On Control and the Inherent Brittleness of Being Rigid.


Rigid things break more easily. This is what I’ve found out.

When P was less than 3 months old we hired a sleep consultant who taught us a bunch of hard and fast rules about baby sleep. We implemented them and it worked. P was sleeping two 6-hour stretches in the night. I smugly thought I had this whole parenting thing figured out. (Oh, the foolishness!)

Then P developed severe eczema and the sleep rules no longer worked because she was so itchy and uncomfortable. She couldn’t fall asleep because she itched and she woke herself up with the itching, often with bloody scratch marks across her face or chest to prove it (and sometimes every 10-20 min. throughout the night).

From the moment I went into labor I felt out of control. As the sleepless nights continued, the bouts of mastitis came and went, and the bumbling nature of new parenthood set in, the feeling only intensified.

So when we followed the strict sleep rules and they worked, I felt such relief. I felt like I finally had a little bit of control over my life again.

But when sleep fell apart I panicked. It was my only area of dominion in the crazy sea of parenting.

I stuck to the rules because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought if we just followed them perfectly somehow they’d work. And each time if we wavered, or someone else caring for P wavered, I went nuts. I made myself and everyone else around me completely crazy because I was so rigid.

I realized I really had a problem after yelling at Mike in the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day because he wasn’t sticking to the rules and instead was, God forbid, using his instincts to soothe our itchy, screaming daughter.

I realized I’d lost myself in my pursuit of control.

I’d abandoned my inner voice in order to follow the rules of some sleep consultant I’d never even met who hadn’t ever met my daughter.

It was not a proud moment.

So I “quit” the sleep program and started doing what worked and felt good instead of what I was supposed to be doing.

P didn’t magically start sleeping through the night. And her skin didn’t magically clear up.

But I felt like myself again. And I wasn’t driving Mike, our nanny, my mother, and everyone else around me crazy anymore.

I felt soft. I felt flexible.

Rules or no rules, we still have challenges around sleep and itchy skin at our house. (I’ve tried everything from radical changes to my diet, every cream imaginable, seeing an allergist, and even a Shamanic Soul Retrieval, just so you know.)

But when there’s a particularly rough night or our childcare providers wait longer between naps than I would have, I don’t freak out anymore.

I don’t break. I’m not so brittle because I’m not so rigid. My insomnia disappeared, and I’m crying more tears of joy than tears of despair.

I see now that I simply can’t control the experience of being a mother. Following strict sleep rules didn’t end up giving me the control I was so desperate for. They just made me brittle.

I still feel out of control. But rather than getting edgy about it, grasping for dear life at any promise of predictability, I’m softening into the experience.

It’s not easier, per se, but I don’t feel so anxious all the time. I feel whole again, and that’s really something.

Here’s what I now know:

  • We cling to rules because they offer a false promise of control.
  • All we’re really in control of is how we respond to life.
  • Responding to life by following strict rules makes us rigid.
  • Rigid stuff breaks easily.
  • Soft stuff doesn’t.

May we all do our best to be made of the soft stuff for it’s in our softness that we find wholeness. {Tweet It!}

It's in our softness that we find wholeness - tweetable



Can you relate? What area of your life could you soften into to become less breakable? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Is there someone in your life who could use this message? If so, go ahead and forward this email to them. 


  • what a beautiful post. Thank you <3

  • So true! Baby sleep was one of the most insane things I ever experienced, and a lesson in the importance of listening to our inner voice. Just as you alluded to in the course call. Thank you Kate!

  • Jill Dawson

    Hi Kate
    wishing you all the best in the long path of parenthood! I’ve found – 27 years along the line – that ‘experts’ rarely know best and letting go and trusting/feeling confident in myself was the best way to go. But it took me a long time to know that, so congratulations on figuring some of it out so early on….
    (Loving your book on Money by the way)

  • Tracy

    I’m well over a dozen years past this stage of parenting, but wow did this speak to me. Getting ready to try and launch my two daughter out into college and the world, I am noticing that a lot of my rigidity was learned from my mom. I love her dearly, but she is Very firm in what’s Right and what’s Wrong. When I catch myself screaming at my girls about something ridiculous, it’s typically because I’m doing that very same thing. I want to stop that pattern. I want our relationship to be strong and not break ( as my mother’s and my sometimes do). Beginning Today, I will breathe and soften.

