All parents do their very best to love their children, given their own family history, generational background and life circumstances. And when children feel deprived in any way - emotionally, psychologically, or physically - they have uncanny ways of understanding who they need to be in their family to get the love, attention and care they need. Children are profoundly intuitive and will focus on the needs of their parents before their own in order to get the care and attention they need.
For those of us who are parents, we know we love our children intensely, but understanding how to attune to our children is different than love. As Gabor Mate MD writes:
"Attunement is the real language of love, the conduit by which the pre-verbal child can realize she is loved. Attunement is a subtle process. It is deeply instinctive and is easily subverted when the parent is stressed, depressed or distracted. A parent can be fully attached to the infant - fully "in love" - but not attuned. Children in poorly attuned relationships may feel loved, or be aware that love is there, but on a deeper and essential level they do not experience themselves as seen or appreciated for who they really are."
Attuning to children requires that we know who we are as parents. To attune to our authentic self as parents, especially if we have not felt seen and understood as children takes great care, tenderness and sensitivity. When my daughter was born - 18 years ago this month - I was determined to mother her in a way that would let her True Self shine unhindered. I had the best of intentions. I studied attachment parenting, I was dogged about nursing her. I joined a mothering support group, and I read reams and reams of parenting books. I wrote studious journals filled with inspiring parenting quotes and ambitious parenting manifestos. However when I was a young mom, I was still struggling to understand myself and my relationship with my own mother. I had inner work to do.
Attuning to Ourselves
As human beings we seem born to lose ourselves. And then we have to spend a good part of our lives finding out who we authentically are again. We all have a beautiful, tender preverbal self that resides, trembling on the very edge of the expression of our soul. This tiny, intensely emotional, feeling self is on the very edge of who we were born to be. Our authentic self was so tenuous when we were children, so vulnerable to outside influences - both affirming and negating - it often barely peeked out. Most often our authentic self became heavily covered up with our familial and cultural conditioning - which formed our personal map on how to try to "get" love from the outside.
When I became pregnant, I felt the deepest urge to attune to myself. I think it was at that time that I started to parent my own "preverbal child" inside of myself - the place in me that was forever seeking love on the outside by changing myself to fit in and be approved of. I cried a lot during my pregnancy. I think I was crying for my lost sense of tender awareness of true self. At the time, I felt muffled to myself in relationship to my own mother. Our emotional boundaries were muddled. I felt like I knew my mother inside and out, but I did not deeply know myself.
When my daughter came into the world, even though I spent nearly every minute of the day with her, nursing her and caring for her, I was inconsistently present for her. I started writing poetry when my baby was little to try to know myself. I still remember my daughter in her highchair, contemplatively eating her banana, as I pounded out poem after poem on an old typewriter that I had bought for five dollars at a garage sale. I was so fed up with my "life of appearances", I pulled all of my artwork out of the top gallery in the city. I started to paint, collage and draw intuitively. I was trying to understand myself. Up until my pregnancy, I was focused on how I appeared on the outside. After my baby was born, I wanted to know who I was on the inside.
The Gifted Child
One of the many books that I read when my daughter was a baby that really struck a chord for me was "The Drama of a Gifted Child." In the book psychologist Alice Miller speaks about how as children, we often become more intimate with what our mother and father emotionally need rather than express what is innately authentic. This is how we lose attunement with ourselves. In our search for love and attention on the outside, most of us try to take the journey of trying - all through our lives - to seek attention from the same kind of people that we felt emotionally deprived with in the first place.
Until we learn how to love who we really are, we will feel a habitual pull to accept ourselves only as we were accepted in childhood. And we will attract people to reflect those same pattens of self-love within us. Without a connection to our authentic self and feelings, we will automatically look for where love isn't instead of where love exists right now. We can spend a great deal of time trying to make our past lack of attunement "right" again - most often with people who will repeat similar gaps in attention as we experienced in our past. Or if we are lucky enough to be loved in our neglected emotional places, we may not notice that love or feel able to take the love in.
The interesting gift that happens for the child that has had to attune to their parents instead of themselves is as Alice Miller shares in this story, " There was a parent who at the core emotionally depended on their child to behave or act in a certain way. The child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively to the need of the mother. This role secured "love" for the child. She could sense that she was needed and this, she felt, guarantees a measure of security. The ability is then extended and perfected. Later these children not only become mothers (confidants, comforters, advisors and supporters of their own mothers, but eventually develop a special sensitivity to the unconscious signals manifesting in the needs of others."
The gift of attuning to our parents is that we can become deeply sensitive at a young age. As adults, once we learn proper boundaries about what we can and cannot give, our sensitivity and intuition can become a great gift. The challenge for the gifted and intuitive adult becomes finding a solid sense of core authenticity so that giving becomes true, pointed in necessity, edifying and truly helpful, rather than draining, inauthentic and self-negating.
Looking back, I can see that my mom was trying to heal her inner child in her mothering relationship with me. Having an 18 year old daughter myself, I now feel great compassion for this process. While I may have been more attuned to my own daughter than my own mother was with me, I was still "trying to find myself" during my early parenting years with her. I was trying to love myself in the places that I felt separate, alone and unseen.
