"Special Time" at a Parents' Liberation Workshop

Alison Ehara-Brown's Parents' Liberation Workshop for Northern California was a gathering of parents, many of whom had counseled together for several years. Most of us had been to numerous family workshops, playdays, and parent support groups.

One of the pleasant surprises of the workshop was when Alison set aside time on Saturday afternoon so that each of us received a half hour of "special time." (Special time refers to a time set aside by an adult ally to think about and be with a young person, doing whatever the young person would like to do.) There was excited anticipation about this because most of us had never experienced "special time" in any other role than as ally. Here is a report of how it was for Fred and I while Fred was having special time and I was the ally.

How it was for me (Michael) as "ally":

Special time is counseling, but not in the usual sense of two adults holding hands and trying to get to the heart of the matter. For one thing, it was clear to both Fred and me that he could do anything, within reason, that he wished to do. There were plenty of roller blades around, and he could have chosen to put them on and skate. Many others were choosing to do this. He could have written in his journal and ignored me, or read a book, or slept. What he did choose to do was discharge heavily while I held him closely.

As an ally, I noticed right away that my attitude toward Fred was different from my usual attitude as counselor. I didn't have the same sense that "now we are going to have a session." In the past I have often, with some impatience, tried to push or steer the client toward "discharge," which seems to be the business at hand in a session. I always want to do a good job as counselor. Now, as an ally for "special time," the rules seemed different. Doing a good job meant being lively, alert, and present in the way that I would be with a very young person.

I've known Fred for some time and counseled with him occasionally at workshops. This time seemed to be a breakthrough session for him as client and for me as counselor. In the context of both of our understandings of "special time," it was relatively easy for him to see that I cared about him in the same way that he would care about a young person with whom he was spending special time. This seemed a particularly useful contradiction for Fred.

On many occasions in the past, when discharge has been spontaneous and it has been clear that this is what the client wants and needs, I have still found myself trying to be a "good counselor." On this occasion, I still had all of my knowledge of counseling tools, but some of the baggage had dropped away. It was easy. It was fun. I felt helpful and useful and not like I was going to make a mistake at any minute. Given that this was "special time," I felt free to be in the role of assistant in a way that I haven't always been as "the counselor."

How it was for me (Fred) doing special time:

I went to the Parents' Workshop in order to play with my ten-month-old niece while her parents (my brother and sister-in-law) participated in the actual workshop. The four of us live together. At the workshop, I initially felt left out in a way that I often feel left out at home. I often feel I don't get as much support as I need in this family because my role, important as it is, isn't as obviously central as the roles of the mother, the father, and the baby. I told myself that I had come to the workshop to do a job (babysit) and that the supportive attention I would receive would come from people recognizing what a great help I was.

When my sister-in-law took a nap with the baby on Saturday afternoon, I wandered into the workshop to see about participating for a little while. I found myself with Michael as my partner in a room full of adults laughing and hollering, skating, wrestling on mats, throwing pillows, and licking peanut butter off each other's faces. I could do anything I wanted to, and Michael would be right there paying attention to me. I didn't have to do anything to earn his attention. I could just play. Because my sense of myself as a person worthy of appreciative attention was wrapped up in my job of taking care of my niece, I felt overwhelmed with embarrassment.

I pulled Michael to the side of the room with my back to the wild ruckus and cried hard. I was discharging a very old hurt. It had to do with my parents' lack of attention for me and my decision to "be a good boy" and hope I would get some appreciation for staying out of my parents' way and taking care of the family. I stopped many times to make sure Michael was really okay with me standing there crying instead of playing like I was "supposed to." Each time I needed reassurance, he said, "There's nowhere I would rather be than right here with you while you do exactly this," or "It's completely delightful to be here with you." Then I would launch back into hard crying.

The demands I have internalized that I "be a good boy" and "do my job" often get in my way when I sit down with an adult to have a counseling session. I expend an enormous amount of energy trying to make sure my counselor really wants to be with me and is paying attention to me. Doing "special time" instead of "a session" completely subverted this pattern.

Michael O. Hartman
and Fred Landers
Oakland, California, USA

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00