Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Mom to Mom: Patty Wipfler

It's July...and it's my pleasure to introduce, Patty Wipfler.

: Patty Wipfler
Of: Jacob (38), David (36)
Grandmother of: Lucas (7), Rory (5), and Allison (5)
Site: Hand in Hand

1. In what ways has becoming a mother changed you?

Becoming a mother has revolutionized my life, and has taught me a lot about myself and other people. I always wanted to be a mother. I had always thought I would be a really good mother, because I helped to raise my younger brothers and sister, loved playing with them and caring for them. My own parents were either ill or highly stressed for several years of my childhood, and playing with my siblings was the best part of every day for me. So I was absolutely shocked when, under stress myself, I began to do harsh things to my sons. I was having the experience I think most of us have: I was passionately and powerfully in love with my children, and at the same time, found out that the stresses of parenting were badly warping my behavior. I couldn't just wish that away. It kept coming back to haunt me, and to hurt them.

My search for what to do with myself, so that I could be the Mom I had hoped to be, led me to people who were listening to one another as a path to leading life more intelligently. It worked! When I made the time to listen to another parent, and then be listened to, it made an immediate and profound change in the stress level in our family. So naturally, I wanted to figure out how to apply the idea of listening, and allowing the other person to get to the feelings behind their stressed behavior, to my children. A small group of other parents doing listening with one another then banded together to try to figure out how to parent using the insights that had worked so well for us. With them, I got to help develop a whole new and interesting approach to parenting. So those moments when I was stunned at the awfulness of my behavior led to my good fortune in learning support practices and listening practices that I have found infinitely interesting, rewarding, and encouraging. And they work so well with children!

2. What message would you like to share with mothers?

We are mothering in a system that has little regard for the complex, detailed, and challenging work of nurturing children. It's not our fault that parenting feels so difficult, or that we fall short of our own expectations every single day. The system is set up with less than 10% of the support, very little of the information, and none of the economic stability it takes to provide a safe nurturing environment in which a family can thrive. We find ourselves short of patience, short of good ideas, short of energy because the work of nurturing children takes far more attention and relaxed intelligence than anyone has estimated or made provision for. Our children are OK. We're OK. But the setup parents are in is not OK.

Given that this isolating and unsupportive environment is what we're working with, we need to consciously build sturdy support systems for ourselves. It's important to honor the work we do with the time we need to talk about it. We need to talk about our thoughts, experiments, feelings, and challenges, to someone who won't judge us or advise us, but who will listen to us and let us figure our own best way forward. We can exchange that kind of time, for free, with one another.

It used to be that many people lost all their teeth by the age of 50, because nothing was known of dental hygiene. Now, losing all your teeth is rare in our country. I want to build a world where we say, "We used to just send parents home with a baby in their arms, and forget them. Now good support and information for parents is right around the corner. Now parents know that doing Listening Partnerships once or twice a week helps them understand their children, they can go to the parent support group down the street. Now they can enjoy their children, and grow in the work of parenting, rather than come up exhausted just as their child reaches adolescence!"

3. What inspired you to create hand in hand?

The listening I was doing with my own children, other people's children, and in parenting workshops was transforming children's lives. Parents were feeling, "My heavens! This is so simple, how come no one understands how to really listen to a child? It makes a whole world of difference, not just for my children, but for me!" I wanted to try to help get Parenting by Connection ideas and practices out there, so we all could have a more fulfilling time of it as parents, and so our children could grow up without unnecessary emotional dents and dings. In the back of my mind, I often remember how much my parents loved all six of us, and how difficult their lives were, because there was no support. My mom was a pioneer in winning the right to support and services for developmentally delayed children and their parents. I just thought it made sense to see how far I could get in this project of building emotional understanding among parents.

4. What is the most common question that parents ask you?

That's a good question! I think it's some form, at all ages, of the question, "My child is a wonderful child one minute, and the next minute, he or she is impossible to deal with! There's attitude! There's crying! There's a tantrum! Over nothing! What have I done wrong? What is wrong with my child?"

5. What are some practical things that parents can do to make the most profound impact in the lives of their children?

To begin with, we teach two "Listening Tools." One is Special Time. It's a date you make with your child, perhaps ten to twenty minutes each day, or a half hour on the weekend, where you say, "I'll play whatever you want! What do you want to do?" and then you shine your interest and approval on your child, whatever their choice may be. You call it Special Time or Mommy-and-Me-Time or One-on-One time. You call it something, so they can ask for it when they feel they need it. And you time it, so it has a definite start, and a definite but warm and affectionate ending, so you don't feel trapped in it. You let your child lead. You don't teach, advise, or criticize. You don't multitask. You don't answer the phone. You don't fix anything. You just enjoy them, and see what they want to do. This is wonderful for children! They get to try things, invent games, challenge you to do things you don't really like to do. It builds trust. It lets them show you what issues they have, through play.

