Modern Parent
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Modern Parent

The Borders of Choosing Love: What Place Does Anger Take?

Our closest relationships can teach us the art of staying connected, even when setting a fierce boundary.

Photo: Deborah McNamara (Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming)

“Conflict and tension are as much a part of the human condition as interdependence is. There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.”~ Ai-jen Poo, American Activist & Co-Director of Caring Across Generations

Over the years, I’ve become a huge fan of Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. I’m also a fan of her Aha! Parenting email updates, which are a constant gift arriving weekly in my inbox. She reminds me of my responsibility as a parent to regulate my own emotions and connect deeply with my kids. She signs off each of her columns with “choose love.” I, too, of course, want to choose love. And while this post focuses on my relationship with my children, the lessons on dancing with anger apply to any of our close relationships.

Of course, my love is ever-present for my children. It is always there as a container within which I live my family life. Yet, no matter how vast my love is, there were some days when acting from a place of love felt harder than others. I went through a time when I needed to reconcile the vast spectrum of possible emotions as a parent. Sometimes when my sons physically fought with one another, I would see red. I often found myself riding along that border of choosing love, and I wanted to know what place anger takes. How can we express the energy of anger from a place of union, connection, and integration? The question can apply to any of our close relationships.

Energy Needed to Set Boundaries

The Hindu goddess Kali came to mind. She is the fierce companion to Shiva, the consort to “being-bliss-consciousness.” She points to the dynamic aspect of creation, even when she is also at home, destroying what needs to be destroyed. She reflects the creative integration of seemingly conflicting energies. She is a protector, yet she can also be fierce. If something needs destroying, or if a boundary needs to be set, she’ll do it, and she’ll likely also wield her sword while dancing.

I, too, was doing a daily dance with my sons and in my family life. It’s a dance of protection as well as a dance of aiming to cut through harmful actions. My anger was often rooted in the energy required to set boundaries. Sometimes, when I looked carefully, there was a deep sadness beneath it. There was also the texture of indignation: the interpretation of my children’s actions as a personal affront. Why did they keep pushing boundaries? How could they keep hurting each other? How could one put his foot out to trip the other? There was confusion. How should I respond? What did each child need? How on earth could I keep ‘choosing love,’ even in the moments when one of my children is being harmed?

One thing I’ve landed upon is that choosing love doesn’t mean rejecting anger and all the accompanying subterranean emotions. Choosing love does mean prioritizing compassion as often as possible while also holding a space for all emotions arising. Choosing love also means staying intimate. It means staying connected, even when setting a fierce boundary. Certain tensions do require a more dynamic response. The key is to be in a dance of integration of opposing energies. For example, we can dance with equanimity, even when working with the opposing energy of anger. We can dance with acceptance while also working with the opposing need to shift something to set clear
boundaries.

Finding Union Amidst Tension

When I paid attention to the above insights in mind, the dance with one of my sons revealed a different narrative. Through constant testing of
boundaries, I heard him asking for reassurance. His actions were asking, “Will you love me even when I’m anxious and confused?” “Will you join with me even in these sticky places?” “Will you stay with me even when I push you away?” “Do you still love me even when I make mistakes?” The answer must be yes — even when coupled necessarily with the energy of self-protection or protection of my other children. We can always begin with a peaceful and patient joining, rooted in our deep connection — while also being prepared to dance into the more tricky realm of fierceness. We can hold the proverbial sword that slices through bad habits: not to harm, but to stop the rise of nonsense and needless suffering.

The “low road” of relating shows up when we succumb to isolation and punishment. It is when the path of the union has been lost. I remember a time when one of my sons said, “You don’t love me!” At that moment, he pointed me to the places in my heart that had yet to relax into my infinite capacity to love. He shed light on the places within me not yet rooted in union and intimacy with everything arising, particularly the messy,
miserable, frustrating moments of conflict. He would repeatedly mirror this place until I met him from a place of no-separation, from a place of ultimate and unconditional acceptance, free of conditions.

And so I danced my way into expressing the energy of anger from a place of union and integration. The only “space” taken must still be together in spirit where time slows, and response can be masterful. The only pain results from how close we want to be but haven’t yet grown into. As author and activist
Ai-jen Poo says, “There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep
sense of connection and shared destiny.” And, isn’t this true of most of our relationships? Aha! Indeed.

Deborah is the author of The Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting, from which the above is excerpted.

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Deborah McNamara

Deborah McNamara

Sustainability & Climate Activist. Yoga Teacher. Author, Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting. More: www.debmcnamara.com