Archive for Parenting With Heart


Yesterday I asked my 5-year-old son to promise me that when he grows up, he will not go to war.

He looked at me with his big brown eyes and said , “I pwomise, Mommy.  I won’t go to war.”

I come from a long line of pacifist men, so I’m hoping his word is good.  It’s one of the scariest things about having a son.

My mom was sitting nearby and she said, “And Amelia.  Make Amelia promise.” And even though I’m a feminist to the core, I really have zero fears about my daughter enlisting.

This is why:  I play a game to get Josh to eat his vegetables, where the broccoli is held with one hand and labeled a kitten, and the other hand is the monster. The monster chases the kitten into my son’s mouth, and his mouth is the refuge. He is distracted with fun so he will eat his veggies. But this silly game is upsetting to my 8-year-old daughter, because she feels sorry for the kitten and the monster scares her.   She has to leave the dinner table.  That child is not going to enlist.  Not even in a parallel universe.

But Josh loves to make sticks into guns, and shoot his bow and arrow at the cat. When he was 3 years old, he was poking a snail with a stick and I scolded, “Don’t do that.  It hurts the snail.”

He asked, “Can I at least pee on it?”

He was born aggressive, and with a loving family it will turn into assertiveness and drive.  But I am scared that when he’s 18 and his prefrontal lobes aren’t developed and consequences are abstractions and death is a myth and being a hero is a worthy goal, he could just amble on down to the armed forces center on a bright sunny day and sign his life away.  Nooooooooooooo.

Josh, promise me.  Promise me.  No war.

“I pwomise, Mommy.”

The Attach Place Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Parenting with heart,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT

The Wink

It was 4 PM and my contractions were intensifying. I still felt on top of them and naively considered that maybe I had grown more pain tolerant since my previous labor. This time around I wouldn’t want/need an epidural.


The nurse examined me and shook her head grimly saying, “You are only 3 cm dilated. ” She informed me that they had a strict policy to not admit women until they were at least 4 cm.”

I said, “But I’m 42 years old.”

The nurse looked at me sadly and said she’d check with her boss before sending me home. She returned looking positively cheery. She exclaimed, “Good news! We can give you a ‘pity admit.’”

Yes, it’s a thing: “Pity admit,” for those women who are managing labor so pathetically that the staff relents and lets them take a bed.   Luckily, in the midst of excruciating pain, my pride takes a back seat.

I was instructed to walk around for an hour to speed up the labor, which I did with my husband, Randy, on my right. The contractions intensified more. I remembered my previous two un-medicated labors and insisted that we return to my bed so I could get the epidural NOW, to which they complied. The epidural nurse was magazine-beautiful with long blond hair. She announced, “I love my job,” as she stuck the needle in my back.

All better.

Then we chilled for four hours.

Finally the nurse said that I was 10 centimeters. The doctor arrived in 20 minutes. She was a slim, dark-haired, no-nonsense, energetic woman in her 50s named Dr. M.

Dr. M told me to push and I did as instructed.     Except, Sam didn’t come. He didn’t move an inch. He appeared to be stuck. Not only was he stuck, but his heart rate decelerated every contraction, which was a red flag for the doctor.

I tried harder to push. Nothing. Sam didn’t move and his heart kept dropping. Then during one contraction, it dropped down so far that the nurse and the doctor grabbed me and pushed my knees to my chest while pushing me over onto my left side. I was exhausted and in a dreamy altered state so their intervention felt intrusive and strange.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

They pointed to the monitor and said that his heart rate had dropped too much. I knew they were worried.

This is my third child, third pregnancy, third labor, and so I know something that first time moms can’t possibly fully understand. Being a mother is a profoundly vulnerable experience because you realize that your child could die right before you, and even if they live there is only so much you can do to protect them from pain. The realization is searing.   Every single parent bumps into a horrifying reality: ultimately, I am powerless. We do what we do to protect our little ones from danger and heal their hurts, but there is always that edge of powerlessness we must learn to live with at the cost of loving deeply. There is no way around it, and I hate it.

