Flow. Be adaptable. Be sensitive like water, feel the other so you can attune and harmonize with your partner.
— John Friend, American Yoga guru
My mother was a good mom. Lately while researching essential life skills, I figured out one of her secrets. Mom was what researchers describe as being “attuned.”
Being attuned may sound like so much psychobabble. But hang on.
The ability to be attuned impacts our happiness, our longevity, our friendships, our productivity, our cognition, our emotional stability, our capacity for successfully mating, and especially our parenting. It’s worth our time to learn more about it.
One easy way of thinking about attunement is simply as the ability to “tune-in.” When we tune into a radio station, we adjust our dial so that we can better hear and understand what’s being broadcast on a certain station.
Being tuned-in to a person involves adjusting our attention so that we use our eyes, ears, head, and heart to understand and be present with another. Then we respond appropriately.
Parents often do this naturally. I observed my daughter-in-law practicing attunement with her son, Eli John, when he was a baby. When E.J. was well-rested, alert, and fed; she held him about ten inches from her and looked in to his eyes.
If E.J. smiled, she smiled. If he cood, she cood. If he cried, she tried to soothe and comfort him. If he looked tired, she stopped trying to engage him and let him rest. If he moved his head around, she walked him around the room so that he could take a good look.
Being attuned to our children is a super good thing for both mother and child unless…unless we cannot also be attuned to ourselves… and know how to respond.
Here’s an example of not being tuned-in to yourself. When I was a young mother, I was walking around dead-tired with my baby in my arms. My brain was mush. Dried spit-up marked my ratty shirt.
The television was on in another room. The voice I heard being interviewed on The Phil Donahue Show sounded familiar. Wow, it was “Joe,” a boy I had dated. Joe looked all spiffy and full of energy.
A tear rolled down my cheek. The tear gave me pause and caused me to stop, “adjust my dial,” and check out what was going on for me internally. I was so tuned-in to my child that I’d neglected to also consider how I was doing and make some adjustments.
How did my mom do it? She was in sync with my needs, her needs, and she could respond appropriately without feeling guilty.
Mom chose to go back to college when I was seven years old. That decision did not sit well with me. I let it be known that children should come first.
A child should be met at the door with cookies and milk after school was the way I saw it. The mother should sit listen attentively as the child unwinds from her hard day at school.
My mother listened. She made it clear that she understood and loved me. She worked it out so that I could unwind with cookies and milk at our neighbor’s house. Her college homework was largely completed at school, especially in the beginning, so that she could be attentive to me when we first saw each other after our school days. As it turned out, we had a lot more to share and were both happy.
Many years later, I used her example to help me make changes in my self-care.
As I’ve examined the literature and reflected on what I saw mom do, I have a few ideas for being tuned-in to ourselves.
1. Occasionally (or if we’ve noticed a tear, a sigh, a pain) stop. Take a breath. Be present.
2. Imagine “adjusting our dial” so that we can tune into our own feelings, thoughts, and needs.
3. Be curious and accepting about what we notice and hear. If we want to be better attuned with another person, experiment with those same suggestions above but aim them at the other person. Then add one extra step.
4. Say or do something to see if our observations are correct. For example, we might think our grandchild is hungry. We can then offer a couple of cheerios and see what happens.
After we have a better idea about what’s happening in our internal “station” as well as another’s, we can decide what’s the appropriate thing to do. We can consider adjustments. We want to keep in mind that wise behavior involves sifting through options and creatively developing behaviors that address both ours’ and others’ needs in a responsible and responsive way.
For example, attunement on a small scale might look like this. You get an important call; your grandchild is calling for your attention at the same time.
Your action might be to take the call, ask the caller to hold for a moment while you attend to your grandchild. Then you hand your grandchild a favorite coloring book and crayons. You tell the child you’re eager to hear more right after your call.
The wheel has turned for my mother and me. My mother is dead now. She lived in Tennessee and I’m in Washington. In some ways, at the last I became the mother.
We each had a phone that allowed us to talk and see each other. I worked to embody some of the attunement my mother modelled to me. I took steps to tune-in to her, to myself, and to respond appropriately.
“Hi Mom,” I would say. I looked in her eyes.
Mom would gaze at my image on the screen and often replied, “Well, hello, my daughter.” Mostly she just smiled and I smiled back.
But sometimes Mom's head would hang low or she would pull at her clothes. Her eyebrows were knitted together and her lips seemed to tremble slightly. She would mumble, “You need to come home.”
“I love you, Mom. I’d like to be there. You look a little sad and worried. Are you feeling, okay?”
“Yes, I am sad and worried. I’m not thinking quite right,” she would reply.
“Do you want to tell me about it? Or do you just want to know that I’ll be there in a couple of weeks? Holly [her care taker] and Rusty [my cousin] will make sure that you get everything you need until then.”
She would lift her head up and look at me. “Okay. That’s good, Honey,” she smiles.
As I look in to her eyes, I smile back, “I really love you, Mom.”
We have busy lives and many technological distractions which get in the way of being tuned-in. We can take steps to turn that around.
At least occasionally, we can try out a little tune-up. Catch ourselves, stop, breathe, and be present… for our kids, for ourselves, for others. We may find ourselves reaping what we have sown... on some days.
How might we become more attuned and journey together to The Good Life?