I have realised that what changed the struggle into flow was connection. Ah! Connection, connection, connection, the essence of my way of parenting. My parent’s voice in my head had lots of “oughts” and “shoulds” and “have tos” which are always disconnecting. My inner girl’s complaints and questioning helped me stop and listen to the two parts inside, fighting. That was the first time connection happened. Once I reconnected with myself, I was able to connect to the kids and husband, and everything flowed from there.
Every “ought”, “should”, “must” and “have to” is an indicator of a Sense of Duty lurking underneath. Sense of Duty is the belief that in order to receive love (to be OK, be approved of, be accepted, etc.) we have to fit inside the box of external expectations. Those expectations are different for everyone, but they have in common this quality of obligation which fuels our actions. Every time kids receive anger, punishment or any other sort of disconnection for not doing as they are told, they feel disapproval and judgment. Kids need love as much as food and eventually, when this pattern repeats itself enough, they come to believe that “doing the right thing” is a necessary requisite for being loved.
The opposite of doing something out of a sense of duty is doing it because it brings us joy in some level or other. For example, the other day I vacuumed my husband’s car because I knew he was feeling heavy and tired and he would appreciate my act of service. It brought me joy to show my love for him in that way, even though I don’t like vacuuming the car. To be able to truly do something out of joy, we need to be connected to ourselves. And in order to be connected to ourselves, we need to connect with and heal the pain that lays in the way from every instance when we were pushed to comply.
I have been clearing this pain with a lot of help from my son, who refuses to be “broken in”. My daughter can more easily be made to trade helpfulness for approval and love; I have to confess, sometimes I still fall into that easy trap with her and push her with harsh words or threats. But my son just digs his heels deeper into the ground the harder we push. That is a curse in my dark moments and a blessing in my enlightened ones.
I have a sense of him helping me undo the strong sense of duty I learned as a kid when being forced to help at home. When he says NO to a request of mine, I either have a loving or a hurting reaction. When it hurts, I take the chance to heal a little more of the pain of putting my parents needs before my own, of always doing as I was told. When I manage a loving reaction, I see clearly his need for autonomy and choice; from a place of heart connection, I can reformulate my request so it’s respectful, or negotiate so we can come to an agreement in which everyone is happy. Slowly, slowly, loving reactions are becoming more common than hurting ones.
What I found fascinating was the ripples of this process in the rest of the family. Both my daughter and husband seem to go through their own version of questioning their sense of duty.
My daughter’s process: She has a habit of saying ‘yes’ to my son’s frequent requests and demands because it’s easier to agree than to trigger a fuss. But she does have a limit. And when she comes to it, she has the same inner dilemma I described above: a voice saying ‘I should do as I am told’ on one hand, and a very angry little girl on the other shouting ‘no way! This is IT!’ The pain of that dilemma is extreme, and she doesn’t know what to do with is, so she dumps it. And the receiving end is, of course, her little brother. Recently, though, I was able to point out the pattern to her in a way that she could see it clearly: ‘your brother is going to end up feeling sad regardless, whether you say ‘no’ to him to start with or whether you bash him on the head to finish. You might as well practice saying ‘no’ at the beginning. I gues you will feel better for it’. She agreed and decided I was worthwhile learning to say ‘no’. I am very curious to see how this progresses and, specially, what it’ll do to him, who is used to dishing orders like a prince.
My husband’s process: when I got pregnant 10 years ago, a huge protective and provider instinct kicked in for my beloved. He has done amazingly well in that respect, but even though he loves the work he does, I suspect there is a sense of duty mixed up in his motivations, too. My suspicion comes from the fact that, when he is tired or things are not working out, he feels resentful. Then he has the same dilemma I described above: a voice saying he has to push himself through it, keep on going like a steam roller till the job is done and only then he can relax. And on the other hand, the voice of his inner boy, questioning why does he have to do it all alone, and why does it have to be such an enormous undertaking, and complaining that it’s not fair or fun. His resentment comes out as complaints about being the only one working hard in the family and everyone else (meaning me, the au-pair and both children) just having a joy ride.
In the past I would have a hurting reaction, leading to many a difficult conversation and even argument with him. Recently I am managing to see, underneath his blaming, the pain of doing as he was told as a child in spite of his own needs, and the sense of duty that grew out of that. Being able to see that has meant no arguments, more compassion and more connection between us. And as I said above, connection is the beginning of healing. I wonder what will happen next.