This was the first time I felt that fear with Sam. I squeezed Randy’s hand and he squeezed back.

The doctor instructed that I stop pushing.   It was decision-making time.

Dr. M said that there were three choices:

  • Vacuum
  • C-section
  • Stay the course

The third option was the most risky.

“I’m scared.”

The doctor replied, “Me too.”

When I tell people this part of the story they always gasp and express righteous indignation, “You should have told her to go get someone who knows what they are doing!!!” I don’t share the outrage.

I loved the doctor for this honesty. I loved that she gave me a choice and didn’t have an answer because that’s life and I imagine (If Grey’s Anatomy has taught me anything) that this is never truer than on the operating table. The crossroads don’t have definitive signs and cost/benefit analysis must be done in a split second. Sometimes intuition is our only guide. So when Dr. M told me she was scared, she let me know two things:

  • She cared.
  • She owned her vulnerability. She wasn’t omnipotent   She was like me, but with a medical degree.

The next contraction came and I threw up. Baby Sam skootched over to the middle of my stomach. I decided to stay the course, for now. I pushed again. Dr. M looked at me. Her face 3 inches from my vagina, her hands ready to catch the baby, and then….She winked.

When I think of my labor this is the indelible imprint of the whole experience, not my baby’s arrival. Sure, that was earth shattering and transcendent, but my tiny OB perched between my legs with a smile and a big wink cannot be erased. It’s funny that we cannot escape ourselves. Even though this was a real life, cliff-hanger moment, my brain had the stamina and the gall to have an awkward social moment. “Should I wink back?” I wondered. I decided against it.

It was 1 AM. I pushed with everything I had left. With a mighty UMMPH, he slipped out and everyone cheered. He cuddled onto my chest and I held him close. Big love. One minute into a relationship with this baby and I already knew that I was sunk. I was totally and completely crazy in love with my sweet blue-eyed baby boy, Samuel Reed Olden.

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Parenting with heart,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT

2014 in Review–Parent With Heart Blog

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Words Matter

On my way to dropping my daughter off at pre-school I saw a handmade billboard with the word Kindness.  Later that day, in another part of town, I saw another sign but this time with the word Love.  I wondered about the person that took the time to diligently trace the letters, color them in, and then in the middle of the night, duct tape them to a pole.  I imagined it to be three or so hippie college students drinking wine and daydreaming about what they could do to spread the love.  Or maybe the culprit was an old man in AA on the heels of some major loss, attempting to offset the pain.  Or maybe it was simply an assignment designed by a sociology professor to measure happiness before and after a good deed.

What impressed me is that this anonymous good deed received zero to little feedback from the world, and yet someone somewhere felt it worth doing.

Here ‘s the thing:  It actually does make a difference and there has been research to prove it.

Phil Shaver, a professor and researcher from UC Davis conducted a study involving college students working on a mundane task on their computer.  Periodically an attachment word would flash across the screen.  Words like:








Before and after the mundane task, the college students took a short questionnaire that measured their internal sense of security. It turned out that just by reading attachment words, without personal context, increased the participant’s sense of internal security and safety in the world.

HOLY MOLY.  Words DO matter.

I remember a client reporting that she had been staring at a bookshelf in my office with titles like “Loneliness” and “How to Work with Difficult Clients.” These words reverberated in the background of her consciousness.  Every time she glanced over at the bookshelf she felt alone and vaguely like she was burdensome to me.

This also speaks to the hypnotic and repetitive nature of the interventions in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Sue Johnson, the creator of the EFT model, once used an attachment word 43 times in a five-minute video clip of her providing therapy for a couple.  43 times.   Her repetition sends the equivalent of a massive flood that enters the amygdala and it gets people releasing emotion because they feel relieved and understood.  They enter a kind of happy secure trance.

So right now, if I say to you:

You are not alone.  I am with you, and you are loved.  We are together and better for it.  You can count on me.   There is a chemical reaction going on in your brain now.   Read it slowly.   Your amygdala is soothed.  We are mammals and with that comes a biological imperative to connect.   Love is not icing on the cake; it’s the cake.   Actually, it’s not the cake; it’s the whole meal.  It’s survival.

