Heal Your Anger. Re-Parent Yourself
You know that mean monster that sleeps inside of you and only comes out when your child does something to push the button that wakes it up? And later you wonder, “Who am I?” And, “Who gets this angry over a child?!” Well, pretty much everybody.
Nigel, a staff member at a transitional housing facility where I taught before COVID, is newly a father, and he is experiencing this for the first time. He gave me permission to share the following email with you asking me about the monster inside of him.
I hope you've been well during these unusual times with so many things happening out in the world! I hope you don't mind me contacting you through my personal email, but I wanted to ask for some personal advice if I can.
My baby Adrian is already almost 4 months old. (Wow!) And he's doing absolutely great. I've been enjoying connecting with him so much. But I've started to develop a problem with frustration sometimes when he cries or screams, particularly if I'm feeling sleep-deprived.
I have my own techniques for calming down when I feel myself starting to get upset, but it can be very challenging. I've been having trouble finding people to talk to without feeling judged for feeling something less than joy about my baby at all times.
I really want to model a healthy and courageous response to anger and negative feelings for him so he doesn't have the kind of experience I had growing up where anger was really the only negative emotion that could be expressed at home, and [anger] was common.
I don't know if you have any resources you're aware of or general thoughts, but I would be grateful for any guidance you can offer.
Hopefully, the circumstances of the world allow the group at Sand Point to come back together again someday!
Yes, this is THE worst part of the first year of life. The crying will drive you nuts!!! Maybe these ideas will help:
1) You don't ever have to try to get a child to stop crying for the baby's good. Crying feels good; it's not distressing. There might be something distressing that is making the baby cry and the distressing thing might have passed hours ago and they might be letting out that tension at 3 in the morning instead of 3 in the afternoon when it happened. Don't try to get the baby to stop crying. Instead, just look to see if there's anything you can do to alleviate pain or stress, and if not, just be there.
2) While crying is not distressing for babies, it is VERY distressing for parents. It's horrible, especially when it won't let you sleep. There is nothing to compare the stress of starting out life, both for you and your child. Every stage of childhood has its challenge. (I hope to be hearing from you for every single one of them!) But sleep deprivation is, in my opinion, the absolute worst.
My advice to you is to just know that it will pass. He will start letting you sleep in a few months, but for now, you just have to bear a very hard phase. Grit your teeth, squeeze your toes together (this is known to calm the mind), and get through this very tough time.
3) Lastly, know that the anger you feel is coming from your brain's amygdala. The amygdala is your brain's alarm system and does not have any sense of time. When it goes off, your hippocampus, which time-stamps everything, calms you down by saying, "Oh, you thought this was happening, but actually, that was another situation. We're actually okay now." You might get upset when you see a fly at first, but then the hippocampus says, "No, it was a bee that stung you that one time. This is just a housefly and it won't hurt you." Only then can you relax.
The hippocampus is where your explicit long-term memories are kept and didn't start keeping these memories until you were around 3 years old. The delayed activation of the hippocampus is why our memories start at around 3 years old and why it's rare to remember anything before that.
With a baby's cry, the hippocampus doesn't work. That's because the cry reminds you of things that happened early in your life before the hippocampus of the brain developed its ability to calm you down. When events trigger emotional memories, which are implicit (that is, not coupled with any pictures or contexts), the hippocampus is at a loss.
A baby's cry can remind you of times when you were distressed as a baby, and all of the feelings from that experience can come up without any explicit memories to put them into context. That's one reason a baby's cry can be so upsetting. (It's also just loud.)
One way to deal with being triggered by your baby's crying is to think of yourself as a crying baby and soothe that memory of yourself. Tell yourself, "It's okay, little Nigel. I understand. I'm here." Taking the time to give yourself the parenting you may not have had back then heals the hurts that haunt you now.
Let me know if you need me to clarify anything or have any more questions, Nigel. I'm so excited that you are a papa! I know you are just the best!
Betty, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. I'm always appreciative of your knowledge and wisdom. Those are good reminders, about not trying to get him to stop crying, and just keeping in mind that it IS hard and that's kinda just the WAY it IS. You're right, and I do know that even though sometimes I feel overwhelmed!
It's been pretty interesting to notice attitudes coming out of me that I definitely got from my own upbringing. I think you're right, and a lot of them are probably in the amygdala. Just today, I was giving my son a bath (he still thinks water feels weird) and after a few minutes of calm, he suddenly got freaked out and started screaming at the top of his lungs.
And my reaction - extreme irritation - brought back super distant memories I didn't even know I HAD about getting scolded for being scared of something that one of my parents thought was stupid. Whenever someone reacted to something in a way they thought was somehow overblown, they would get so annoyed.
And I think I am JUST the same way. I keep feeling my parents' presence so strongly at all times, and while I feel comfortable with my critiques of some of the things they did, I struggle to actually override those deep, deep impulses. Having Adrian has brought that to the surface in a way that nothing else ever has before.