We pair this tool with one that is not so permissive. We call it Staylistening. When your child bursts into tears or a tantrum, or when they do something you can't allow, you move close, make gentle physical contact, stop the behavior that doesn't make sense, make eye contact, and say very little. You keep your child safe while they unload the emotional tension they have stored up over the past days and years. You stay, listen, offer warmth, tell them that you care, but you don't solve the problem. Not right then. You don't fix the toast that you cut into rectangles, just because they are crying for triangles. You say, "Yes, I guess I did rectangles this time." And you let them grieve, or rage, or tantrum about the rectangles. You give them you. You don't distract them with triangular toast. You don't lecture them about how hard you worked to make this rectangular toast, and how it will taste the same as toast in triangles, because the issue is emotional. The toast is just the trigger. Listening, giving caring, but not solving anything allows a child to release all that pent up disappointment that pops out into the open many times a day--when they whine, when they come in second, not first, when they have to wait while you finish a phone call, when the cat doesn't want to be held. They can cry it all out, in the warmth of your arms.

And when they feel better, which they inevitably do (but it takes awhile!), their behavior shows that they feel much closer to you, more relaxed. After a few days of good cries often, they become happier children for longer and longer stretches of time. They still need to cry, but if you move close to attend to them while they have their upset, they get the connection their minds crave, and things begin to go better all around.

It's an enlightening experience, the first time you do this. It's scary while you're listening, because your child doesn't seem to have the ability to stop or to reason or to feel that you're there. It looks like he'll never collect himself. And it's amazing when a big cry is over, because your child perks up and is different. For instance, I was listening to one little boy the other day, who cried for an hour and a half about wanting his mommy, who was holding his hand the whole time, and wanting to go home. I was listening, too. When he was done, he turned to me and said, "This is my home!" The world was now a safer place for him!

Knowing that your presence and support is all a child needs to overcome a difficult moment or a traumatic experience is thrilling. You actually can make life easier and better for your children, using these tools. There are additional Listening Tools, but these two tools by themselves help children feel secure, connected, and, when they've worked through their issues, content.

6. What moves you, grounds you, fills your well?

I do regular Listening Partnerships with people in Hand in Hand, and with people who have been my Listening Partners for 35 years. There's always some new thing that needs to be done that scares me, that I don't really think that I can do. My listening partners help me tackle my fears, and I love knowing them well, backing them fully in turn, holding out confidence for them. People are amazing, when you really get to know them. And I love to play, in my family and at Hand in Hand. I love to roughhouse. I love to give Special Time. I love to give children permission to romp and bowl the grownups over and play tricks on us over and over. I love to laugh and see their delight. My hobbies are pillow fighting and, currently, playing "No Huggie, No Kissie," with my grandchildren, where I run after them trying to offer affection, and they rescue each other when, somehow, I manage to get close to planting a kiss. It's such good fun! They are very clever, but so am I!


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posted by Wendy at 5:46 AM


Anonymous Stacy (mama-om) said...

Wow -- thank you for this terrific interview. So much of it touches me, but particularly the part about being "stunned by the awfulness of my behavior" and about the realities of not having enough support. I have been struggling (mightily!) to come to terms with being home full-time with my two young boys, and to find compassion and clarity and kindness for us all, including myself.

I remember seeing the Hand in Hand site before -- and now I'll definitely be doing more reading of the online articles and available booklets. Oh, how I wish there were support groups in Seattle! :) When I clicked the link, it was blank.

Thank you for bringing this interview to us, Wendy! And thank you to Patty for providing such a valuable resource, and for being so articulate and loving about the challenges we face.


4:13 PM  
Anonymous Jill said...

Hi Wendy,

Thank you for once again bringing an invaluable resource to my attention. I echo what Stacy said above about not being proud of how I handle conflict with my daughter sometimes, and trying to consciously strive for better while acknowledging that this is hard work! Also wishing there was a listening support group in my area!

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stacy and Jill:

Contact Hand in Hand to find groups and classes in your area--we will be having classes in Seattle in the Fall, and have groups online, by teleconference, and in some cities, in person. Contact, and we'll answer! Thanks for your interest and dedication to parenting.

Patty Wipfler

8:11 PM  

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