Well-meaning, I gave my daughter what I wished I had growing up. My mandate was free self-expression. I wanted my daughter to express herself in ways that I felt unable to as a child. I tenderly set up a shared art studio for the two of us with a little painting table for her.
We spent lots of time together for a while - being me - and spending time painting in our little attic studio - until she asserted herself at age three. She said, "Mommy I don't like painting! It makes my hands dirty!" She then asserted forcefully, "Write this down!" She proceeded to dictate her first of many short stories to me.
I appreciated and was surprised by her early assertion of herself as a different kind of person than I was. It made me realize that my dreams for her may not be what she needed. When we neglect our own inner attunement to our very youngest parts inside, we demand that everyone constellate around our emotional struggles and needs - even our own children. Yet as adults, we are the ones that continue to deprive ourselves of the love and attention we crave. When we are patterned to cut off from love and nourishment within our own psyches, we ignore ourselves in exactly the same places that our parents ignored, rejected, or simply did not have the emotional energy to notice us.
Our "set-point" of self-love can often remain unquestioned. We unconsciously choose to not let love into certain parts of our being because our self-love is conditioned from our early years. We can turn away from love, connection and nourishment habitually until we learn to attune to ourselves. And in our smallest, most preverbal selves - the personality parts that are the youngest and closest to our souls - we require the tenderest of self-attention, much as a good mother might nourish her newborn baby.
Attunement is not Fusion
When we do not develop a strong sense of self as children we remain undifferentiated from others. When we do not become individuated we look for other people to complete us. When my daughter was in middle childhood I began studying Family Systems Therapy. I finally understood that while my mom and I had a seemingly close relationship while I was growing up, I did not know where she ended and I began. We had muddled emotional boundaries and I often changed myself to fit her moods.
I noticed similar pattern of fusion with my own daughter and I began to point it out to her. Fusing with another feels like you are going outside of your core authenticity. For me, it feels like I am leaving my own center of consciousness, entering into someone else's body to intuit their center of self - to please them, to make them happy, or to complete, or console them. This feeling of fusion was so comfortable and familiar to me, it took me a long time to demonstrate to my daughter what two separate authentic selves - joined at the heart could feel like.
In some ways if you are used to fusion in your relationships - joining in the heart as two differentiated people - often feels less close at first. Fusion is intense closeness but there is not much individuality within it. It can feel strangely comforting at times. Anxiety can arise around having to take responsibility for having a self that is individuated from others. Fusion muddles the healthy boundaries in a relationship because each person is trying to get their emotional needs met from the other.
There was a milky comfort in fusion for me in that I did not have to find the strength to be a whole and expressive self on my own. I had my constellation of people who would soothe me and complete me. If I didn't have fusion, I was longing to be "taken care of" within fusion. There was a time when I did not want to assert my authentic self. I was patterned to go along with others so that I would feel "taken care of".
In fusion we alternate between taking care of others emotional needs and requiring that our emotional needs get met in return. In the past, if a friend felt needy to me, I automatically would find myself leaving my core of authenticity and merging with her. It felt easier to not really be a self and just complete and be completed by other people. To have a whole self involves growing up in ways that feel difficult and uncomfortable. It often involves speaking personal truths that do not always please people. It avoids feeling the pain of being different from others. We do however have to "grow up" our inner child parts that want to merge with other people if we are to have vibrantly healthy relationships.
Presence to Self and Others
Our authentic self comes to the fore when we can be present willing to acknowledge and express (at least to ourselves) everything that we feel inside. We become inauthentic because we fear the insecurity we might feel when we are not pleasing others. From a child-like place we try to build up our idealized self so that we might be perfect enough to "get" the love we need from the outside.
Even as parents we may want our children to adore us. We can need that adoration and thrive on it for while - until they begin to differentiate as teenagers! In my later parenting years, I have been able to come to some moments of authentic attunement with my daughter because we made efforts to respect each other's differences. I realized that her dreams for her life are her own, and may not always involve what I emotionally need.
As I became aware of my own authentic self, I have had some deep moments of meeting soul-to-soul with my own mother as well. Each of us expressing our personal truths in our relationship as she has begun her journey with cancer has feIt like a treasured milestone for me. In my journey with my mom, I have had to learn how to tend to my own emotional needs.
In my maturity, I realize that no human being can perfectly meet our emotional needs and it is pointless to demand that they do. We so often confuse need with love. We demand that other people love us where we refuse to love ourselves. Cultivating self-love is the primary journey to maturity. It takes great courage to re-parent ourselves and to carefully attune to the preverbal, painful parts of ourselves that are certain they feel unloved, unsupported, unseen and misunderstood.
Going to the most primal parts of ourselves that feel separated from love most often takes intense presence to feel the irrational and difficult feelings that we regularly shut down. It also takes a connection to something larger than our human parents. Finding our connection to Spirit is often the only way to find the nurturance and love we crave. With practice, presence, and a connection to something larger than our fallible loved ones, we learn that we can trust ourselves to become strong enough to feel and grieve the feelings of loss and deprivation that we could not withstand when we were younger.
With maturity we can discover that we are strong enough to touch into the places where we felt separated away from love as children. We can tenderly touch our aching need and our perpetuated self-rejection with a mature strength of presence - that other human beings were unable to give us when we were younger. When we grow to this exquisite level of presence and self-attunement, we become deeply available to love ourselves and others.