The Healing Gap
The tiny examination room at the Planned Parenthood clinic was too small for three people. Nevertheless, Beth and I stood awkwardly against the wall as the door opened and the gynecologist squeezed in. The stiffness of her white lab coat was audible as she maneuvered around the exam table. Her vocal inflection was deliberately neutral when she finally announced the results: “The test came back positive.”
It took me a moment to figure out that “positive” meant my wife was pregnant with our first child.
My mind exploded with thoughts of alternate futures, and the walls of that tiny, windowless room seemed to be contracting around me. As we left I felt my life as a childless adult come to an end, and I was born into the world of parenthood.
But it wasn’t a planned parenthood (well, we didn’t plan it) and my emotional reaction was an unfamiliar mixture of joy and terror. I had always looked forward to raising children, yet I had expected to “get my act together” before anyone would call me Dad. Though I was 32 years old, I felt completely unprepared for this journey. How could I raise a child responsibly when I was still recovering from my own troubled childhood?
That feeling, over seven years ago, came from an awareness of what I now call the healing gap, a phenomenon that arises when a person consciously seeks a healthier path than the one he or she is currently on. In parenthood, it’s the gap between the healthy parenting ideas you embrace consciously and what you’re actually capable of doing, here and now.
Real-life parenting does not emerge solely from the parent’s conscious intentions; it involves the whole person — mind, body, emotions and spirit — as well as the social and cultural context in which it takes place. In other words, it’s easy to change your mind, but implementing a change in your whole self is far more difficult, especially when going against the grain of society and culture.
The gap between parenting theory and practice is filled with “stuff”: each parent’s unique collection of fears, attachments, emotional wounds, unmet needs and obsolete strategies — plus external, sociocultural pressures — that impede our efforts to do what we believe is best.
Consider homebirth, for example. In most industrialized countries the idea of intentionally birthing outside of a hospital or other medical setting would not even occur to most expectant parents, and some cannot fathom why anyone would choose not to have an epidural. When these parents are exposed to research about the benefits of a natural, non-medical homebirth, most will reject the idea. Some, however, will decide on a homebirth despite their culturally induced mistrust of nature.
Thus, a healing gap is created: the mind logically and/or intuitively senses something “right” about the new choice, but the body, emotions, etc., are not “there” yet. In order to close the gap and realize the new vision, the parents must face their fears and work through them, preferably before the birth. They surround themselves with supportive people to offset the influence of naysayers. Mother learns to trust her body. Father learns to trust the process. When such healing occurs — and often it occurs during the birth — the birth experience is significantly improved no matter where it finally takes place.
Now consider a new mother practicing Attachment Parenting. Here, the potential is great for a widening of the healing gap, especially if the mother herself was left in a crib to “cry it out” and her natural attachment needs were ignored or belittled when she was a baby. The gap may show up as resentment of the child and an overwhelming desire to “get my life back!” If she finds the courage to face and heal the deeper roots of those feelings — and gets the social support she’ll need along the way — she will indeed get her life back. But it won’t be her old life, it will be a new lease on life in which she feels more whole, free, compassionate and healthily attached to her child.
Beth and I both have gone through similar experiences over the last seven years. The gap doesn’t close overnight; for us it has been a gradual, long-term healing process with occasional leaps forward and frequent backsliding.
Fortunately, the forward leaps provide inspiration that sustains us through the inevitable backslides. When my older daughter Olivia was four, there was a point at which I was losing my patience with her seemingly ceaseless, “spirited” behavior. Desperate for calm and quiet, I was tempted to misuse my power to stifle the behavior, but then I read this passage from Giving The Love That Heals: “You know you are face-to-face with the unfinished business of your own childhood when you respond with strong negative feelings to your child’s behavior.” (Hendrix and Hunt, 1997) I realized that a large part of the reason Olivia’s behavior had bothered me was that much of my own childlike spirit had been suppressed. My heart softened, and I learned to appreciate Olivia’s spiritedness — and my own — even when the daily chaos makes me yearn for simpler times.
Anyone who questions the status quo, who consciously seeks healthier ways of living, is going to experience these gaps. So why is it that many of us are hard on ourselves or others — sometimes even harshly judgmental — when the parenting is less than ideal?
First, our culture doesn’t acknowledge the healing gap. Once we realize how things “should” be, the pressure is on to get it “right” — NOW! There’s little room for process in a product-driven society. Even more, our culture’s competitive, win-lose paradigm compels us to hide our healing gaps for fear of being tagged a “loser.” But such hiding actually prevents healing.
Knowing that we all have our own healing gaps can help us see beyond the judgments of ourselves and others. The gap is neither good nor bad; it’s a natural aspect of healing, analogous to Maslow’s second stage of learning — conscious incompetence — a step forward that seems like a step backward because you become more aware that something is “off”.
Ideally, that “off” feeling would simply motivate us to develop a higher level of competence, but often it merely triggers feelings of shame and inadequacy. We may feel “not ‘AP’ enough” or “not ‘enlightened’ enough” as parents, for example. Such feelings are the most important ones to face: they prevent us from harnessing the power of the healing gap to propel us forward. As we free ourselves from the shackles of judgment and shame, we feel more at peace being right where we are on the path, even as we embrace an idealistic vision of how we want to be. We can be realistic about how steep a learning curve (or “healing curve”) we can handle. Defensiveness, blame, justification and other means of protecting ourselves from feeling ashamed are no longer needed, and this can free up a lot of creative energy to further accelerate the healing process.
Another endeavor that can benefit from acknowledgement and integration of the healing gap is “creating community.” From parenting support groups to homeschooling co-ops to “intentional communities,” nothing exposes the healing gap as dramatically as our attempts to rise above the norm of isolated, single-family life. We dream of belonging to a modern “tribe” in which parents are respectful and sensitive to the children’s needs, children have easy access to many playmates, and someone is there for you in times of need. Why do attempts to create community so often go down in flames?
As “alternative” parents, we are already challenged by our individual healing gaps. We are accustomed to dealing with that in the relatively simple context of the family, but as we coalesce into larger social groups, the social complexity increases exponentially. (Do the math... A typical nuclear family with one child has only three interpersonal relationships: mother-father, mother-child, father-child. In a group of ten parents and ten children, the number of possible relationships rises to 190!) This increased social complexity tends to bring individuals’ “stuff” to the surface, makes dealing with it more complicated, and creates a collective healing gap — the chasm between the ideal of the healthy, interdependent community and the reality of our fragmented society.
In order to survive and thrive, a fledgling group or community needs to be clear about its shared ideals and it must acknowledge and accept its individual and collective healing gaps. With this clarity, group members can develop a practical, compassionate way of handling current realities as they work incrementally toward their vision.
As with most of life, the healing gap is like a hologram in which the pattern of the whole is embedded in each part. There are healing gaps at the level of the individual, the family, the community, the nation and the world, and there is an upward ripple effect from individual toward global healing. You create this ripple effect every time you embrace a higher vision for your own expression of parenthood, accept where you are now, and let the gap inspire healing.