Last week we celebrated my son Jack’s 15th birthday. As happens each year on the anniversary of my motherhood, I relived the countdown to Jack’s birth and the fragile early days after. I remembered looking into his eyes for the very first time, feeling his skin on mine, watching his chest rise and fall with each breath. Everything had changed in an instant. Holding him, I was all elbows. When my husband and I took Jack home from the hospital, I sat next to his tiny body dwarfed by the enormous car seat, hovering over him while my husband drove a full twenty miles below the speed limit. How would I parent this helpless creature whom I already loved beyond words? I had no idea. I wasn’t used to being clueless about important things. I am a scholar; I do research; I know things; I teach others.
But this time, I couldn’t foresee how things would unfold; there were no steps to follow, no blueprints to consult. I struggled—with breastfeeding, with postpartum anxiety, with worrying that my lack of confidence meant I could not meet this challenge. No one told me these feelings in the face of a brand-new event were completely normal. My previous accomplishments had little value, and they didn’t help me see the way forward. I couldn’t delegate. All I could do was to meet each need as it presented itself. The little decisions of every day—feeding, changing, swaddling—added up. At some point, I looked behind me and saw that I had forged a path. Somewhere along that path, I became a parent.
It seemed fitting that Jack’s birthday arrived during this global pandemic, because reminiscing about my early days of vulnerable motherhood felt akin to feeling my way through this utterly unprecedented event. As I mentioned in my last blog, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as a combination of “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” I can’t think of a more apt description of my experience parenting a newborn, and it certainly resonates now. We are all living a collective experiment in vulnerability, a very tough place to inhabit. We don’t generally like to live in the new, and yet we all have unwillingly pivoted to the new. This was not how it was supposed to go, and here we all are.
I have been listening to Brene Brown’s new podcast as I grapple with vulnerability in this global pandemic/shelter in place/uncertain future. I inch close to sinking into vulnerability and dance away again. I’m not always ready to “embrace the suck,” as Brown colorfully calls it. But when we give up being new and awkward, we stop growing. Brown reminds us when we stop growing, we stop living; “being an awkward rookie again” is “our juice, our lifeblood, our secret sauce.” The more we can lean into the discomfort and try new things, the more new things we are willing to try, not because being new at something becomes more comfortable—apparently, that never happens.
Instead, we learn to normalize discomfort. We can accept it, get curious about it, and endure it. The reward is courage. According to Brown, knowing we can survive these moments and come through them with new information, habits, ideas, and skills is how we can become braver with our lives and with our hearts. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
So how do we get to this other side where courage and braver living lie? We “embrace the suck.” Brown tells us that first, we must acknowledge that we’re living in a global FFT (F’ing First Time) or if you prefer the G-rated version, a TFT Time (Terrible First Time). An FFT can be big (new baby, new job, new relationship, global pandemic), and they can be small (new exercise regimen, new hairstyle, new habit). But regardless of size and scope, FFTs evoke the same feelings.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, out of control, ashamed, confused, like the wheels are coming off the bus, ask yourself if you’re in an FFT. If you’re in it, name it. It will help make sense of the situation and allow you to wrangle some power over it.
We’re in a worldwide FFT right now. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re already doing it better than we did last week. We don’t know how to stay connected and apart, but we have so many more opportunities and inspirations than we did just a few days ago. We are getting better at talking to our kids. Each day we tolerate feeling uncertain and afraid. We are doing the things we thought we could not do.
Once you have identified the FFT (or are helping your child navigate this TFT), three steps can help you cope:
It’s an FFT, so I know I will feel overwhelmed and wobbly for a while. I am doing the best I can do under the circumstances.
Put it in perspective:
This feeling is not permanent. It doesn’t mean I’m terrible at everything; it just means I’m in the middle of one new, hard thing. We don’t know when this pandemic will end, but we know it’s not forever.
Reality check your expectations:
Writer Anne Lamott says, “Expectations are just resentments waiting to happen.” Acknowledge it: This will be hard for a while, and I’m not going to crush it right away. If you don’t like ambiguity (join the club!), you might feel angry or disappointed. Feel your feelings fully; it will help you be more empathetic. Be patient, ask for what you need.
Each day, we look behind us and see we have carved a little path. Because we are forging it together, it is beautiful.
Head of School
If you feel your routine is lacking some structure, here is some assistance from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Six Questions to Provide Structure
- What am I grateful for today?
- Who am I checking in on, or connecting with, today?
- What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
- How am I getting outside today? For fresh air? Or bring flowers inside?
- How am I moving my body today?
- What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?