A couple of months ago I was on a walk with one of my girlfriends discussing the merits of an educational program our children attend. This program has come a long way from being disorganized and sometimes chaotic to a seemingly flawless, well contained “tight ship.” That transformation came about from incorporating the best educational practices that were in alignment with the program’s mission. This program has a very strong structure. Through our discussion, I found myself wondering, “How would that program respond when the unexpected arose — those moments that can only come from the unpredictability of being human?” The word soul emerged in my mind, and I told my friend that I hoped that the soulful moments, that makes that program so special, would not be structured away.
The following week I was listening to a report about the current vaccine debates, and a doctor stated that he was an advocate of “evidence based parenting.” I was struck by that phrase. Being a clinical psychologist and mother, I love to learn about current best parenting practices, and I do rely heavily on research. But that phrase felt so cold to me. I wondered, “Are we allowed to have those juicy chaotic moments that push us to grow? Or do we have to always follow the rules that evidence based parenting has prescribed to us?” I was brought back to the conversation with my friend, and I again pondered the idea of rules and prescribed ways of performing tasks and what happens to us when life does not fit into that picture. Do we shut that moment/experience down? Or do we let that moment unfold?
Technically, there isn’t a tidy definition for soul. Soul is not a tidy concept. In Greek, psyche (the root of psychology) means soul. It is the part of us that can interpret an experience in a meaningful way. It is the part of our self that holds our imaginative potentials and dreams. The soul longs to grow from one’s life experiences and pulls us into new situations. When these unexpected moments happen, we have to improvise, and situations can sometimes get messy and chaotic. If we allow ourselves to be immersed into those moments while being in a supportive structure, we can allow the soul to be more present. When we can do this (and it is not always practical to do so), our points of view, what we know about ourselves and others, can be expanded.
My work and research is about finding the ways that soul can be present in motherhood. Currently, in our society, there is lots of “evidence” that points us to the best parenting practices. This evidence reminds us of the enormous responsibility we have to raise our children well. It also reminds us of the consequences when we do not follow the structures that are laid out for us. So, what happens when those moments arise that calls us to parent in a way that is outside of the culturally prescribed rules. I am not talking about the rules that keep our children safe and nurtured; rules such as having children ride in carseats, not hitting a child, and giving children lots and lots of love. I am talking about the diverse and sometimes conflicting social rules. Examples of this are: Where should a child sleep? Should a mom allow her nine-year-old son to take the New York Subway home by himself (see Lenore Skenezy)? Is a mom allowed to practice extended breastfeeding or allowed to give her baby formula?
Through my research I developed the concept of The Soul of Motherhood. This is about creating community that supports mothers while they make the choices that are going to work the best for her whole family. It is about developing maternal self-compassion when we do make parenting mistakes, and letting ourselves celebrate our parenting successes. The Soul Of Motherhood is about allowing oneself to explore that imperfect balance between following the best parenting practices as defined by culture and allowing ourselves to improvise on-the-spot. To spontaneously create a new behavioral pattern that is unique to each mother, yet has been seen a million times over. — Paraphrased from Daniel Stern (1).
As Thomas Moore states in his book Care of the Soul, “A soulful personality is complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failures. Life lived soulfully is not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness. Dropping the salvation fantasy [or Perfect Mother Myth] frees us up to the possibility of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundations of soul.” (2)
Daniel N. Stern, The First Relationship: Infant and Mother (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 147.
2. Thomas Moore and Peter Thomas, Care of the Soul. Recorded Books, Incorporated, 1994. Kindle l location 123 of 4759.