Weeks before my daughter was to be born, my brother mentioned to me the piece of advice which stood out the most from what the hospital staff told him “Don’t shake the baby”. Like any obvious piece of advice, I laughed, nodded my head and said “of course, don’t shake the baby” Who would do such a thing? Surely not me. About 3 weeks after my daughter was born and right about the time when her 22 hour sleep days started wearing off, I find myself doing laps around the living room at three o’clock in the morning, holding my daughter in my arms and shushing her and doing as many of the 5 S’s as are necessary to keep her asleep while allowing Satya to get some rest.
It is all going so swimmingly well until…..”Waaaa” “Waaaa” “Waaaa” and my daughter becomes inconsolable. I change the holding position, shush louder in her ear, give her my pinky to suck on, sway like I am on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic, re-swaddle her in her blanket. You name it. Nothing. At a more convenient hour, I would be less frustrated, less worried about waking up my wife and failing at my job. And so, given the perfect mix of sleeplessness, the lack of results and the realization that I don’t know what I am doing, my frustration levels peak. And, like a character in a Looney Toons, you can see my thermometer starting to rise until the mercury just bursts through the top and like a volcano, there is no stopping it. In an instant, like Bruce Banner changing into the Hulk, I manage to forget all the kindness and paternal caring instincts and softness with which I had been caring for my daughter for the last hour and half and I take her 8 lb body and pull her up to me eye to eye and just before I do what seems at that moment the only thing left to do, I hear my brother’s voice, like Obi Wan Kenobi, “don’t shake the baby, Jeffrey” And with that, I took a deep breath and worked the problem. I made a bottle of milk, checked her diaper, gave her kisses and hugged on her like this was the last time I was ever going to get to hug on her. And with that settled back into our routine of doing laps around the living room, holding her and shushing her to sleep. After my shift, I hand her off to mom, take a cat nap and wake up ready to face another day.
After more than enough nights like this on repeat, I had to try to figure out what was going on. I was reminded of some advice from my friend Esther Perel that parenting will bring you to a new range of emotions you never thought possible. In this instance, I never knew I could feel that hot that quickly and especially not towards this little being who I have been doting on for every minute of her life. I needed to figure out what was going on, what was the trigger and more importantly, what was the solution to this state of mind. I felt that at some point , I might go past the moment when the sage advice of my brother would hold sway and win the night. And then I might do something I regret for a long time.
Before my daughter was born I started to read Parenting from the Inside Out, and, of course, like any parenting book (or any book for that matter) it is hard to truly comprehend it unless you have some experience in the subject matter. I did remember, however, that the overall point of the book was to remind us that our best and worst traits as a parent come from deep inside of us and that in order to grow in this process and be the parent you would like to be, you have to do the work and reflect. So I picked up the book started to read it and drifted off to sleep and sure enough, when I woke up, I had a realization that what was going on in those wee hours of the morning and frankly at anytime with my daughter or with my dog or in my life is that the level of my frustration (which can quickly turn to anger and rage) was equal to the gap between what I expected of myself or my life at a particular time and the reality of what was happening at that time.
So, for the example of my early morning laps with my daughter. Everything was fine and at peace when she was sleeping and doing what I expected her to be doing at that time. The moment she awoke and did something unexpected my frustration started to rise and it kept rising the more I doubled down on insisting on a different reality. However, once I stopped, took a deep breath and accepted the situation, e.g. she needed something she wasn’t getting and not all the things I preconceived that she needed in that moment, my frustration lowered and my joy in spending that time with my daughter, taking care of her needs and looking out for her increased. And all was good in the world.
I have since applied this tool for analysis to many other situations, parenting and non-parenting, I also now recognize this gap in other people when they get frustrated and angry and am able to help lower the pressure of the situation at those times. Try it, the next time you immediately feel frustrated and maybe even angry, take a deep breath and ask how far apart is my expectation of what should be happening right now and what is actually happening. I believe you will find that you will not only reduce your anger but increase your joy in those moments.