This research by Phil Shaver, PhD compelled me to do a little experiment in our house.  We own a small Ikea-purchased easel that the kids previously used for art projects, but eventually got relegated to the garage.  I pulled it out the other day because one side is a chalkboard and will do in a pinch to advertise a garage sale.    So the experiment is this: Every week or so I write an attachment-loaded sentence and park the sign in the dining room.  For example:

Love wins.

You are never alone.

Your needs are okay with me.

You matter to me.

You belong here.

I’m glad you are you.

You are loved.

I’m not mentioning it or trying to drive my message home. I’m just doing what the rogue love anarchist did with the posters around the city.  I’m sending a message of love out in our house and trusting that the words will wiggle their way into some part of our hearts.  Maybe it will remind us, in more difficult moments, what’s truly important:  Love.

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

With a full heart,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT





Here Little Fishy

Josh, my four-year-old son, hates water. He is desperately afraid of it and even the bathtub pushes his comfort level. He refuses to let me dump a cup of water on his head. The number of times I’ve shampood his hair I could count on one hand. So you can imagine how terrifying a swimming pool is for Josh. It’s exactly like jumping off a cliff without a parachute and imagining that just this one time you might fly and not die. I take him to the YMCA for swim lessons where the policy is to just force the child in the water while the parent moves out of sight. Here is a transcript of the usual conversation between the teacher and the student:

“AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” (Subtext: Mommy/God/Anyone save me, I’m dying.)


Swim instructor: Like a fishy. Yay! Slash splash. You are a sweet little fishy.

Young child:


Kids generally scream like this for two-three sessions and then—of course—they realize that they are going to be okay. On session number four, they magically transform into the happiest and most playful students in the class. Parents plug their ears, suffocate that caregiving instinct for the half hour of class and wall off their heart for the cause of an imminent skilled swimmer.

The ends justify the means. Maybe this is true. Drowning is the number one cause of death for small children and so a little screaming isn’t so bad when the other choice is high risk for death. Maybe this is the right thing to do. It’s considered to be the standard for children learning to swim.
But I realize that I’m not worried about Josh learning to swim. I am positive he will get this down quickly with my support and the more important lessons that some people never learn are: 1) Trust oneself 2) Be brave.

Because this is my bigger goal in parenting, I want to teach him to listen to that quiet voice inside that says, “Wait, this isn’t safe. It doesn’t feel right to me.” Or conversely, “I can do it. I’m scared, but I’m going to jump anyway.” And that courage is driven by an inner fire not an external pressure. I imagine this friendly relationship with oneself is the crux of a happy life, so screw learning to swim. Let’s just use the pool as the context for learning a deeper and more important lesson, trust oneself, leap when you are ready, and know that you will never ever be completely ready. A happy life demands risk, but its risk on one’s own terms, otherwise it”s potential trauma and loss.

Josh doesn’t want to wear his bathing suit. He imagines it as the first step toward the cliff, so we bring his bathing suit and once we arrive he is willing to put it on. He refuses to get in the water, but he’ll sit on the edge with his little starfish shaped hands gripping the side of the pool watching the other kids thrash around in the pool.

flat faced little swimmerHe’s nervous and I can see his little shoulders scrunched up. I walk over to him and whisper in his ear, “You are so brave. Just sitting here right now. So, so brave. You are doing a wonderful job.”

He looked at me doubtfully but remained seated. His hands loosened up a bit. I realized that my validation is a circle and when I validate Josh and see him as brave and enough, then suddenly and unexpectedly I see myself as brave and enough. Even though the swim instructors may see me as overprotective and other parents might perceive me as hovering, I am listening to a small voice inside of me that knows that risk titrated is still risk and that I am focused on a larger intention than learning to swim.
There is this sense that Josh and I really are in it together and I’m proud of us both.

felt safety with momThat night Josh and I are in bed together and talking about the swim lesson. I let him know that someday he’ll learn to swim and glide through the water and find that he can float. He is quiet for a moment and says, “I’d like to do that. Someday.”

