Paying Attention was the Hardest Part of Early Parenting

I used to sneak away for a hot bath as often as possible when my daughter was in the need-me-every-minute years. I’d soak long past when the water went cold and I felt guilty at times but sometimes I needed to be alone.

To read poetry.

To have some physical space.

To exhale.

I didn’t always know where or how to pamper or self-care myself. There were few adults I trusted. I believed in attachment-style parenting and wanted to be there all of the time. And that even made me feel guilty when I craved alone time. Like all alone time meant not being present for and to my daughter.

She’d sit on my lap when she ate. Or I ate.

She’d use my body as a mattress. She could rest best when being rocked or walked. I wore her often when she was young.

She didn’t want to just be sitting near or with me she wanted to be coloring, interacting and playing.

Sometimes it was bliss. Sometimes it was dreadfully boring. Always it was important and utterly exhausting.

I’d tell my friends, “I have to pay attention all of the time. All of the time.”

They’d look at me like that was the beginning of the sentence. It wasn’t.

Paying attention was so hard.

I had to be on all of the time, kind of even when sleeping.

Now, this is challenging for anyone.

But for those of us with a trauma history, a childhood of neglect and abuse, it is the OPPOSITE of how we’ve lived.

Paying attention and staying in our bodies and being attuned, it’s an entirely new way of existing.

To do this, without breaks or drugs or numbing food or booze….

it’s a lot!


This being alert, aware, attuned, attentive and available was monumentally difficult for me.

I’d say to my best friend, in a whisper, feeling terribly guilty, ‘it’s like my bone marrow is her straw and she’s sucking every bit of life in me.’

I’d admit, that though it was satisfying to be able to meet my daughter’s needs so often and completely, it took every fiber of my being.

I wasn’t sure if it felt that way to others.

I didn’t understand how people parented more than one child, managed social lives or creative work projects on the side. Did these other parents have super powers? more support? not have PTSD?

How did people manage paying attention and sleep deprivation and really – anything else?

I didn’t have language. I just felt rather lazy or lame or inadequate, like parenting and being present to myself at the same time was almost a tug of war.

I didn’t even believe it was possible to do both.

It’s not like I even really knew at the time how present I had NOT been to myself. I could feel the enormous shift and strain of being totally present (or as best I could) do what my daughter was wanting or needing or eating.

Was she safe or fed or upset? Was she clean, happy and getting enough love? Was she developing and healthy and o.k. on the floor? Did she like this toy or that or the sand or the water or whatever?

I hadn’t paid that much attention to my own body or needs. Strength, to me, felt like telling the body to knock it off and ignoring it a little or completely.

This wasn’t a choice as a mother or a way of parenting I wanted to provide.

But it was only later that I would understand how unfamiliar it felt, for me, to be so intimate, close and connected with another human being.





To survive, as a child, I pretended wet clothes weren’t wet or that I wasn’t really cold. If I wet the bed I hoped others couldn’t smell me if I held my nose. I’d say, I didn’t need a rain coat or an umbrella or that I didn’t want candy or food because I wasn’t hungry and not the truth – that I didn’t have money.

I altered myself, my words and the truth to seem as though I needed less rather than admit, long for, ask for and not get the things others might have that I didn’t have access to.

This didn’t feel like a huge big deal. It just was how it was.

It wasn’t until I lived another way that it felt like I now had to get through my life driving in reverse rather than just plunging forward all of the time.

It’s not like I thought or knew “I suck at self-care.”

Photo & Art: Margaret Bellafiore

Photo & Art: Margaret Bellafiore

It’s more I had no idea what the hell people who used words like self-care were even talking about.

Parenting changed me.

It changed my ways of being and it changed my vocabulary.

But it happened slowly.

I was the one who needed to provide my girl her with coats and sweaters and mittens and hats. I couldn’t just say, “Wet hair dries” or “Tough it out.” I could do that and yet I’d still not put mittens on myself when there was snow.

I knew I wasn’t always living what I was teaching.

I copied things others did or learned from books on how to build attachment.

It wasn’t intuitive or automatic.

Some of it was natural but much of it was not.

Which was also hard to admit. It’s still a little hard to admit.

These are the things about the breaking the cycle that impacted my parenting. They aren’t always big or huge things.

I know it’s related to being raised with ACEs but not as incidences that happened a few times, but in the way I saw and felt the world as a way of normalizing adversity.

I sort of pretended it wasn’t so bad or that I wasn’t all there.

Not exactly mindful awareness.

It was coping.0313141022-1

And I’m not complaining.

I am noticing and sharing.

I’m sharing because being present was something I had to learn to do and get used to. And I don’t mean being able to meditate for an hour. I mean being able to stay grounded in my skin and sensations and emotions.

It felt taxing in a way I didn’t understand.

I wonder if others have experienced this too in yourself and in the parents you know, love or work with who are parenting with ACEs.


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