Self Care for Parents: Create a Listening Sanctuary

By: Angela Jernigan

We now know more than ever before about the kinds of social and emotional interactions that babies and young children need from their parents in order to grow into emotionally healthy, cognitively sharp, and morally adept adults. There is tons of information out there about how to nurture the connection that our young ones need in order to thrive. However, as parents we are far more socially isolated, and dealing with a wider range of stressors and demands, than previous generations of parents had to face. So we have all this great information at our fingertips about what children need to thrive, and we are alone spinning in thoughts and feelings that make it impossible at times to tune in to the experience of our children in the ways they most need. The bottom line: isolated, stressed out people cannot provide consistent emotional connection to children (no matter how much we understand that children need it). And it’s not our fault! As human beings, we are not built to parent in isolation.

When I was a single mom of a young child, some days seemed endlessly long. By dinnertime, if a tantrum, a meltdown, or a defiant streak came over my child, I wanted to lie down on the kitchen floor and cry myself.  I had done my reading about early childhood development, and I had even received training to teach parents how to connect with children.  I understood that connection breeds cooperation for little ones, but that didn’t help me when I was at the end of my rope.  Information reaches the limit of its usefulness when you are fried, coming unhinged, and alone.

I was a big believer in taking care of myself so I could be the best me possible for my child. There were lots of things I did to maintain my sanity, from great nutrition, to exercise, to regular social outings.  But there was one self care practice that blew all the others of out of the water: my listening partnership. I had taken a class where I learned about listening partnerships, and there I met another single mom who I partnered with to practice. Almost every night I would call her and we would exchange listening time. First one of us would listen for ten minutes to the other, then we’d switch. We used a timer, we kept confidentiality, and we didn’t give one another advice. This ten to twenty minutes a day rocked my whole world.

It sounds too simple to be so helpful. But what I found was that after hours and hours of being with my child, I was brimming over. I was riddled with worries, confusions, complaints, and sometimes surprisingly big feelings of my own. Usually by the time I got to my ten minutes of listening, I felt I couldn’t parent another day. I was done. But my desperate love for this little person I mothered made me pick up the phone and share my experience in the raw with this other mom—who in turn bared her soul to me.  I had close friends, and people I could be pretty open with in my life, but this practice was different from other conversations.  It was like taking a mental shower. I let my listening partner’s warm, caring attention wash over all the stuff I was carrying.  Miraculously, at the end of the ten minutes, my brain felt clearer, I felt more centered and equipped to show up again–tuned in and attentive–to the daily art of loving my daughter.

When we talk about needing a village to raise our children we are absolutely right. We need people to talk to, ask questions of, leave our children with from time-to-time, share the work with, and simply be with while we navigate family life. And we also need places where we can show the raw stuff; places where we won’t be judged or peppered with advice; where we don’t have to “make sense” or “be reasonable” or worry about how anyone else is going to feel about what we’re feeling or thinking. Raising children stirs up so much in us, and our world does not offer a spot where we get to show that, unabashed. But you can create a listening sanctuary for yourself in your life.  Here are some steps to get started:

  1. Make a list of the people in your life who are really warm with you. These might be friends, relatives, a minister or rabbi, neighbors, or even acquaintances.
  2. Identify two or three people who you can approach about creating a listening partnership.
  3. Reach out to these people and ask them if they’d like to try a listening practice with you where you take turns listening and each have a chance to share whatever you are “full” with in that moment. In person is always preferable (at least at first), but Skype, FaceTime, and phone are also fine options.
  4. Tell your listening partner that it is important to try not to mention what you talk about in your listening time outside of the designated time–even with you! You need to be in charge of when that emotional material is brought up. You will do the same.
  5. Agree to keep what you learn about one another to yourselves. Confidentiality keeps the sanctuary safe.
  6. The listener is to put all their attention on the person who is sharing, offering eye contact, smiles and warm expressions, maybe even a hand to hold, without judgment or advice. The listener trusts that the other person will find her own solutions once her mind has cleared and become balanced again.
  7. As a listener, maintain an attitude of confidence, warmth and respect. When listening, know that the person sharing is stronger, smarter, and clearer, than how she may seem right now. Know that the person sharing loves her children just like you do and that she is the best possible parent she can be.
  8. At the end of each turn, the listener can ask the person who just shared if she wants a little question about something unrelated as sort of a palate cleanser. This shifts their attention onto something else. You might ask, “Can you name five kinds of trees?” or “What three colors look great together?”
  9. Remember to use a timer and both take a turn.

If you continue doing this listening practice with the same person or people over time, you will be amazed at the trust and safety you will develop with one another.  You’ll be delighted at how healing and rejuvenating it can be to get to exhale, to be seen and known, in the throws of your life as a parent.

Angela Jernigan is a parent educator and co-founder of Parent Connect East Bay, a Berkeley organization dedicated to the mission “Every Child Heard – Every Parent Supported.” She offers classes, coaching, and listening time to parents who want to grow, heal, and connect even better with their kids.