Sydney McCall Patel
Letting Our Wiser Inner Parent Emerge
Updated: Feb 17
EMBRACING THE DARK TO FIND THE LIGHT
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
The unexpected part of having our baby was that when we welcomed him into our home in Marin county, we also welcomed a new existential paradigm into our lives. With his birth entered a keen awareness of the fragility of our corporal bodies and this precious life. On almost a daily basis thoughts of death made their way to the foreground of our minds as we went about our tasks. And at night we found ourselves compulsively checking to see if our newborn was still breathing. Suddenly, the life of our little family of three felt excruciatingly vulnerable. We look at pictures of the couple we were before he was born and see a much lighter version of ourselves.
Parenthood can feel like a painful jolt into life’s liminal reality for those who are expecting to only feel more light. And our mainstream societal narrative doesn’t prepare us for the profound internal shifts we inevitably experience as parents. It’s not that such shifts are in any way bad, they are deepening, and at a primal level can make us more alert and tender parents.
Nevertheless, sometimes parents come to therapy thinking something is terribly wrong because they are having these intense existential thoughts concerning this new vulnerability. Without the right support to process these changes we may try to suppress this darker, wiser being from emerging. The problem with this suppression is that rather than having the natural integration of the light and dark, we turn away from the dark which makes it only scarier and more disturbing.
This darkness will scream at us until it is really listened to. I think cultivating a willingness to turn towards discomfort is one of the primary gifts of therapy. It’s a skill we can bring into our lives to tolerate distress and grow from it. And if we are in a partnership, it helps when there is the safety to hold these intense feelings together so neither member has to be alone in the dark.
We can learn to face this darkness, but first we need to ground ourselves in order to turn towards it. We want a safe container to explore what feels unsafe. It is helpful to have a partner, friend, therapist or even a journal to help us express ourselves. I think there is something specifically very powerful about reaching out to another person when we do this. In the presence of another we can locate our emotions in the body and explore whatever thoughts and stories are associated with them. We can feel the support of the ground underneath of us, holding us up as we examine our unrest. And we can learn to be with our intense emotion by learning how to come back to the present moment through our senses to connect with what is around us. This allows us to take breaks if we become overwhelmed so we can recognize that there’s actually nothing physically threatening happening. Learning to do this gives us the opportunity to integrate these darker parts of ourselves so we aren’t just being pulled around by them and living in fear.
In my experience, one of the best parts of developing this new felt awareness of death, is that with it comes an immense appreciation for our lives together. This gratitude is there for me as a soft cushion on our more difficult days. Even now, four years after our son’s birth, it seems when I can open to the darkness that exists within our role as parents, I can somehow encounter an even greater light. But first I must be willing to walk through the dark with my eyes and ears wide open, listening so I can receive whatever gems of truth are shining through.
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