  • I can completely relate to this, although not through the area of physical child-bearing. I’ve spent my entire life needing to very much be in control. In the past few years, it’s become so obvious just how tired I am, just exhausted in and out from trying so hard to “make” things happen instead of just allowing them to happen. I love the statement, “Rigid stuff breaks easily. Soft stuff doesn’t.” The softer I have become, the happier I have become. Right now, just finding the true joy in each day and allowing it to happen as opposed to forcing it to happen is my number one goal in life. THANKS for this!

  • Kate:
    My daughter, Taelor never, ever took naps. No matter how much I begged, pleaded, conjoled, coerced, bribed, she refused to give me what I considered necessary breaks. I worked from home (telemarketing service) and was a single parent. I was beside myself more often than not during the course of my work day. The day she bonked her head on the crib edge so furiously that I called the nurse hotline to ask about signs of concussions, I realized I had to change course. I had my dad come over for dinner that night and we dismantled the crib. We created a sleep area in my home office with a huge sheepskin and loads of stuffed animals, where she could lounge while I worked. It helped the both of us relax and enjoy the time together, regardless of whether she slept. My clients and I not only survived, we thrived (as did my now 23 year old daughter.) We evolve, shift, change, grow as a family unit. The adaptations make us hugely stronger and more capable in all areas of life. Thanks for sharing and nudging my memories of Taelor and I continually working softly at life!
    Cheers, Paula

  • Elizabeth

    Oh, WOW. I’m so sorry sweet little P has been so itchy! I hope you find some consistent relief for her. My mom read the experts’ recommendations about sleep and babies, but couldn’t bear to hear my sister or me cry at night. She learned to trust her parental instincts, and her opinion was that, barring illness, babies cried during the night for four reasons: they need to be changed, they’re hungry, they need to be turned over (when they’re tiny), or that they simply want to be held. I’ve never suffered from sleep issues, and I realize how lucky I am.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the root of my own inflexibility, and that of several bosses (HOO BOY), is fear. Fear of failure, fear of loss, dear that we’re the only person who knows how to do things THE RIGHT WAY, fear that you’ll do the wrong thing and everything will come crashing down around you and your world will collapse. Right. Unless your finger is hovering over a nuclear device, I doubt that any decision we make in our usual lives is going to suffer that level of catastrophe. A director I’ve worked with encourages lots of collaboration from his actors, and his philosophy boils down to this: If I’m trying to figure something out in rehearsal, and an actor has a better idea than anything I’ve come up with, why wouldn’t I use their idea? Good ideas mean we all win! This belief can’t work unless you’re soft enough to accept another point of view. Thank you so much for this post!

  • Thank you, Kate! I’ve always says this too, the only thing we have control over is our perception and reactions to life. I am not a mother, but I can relate to this in another way. Especially when it comes to relationships… Wanting a partner to be something that I think they “should” be. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that :) have a blessed day!

  • This is so sweet, Kate. I love reading your growth as a mother <3

    When I was a 25-year-old new mom, I actually bought and returned three different bassinets because our son wouldn't sleep in them. I was convinced the fault lay with the "stuff" because – you know – we're sold the idea that if we have the right tools, life will be easy.

    Fast forward a few weeks (and then a few years) and I realized we just didn't have babies who slept on their own. Which is a 1950's American culture notion anyway.

    Once I learned how to tune into my instincts – and boy, were some of them hidden under the guise of control – life became infinitely easier and more joyful for all of us. Gentle parenting was there in my soul, I just had to get in touch with it. Now, with a teen and a tween, I'm pretty much surrendered to the flow of life.

    Oh, you might enjoy reading Dr. Shefali's work. She has a wonderfully worthwhile perspective on the spiritual aspects of parenting.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  • Cindy Freeman

    Wow…so much wisdom here. I wish someone had shared this with me 30 years ago…but then, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

  • Makenzie

    I can relate this this with my boyfriend of 15 years. Should we get married and have kids or do we need to break up. I’m so terrified of the whole thing. Either option terrifies me and I’m so scared to let go. When I’m scared the control comes in and I’m looking forward to truly letting go!

