapt the activities to fit the unique experiences of parents facing these extra health challenges. The new course will be very focused on practical tools that parents can use to find calm in difficult moments and in the face of ongoing challenges.

Please stay tuned for more information, or email me at [email protected]. I’ll be around, finding a path forward one spoonful at a time.