• I think this swim lesson technique is used because drowning is one of the top five ways little kids die. So we parents have good reason to push swimming lessons. For the record, Josh is learning to swim—just my way: Slowly, with lots of comfort and validation and with his mom always present.
• If you taught your kids to swim the traditional way and this blog makes you feel guilty, your child is fine. It’s the climate of childhood that makes the difference, not the single event. The story about swimming is a metaphor as much as it’s about swimming itself.

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Mother

The Tantrum Family

Josh suddenly screamed from the back bedroom, “Daddy got my hair wet.”

Josh hates his hair getting wet. When he was just 14-months-old, he spilled boiling hot tea on his arm. I grabbed him and jumped in a cold shower, both of us fully clothed, to stop his skin from burning. The burn healed completely but the psychological damage remained.
Ever since that day he has hated, no, feared water on his head. Now he is nearly four years old and I have probably washed his hair twice in his entire life because, trust me, It’s not worth it.

“Josh come out here,” I called from the living room. “Mama can hold you.”

“AAHHHHHH,” screaming continued.

“I got a space for you,” I persisted.


“Yeah, space. I have a spot for you.”

He started walking down the hall toward me. “A Hot Spot?”

“Not a Hot Spot. A place. A space. Here, come here.”

He was naked like a little baby and I let him pile himself on top of me. Without a blink, he stated a well-known fact among three-year-olds, “iPads can make sadness go away.” His expression was stoic, faking neutrality.

“No iPad Baby. “ He continued to lie on me until he got bored and hopped up on top of a noise-making toy. His sister seized the opportunity to slide onto my lap, causing Josh to scream again. I was at his disposal, not hers. He then tried to wiggle his way between his sister and me.

Amelia screamed, “Eww, his penis was just in my face. Disgusting!”

I looked up at Josh in order to read his expression, not wanting him to experience body shame. A half-smile appeared. No shame there. He was thrilled. Antagonizing his sister is one of his deepest joys. Seamlessly, they both returned to fighting for my attention. I yelled for my husband, “Help me.”

Their Bionic Dad finally came and pulled Josh up by the leg. Josh screamed and I yelled, “Don’t pull him by the leg, because you’ll break it and then we will go to jail!”

I wonder about this chaotic little scene. Sometimes it seems like other families are so calm and patient with each other. At the grocery store I see a small child just chilling for an inordinate amount of time while her mom chats with an old friend. My sister-in-law painted her entire living room with two kids under five, apparently playing quietly while she worked all day. Another friend mowed the lawn with her infant strapped to her back, while her toddler played horsey on the porch contentedly. I start to feel bad about my kids, my parenting, and my generally fussy personality before I remember something that I must never forget: If I compare my insides to another person’s outsides, I’ll always come up a few feet short.

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

It’s so natural to look around and imagine that everyone else is parenting better than me, and that I’m the only one with my hair on fire, fried to the max. Even though we are The Tantrum Family, our intentions are good–be healthy, happy, at peace, and loving to each other. Sometimes we are a moody and fussy crew; that’s our signature style. We will never be perfect, but we are forgiven and we are enough.

As always, parenting with heart,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Mother

It’s the Feet

Kelly, a parent in Amelia’s class, ran up to me after school saying, “Amelia’s boots are much too big. On Walk Days she can barely run and trips over her feet when she walks.”

Momentarily mortified, I responded, “Oh my Gosh. Thank you so much.” How could I have made such a horrible blunder, causing my daughter to suffer?

I picked up the boots and examined them. They were size 9. Hmmm. That’s my daughter’s exact size. I called Amelia over and put them on her feet. They fit perfectly. The problem wasn’t the boots. It was her feet. My sweet girl is uncoordinated.

She comes by it honestly. I remember in 5th grade playing baseball, up at bat, and hearing Mike Sample mocking me from the outfield. The teacher, Mr. Smart, yelled, “Yeah, she’s terrible at this game but you try spelling ‘adamant’ or doing algebra and you’ll be striking out every time, Buddy Boy.” (It was the 80s, so I think you could legally put a kid down without any ramifications, and some teachers really used this freedom.) I knew Mr. Smart was standing up for me, but I didn’t take it as a compliment. He was inadvertently highlighting my ineptness and the impact was a flood of shame.

