The Three-Letter Word
Make space for the “ands” that help feed our souls.
Posted Aug 12, 2020
by Dr. Paula Yanes-Lukin Ph.D.
On a sunny Saturday morning in September, I walked with my twin five-year-old girls and their two-year-old brother to the girls’ first soccer practice. I was alone with the three kids as my husband works Saturdays and, despite the many times that I tried to tell myself I should be used to this arrangement by now, I still felt overwhelmed. This being their first practice, the girls were nervous and clung to my legs, making it difficult for me to chase after the two-year-old, who darted onto the field. I hunkered down into multi-tasking mode, trying my best to lovingly pry my girls off, run after my son, and make cheerful eye contact with the other parents I was hoping (and nervous) to get to know. We finally joined the rest of the team and the girls were having none of it; they wouldn’t let go of me despite the coaches trying their best to entice them, and only reluctantly agreed to stay on the field when I affirmed that I would stand nearby. The truth is that, of all of us that morning, I was the one that got the most soccer training. I played midfield: on offense, pushing the girls back on the field, and on defense, keeping my son on the sidelines. By the end of practice, at only 10 in the morning, I felt defeated and utterly exhausted.
Now I know that all parents have these moments of feeling overwhelmed, or that they’re failing, or moments of watching their hopes (becoming a soccer mom!) not pan out as expected. But as a child psychologist I feel as though there’s extra pressure on me to get this parenting thing “right," that for some reason, I should know better; I should have the internal resources and skills to manage their fears and my raw nerves. In reality, I’m human, endlessly tired, and sometimes the clinical skills needed are not all that simple to apply.
It wasn’t until I was running a DBT skills group that I realized one skill I had been practicing could come in handy. DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, is a type of therapy that, among other things, focuses on creating change by practicing acceptance and learning new skills. I always struggled with the name of the treatment as “dialectic,” a word that means resolving opposite ideas to form a new truth. It seemed too complicated or abstract. But as I pondered its meaning, I started to think about the word “and,” a word which is often used when reconciling dialectics. “And” is a common word, used frequently to connect ideas, but generally it’s unassuming and mostly ignored. For example, I like peanut butter and jelly. Our president is tan and white. However, in situations when more than one description defines the moment, this simple, commonplace word suddenly has great power. It can convey a completely different, fully validating experience by pulling together two ideas that don’t inherently seem to get along. A goodbye to an old friend turns from just sad to bitter and sweet. In work, you can be overwhelmed with imposter syndrome or you can have both some experience and much to learn. As a parent, I can know exactly what I’m doing and not have a clue. Different truths can exist at the same time, and the “and” unites those realities.
This recent focus on the “and” has allowed me to redefine my experiences, to allow the good to enter when I was just focusing on the bad. I realized I can be both tired from running around to different activities and enthusiastic about watching my kids learn new things. I can be overwhelmed by the fear that my kids may get hurt while playing and in love with the sounds of their laughter as they explore. I can hate cleaning up their messes and appreciate their enthusiasm for art and creativity. By focusing on the “and,” I can allow for a bit of freedom in how I define experiences, enriching those moments with a greater awareness.
With the soccer season now in full swing, my girls are still not enthusiastic players — one spent an entire practice sitting on the soccer ball and the other dancing and singing in the corner. And while I can focus on my dashed hopes of them becoming the next Mia Hamm, I instead choose to feel both disappointment and appreciation that they are giving soccer a chance. I can be overwhelmed with being alone with the three of them and enjoy the sun on my face and the cuteness of the little Lionel Messi wannabes running around in front of me. As parents we are used to making space in our hearts for the love of our children. It’s only fair that we make space for the “ands” that help feed our own souls.
Paula Yanes-Lukin is an assistant professor at Columbia University.