  • There’s a gym in the town where I live. Everywhere you go, there are signs posted on the rules of using the equipment. They’re not even nice signs, but rather, hasty signs written in big black messy letters. Some of the signs are so old that they’re crumpled and have stains on them. I don’t go to that gym anymore because it’s so rigid and feel like I have to be gentle or the dumbbells might break! I role my eyes when I find people putting up signs with rules as work in the kitchen or bathroom as well. I have a hard enough time following rules that get me in the door at 8 am. I think that so much restriction dampens freedom and creativity. It’s hard to be told what to do, especially when I know is that the hasty written signs are a reaction to a person’s ego. I feel their ego in the sign! I liked Danielle LaPorte’s email yesterday that gave five tips to be free within your day. I already do a couple because freedom is what I aim for. Rules, while important should never be the highlight to life. Thank you for this post. I usually don’t have a lot to say….I like softness doesn’t break. Have a good day!

  • Magda

    Dear Kate, I can relate So much to what you’re writing about. Being a mom of Two I still seek the perfect balance between being in control and just letting it flow.
    It’s never ending, it’s always changing, it’s life :)
    Regarding P’s rash I assume it’s Under the diaper? My baby girl had this problem and we tried not only every single cream on the market but also every Brand of diapers to relieve her. Nothing worked.
    We started using Bamboo cloth diapers and the rash that was bothering her for 6 weeks disapeared in 2 days!
    Good luck with everything.
    And Thank you for all your work :)

  • I’ve never commented here, but your book and blog posts radically changed my life several years ago. I turned around my family’s financial story, and it has so much to do with your inspiration! So thank you. I can so relate to your early parenting journey, especially the bouts of mastitis and sleeplessness. Today’s post actually reminded me of a similar post I wrote a few years ago about putting away the parenting books and embracing the messiness of family life: http://abbyquillen.com/learning-outside-the-lines/ Lots of love to you and your family. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  • Robin

    You may find a visit to a homeopath helpful with P’s eczema.

  • Kate – this post was just perfect timing. As all of your posts are (and your book is too!). We adopted our daughter at the age of 4, two years ago. We didn’t have the issue of a child not sleeping through the night but we had similar issues that parenting another human being bring. For me, aiming to be less brittle and “softening into the experience of parenthood” hits my journey right on the head. Adopting a 4 year old (now 6) presents the need for a whole host of different adjustments to occur – a letting go and an accepting of what is, right now. That was hard given that the need felt like it was just dropped in my lap all at once, in one day (the day she came to stay with us forever). I had to adjust to the normal changes parenthood would bring while also adjusting to a child who had already lived (what seems like thousand lives) for 4 years prior. It has taken me some time to accept how things go and *are*. Always feeling like I have to find the answer and needing to feel like I can control the outcome of things is like a poison to me (it’s good for some things but not in this case) and realizing I was doing that was a huge lesson – the biggest perhaps – and what resonated with me most in this post was what you said about seeing that “I simply can’t control the experience of being a mother.” The rules and the strictness (all because I *thought* it kept me in control) only do make me brittle.

    Thank you for sharing this post and reminding me how to soften into the fabric of motherhood. You’re fabulous!

  • Dominique

    My son Mylo was born with eczema and from day one I thought if I just change my diet and not eat this food. I went from the GAPS diet to Raw Vegan. I tries everything! A few people (including doctors) suggested I stop breastfeeding. But I refused vehemently! I was so rigid about breastfeeding. I thought, if I stop eating this or don’t wash with that soap. I was driving myself nuts. Finally we ended up in the hospital with Mylos down to 7.5 kg at 20 months. He was not gain g any weight. The pediatrician calmly asked if I would consider stopping breastfeeding. So I did. And he literally cleared up overnight. He still has some eczema but it’s clearing up. My rigidity to keep breastfeeding taught me a lesson I don’t want to repeat!

  • Leah

    This is a great reminder and one I needed right now. Though I remember those challenging sleepless nights, now I’m dealing with health issues. Your reminder to bend and be flexible is so necessary for me right now as I have been trying to control my health and it’s not working. Thank you!!

    BTW I have dealt with eczema my entire life, including infancy. Have you tried chiropractic?