In 7th grade I tried out for basketball. I was instructed to run the length of the court, then free throw the ball into the basket. I ran all the way down the court and shot the ball. Looking back, I saw a handful of kids and a few adults laughing. The coach yelled out to me, ‘You forgot to dribble.” Hot shame, again!

I see my daughter’s future in sports and want to sit her down for a little talk. This is what I want to say:

Darling, beloved, sweet pea, honey child, you SUCK at sports and you probably always will. It’s okay. You are good at a lot of things. Running and throwing a ball will probably never be on that list. I suck at sports, too, and no one ever told me. My parents said, ‘you can do anything you want to do, Jen’ and it was a lie. Because they exaggerated my overall greatness, the world had to tell me that I wasn’t good at certain things, namely playing athletic games. This was a much more painful experience than it would have been coming from them. So, dear, I am telling you the truth: If and when you are put in a position to hold a ball and run, assume that some terrible humiliation is about to occur. So, don’t space out. Let me repeat this: Do Not Space Out. You will need all of your faculties in this moment. And then, and this is the important thing, if you fall, or lose the game, or miss the ball, or strike out, do it with pride. Because here’s the thing: If you can be the worst at something and still know your awesomeness, that will take you a lot farther in life than always needing to win. So if you are last in a race, then just stroll along thinking, ‘That’s right, I am terrible at running. It’s not the boots. It’s the feet.’

The Attach Place  Center for Strengthening Relationships

The Attach Place
Center for Strengthening Relationships

It dawns on me that I really need to say that to the little Jen still living inside. As a mother, I can make sure Amelia knows her awesomeness, and trust that her feet have a trajectory of their own.

As always, parenting with heart in the real world,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Mother

Fook, I’m Hungry

Last night when I was putting Amelia to bed she confessed, “I know what the F word is.”
“Oh really. What is it?” I asked.
I momentarily thought about correcting her, but decided (thankfully) against it. “That’s right,” I said.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“It’s kind of a grown up idea. Sometimes people say it when they are angry and other times people use it like an “um.”
“Oh, like fook, I’m hungry,” she immediately responded.
We started laughing together but suddenly her smile turned into a frown and tears fell down her cheeks. It was as if the door to adulthood cracked open and she peered in, felt thrilled and then frightened. The adulthood room was monstrous and overwhelming, plus it was past her bedtime.
I held her and then we crawled into bed and turned out the lights. I spooned her and explained.
“The F word is kind of like coffee and beer. Only grownups drink coffee and beer and the F word only belongs in grownup mouths, too.”
“Why,” she protested. “I’m big.”
“You are big,” I agreed. “And yet there are things you don’t know yet. That is the way it should be.”
I did go on with, “Just like a baby doesn’t know what it means to walk or talk. You could try to explain it, but the baby won’t understand. A three-year-old doesn’t understand things that a five-year old knows. A six-year-old doesn’t understand things a 10-year-old knows. A ten-year-old doesn’t understand things a fifteen year old knows. And a fifteen year old doesn’t understand things a twenty year old knows. When you are a grownup, you will make choices around beer and coffee and F words, but for now you get to be six. The important thing about being six is that you believe three things:
1) You are safe.
2) You are loved.
3) You are good.
It is a wonderful, beautiful thing to be six years old, honey. It is such a lucky time. I love you.”
“Thank you mommy,” Amelia replied.

Precious Time

Precious Time

Then I tried to get up but she held my arm tightly around her waist, not ready for me to leave. So I stayed and held her because she is six and someday that door to adulthood will fly open. I breathed in her sweet-smelling hair and touched her soft skin and nuzzled her neck. This is precious time. Soon enough she’ll be drinking beer, spending her entire paycheck at Starbucks, and swearing like a fooking sailor.

As always, parenting with heart in the real world,

Jennifer Olden, LMFT and Mother