  • Sleep (schedule) training was a topic of conversation between myself and my best friend just yesterday. We’re both moms of a more attachment parenting bent but have recently been in groups where “training” is the cool thing. Have to but our tongues… For the reasons you state and many more!
    What we find so disturbing with the notion of “training” a child to sleep, eat, defecate, etc on a schedule is that this is setting up a lifetime of suppressing our body’s most urgent messages. And, in our current culture, children are physically contained almost all of the time: by car seats, strollers, high chairs, walkers, etc. Add a culture of fear which prevents our children from being free to run and roam, and when is a child going to learn self-regulation?
    Thank you for sharing your new Mom experiences and being an advocate for less perfection and more honest living.

  • Kate, thank you. I love your “real-ness.” I haven’t been through that because when I met my ex-husband, his boys were 8, 7 and 4. My sleepless nights came later, after they’d moved in with us as teenagers. And now, going through menopause! (Yes, I’ve read your mother’s work!) So, I can’t help with the baby years…all I can say is make sure you and Mike start talking about the teenage years as early as you can, and come to an agreement on boundaries. I know it sounds crazy right now…but I sure wish my ex and I had done that early on. It would have saved a lot of grief and uncertainty in the years before our eventual divorce.

  • Dee

    Thanks for being human Kate. I just remember it all so well. Our son used to wake up every 30 mins and I used to start my day crying on the kitchen floor. And this is some one who started personal development back in the mid 80’s. I thought I’d be the perfect parent. Well, fast forward 20 years, and I’m still here. More bendy than ever, but strong to the core. Fallen apart so many times, but reworked into a wiser woman. He’s a wonderful young man, soft, caring and real. Somehow, my not being perfect worked. I’m sure you’ll be just fine xx

  • Lucille

    Oh Kate! You have previously alluded to the skin and sleep issues you have had with P. I had no idea how significant they were and wish now I had squeezed you harder last week. You’re the perfect mother for P and she is blessed to have you showing her the way on showing up and shining! The more years I am a mother (15 now) the only one thing I am certain of is that our children are sent to teach us what we need to learn the most. Thanks for your vulnerability on this. Keep softening. LRx

    • Kate Northrup

      Thank you Lucille! I so appreciate you and all the mamas who have come before me on a level I never could have imagined before. So much love to you!

  • Susan

    Yes! Yes! Yes! So very true. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Dalene Moore

    Great one Kate! Brilliant! Thank you!

  • Elle

    Reading Money: A love story for the first time. Yea, fellow Mainer (I grew up in Windham). We have such similar lives, and I’m currently climbing out of 20,000 credit debt as well. I guess what area could I be softer in? I could be softer in using my free time. I often spend too much time almost anxious that I need to do things.. that I feel guilty doing unproductive non career things. Today I’m going to wander around Philly with a cup of coffee and just window shop. No spending money just enjoying seeing creations and people watching.

  • Heather

    Hi Kate!
    Thank-you for this beautiful post.
    I am the mother of 3 children, all of whom have had varying degrees of eczema. My eldest has had the most severe. I have always found it hard when people have come up with suggestions, however well-meaning. Perhaps it sounds crazy, but it always made me feel guilty and a bit defensive if there was something I realised we hadn’t tried. Because we tried SO much. Apart from conventional medicine, plenty of alternative practitioners. Not much helped. And then when things were really bad a few years ago we tried accupuncture. One of the things the practitioner did was to put all three of my kids on a dose of aloe vera before meals. My youngest was then almost 2 and I was already having to use mild cortisone on her a few days a week. The accupuncturist said that as she was so young, she believed the aloe vera would be enough to cure her eczema.(We are talking about an oral dose, not a topical). Well, it did.
    Who knows how much was luck? How many kids this would work for? I have no idea!! I’m SO not trying to say I have a miracle cure, especially when you haven’t even asked for anyones opinion. But just on the slight chance that this could be of any help, I wanted to tell you.
    Either way, your little girl is so lucky to have a mother who listens to her heart and insticts!

  • Nina

    Hi there,

    For my 3rd baby born Jauary 2017 we organised an au pair. It was great as she was up early to get two boys out to school. We knew that the nights would be long (needless to say!) and we even had the boys sick (vomiting etc) a few times during those first 3 months! I also had the return of mastitis (v. Painful) so having plenty of support is key.

    For me the biggest lessons that I’ve learned about parenthood is that you’ve got to do two things every day. 1) roll with the punches 2) learn to sweat the small stuff!

    Enjoy parenthood and family life as it zooms by.

    Adios Amigos


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