For Sa and Paul Budnitz, it's about connection before direction in a shared context

by ParentCo. June 25, 2015

painting of a women and man in white with an orange background

Paul Budnitz is the founder of Kidrobot, Budnitz Bicycles, and most recently, Ello, the ad-free social network. (Learn why we love Ello here.)

When Paul met his wife, Sa, nine years ago, she was living in a spiritual community in rural Montana (where she had moved from her native Germany), while he was living a busy entrepreneurial life in New York City. The couple dated long-distance for a year, then got married in 2007 and decided to start building a life together in the city. Their daughter was born in 2008.

It was a difficult transition for Sa, who had not only "given up on secular life," she says, but also had to adjust to "the lifestyle of a big city, being in the United States, (and) being married." For Paul, the leap from fast-moving creative type to fast-moving creative-husband type proved to be a challenging and important step in his personal growth.

Parent Co spoke with Paul and Sa at Ello's Burlington, Vermont offices about keeping their relationship healthy and strong amidst the craziness of Paul’s creative career, as well as their philosophies for growing a healthy child.

Parent Co: Paul, did you feel pressure having Sa move to New York and kind of folding her into your life there?

Paul: Totally. I basically had this burst of maturity. I had to grow up. I’ve been spending the last seven or eight years trying to catch up, so yeah.

Trying to deliver on certain promises or implied promises?

Paul: I think that there was a lot of compensation, like, pretty eccentric things that I did, and still do actually, to keep my life and myself feeling sane. I didn’t realize how much of that really was true until we were married and then there were all these things that I realized were not necessarily compatible with being in relationship. I think that that’s actually one of the great values in a relationship, is both learning how and where to give up your own preferences, and then also how and when you still need to do things to take care of yourself.

For me, it was a great challenge to discover both the stories that had been ingrained in myself about myself that were making the relationship difficult but had nothing to do with reality, and the realities about myself that were making the relationship difficult that I had to work through. So some of it is what we tell ourselves, and some of it is who we actually are and figuring out what’s one thing, what’s the other thing and what’s really both things overlapping. That’s really the great negotiation of relationships.

Sa: Love is a very abstract concept, but I think we have a very strong commitment to each other. We love each other, obviously, but how does that find its place in our day to day life? Why I think our relationship is working, at least for me, is that we both are committed to our personal growth. It’s not like we’re just living this life together. There is something more to it - seeing relationship as a field where we can explore that and grow instead of just having to keep putting expectations on a partner. I’ll look at the things that are challenging for me in the relationship (and ask) how can I use it for my own progress and maturation.

I can relate to the compromises you're talking about and giving each other the space to grow. I think it’s such a positive and healthy viewpoint. How does that all factor into the way you parent? Are you parenting as a team or when you're with your daughter individually do you think she has two very different experiences?

Paul: Totally, but I think it’s all held in a very similar context.

Sa: In the beginning, we had a very clear agreement that I was parenting, and Paul was out in the world making a living. That was very clear from the beginning. I feel like with a clear definition, it was actually - for both of us and definitely for me - useful because I felt I could rest in that.

I had very high expectations of myself as a mother. I think if I would have not been able to just take on motherhood as fully as I did, it would have been really hard. I have a lot of gratitude for Paul, that he was willing to, in that way, just be out there and take a stand and keep our family fed and things like that.

Paul: It’s oddly traditional. For two such radical people, it’s actually a very traditional setup.

That’s really interesting to hear because I think that conventional wisdom would assume that if you've got one partner who wants to just rotate out into the world at all times or most of the time, that that would be a source of conflict. It sounds like you're saying, because it was very clear from the beginning, the roles were defined, that gave you all the freedom you needed.

Paul: Yeah, but I think there is an important factor which is that we decided on a shared context for parenting which evolves and changes. It’s like a living thing. It changes all the time, and Sa really led that. But on all the decisions from how we deal with conflict, how we deal when our daughter is upset, what we do when she wants something for the tenth time, or when things are difficult, whatever, we created a context and then when we talk it out, even though Sa is actually doing a lot of the parenting work it doesn’t mean I’m not around.

Sa: I remember at one point Paul was giving me some input on parenting and I got really upset about it because I’m like, “Hey, hold on a minute. We agreed that I’m the pro here. This is my job.” It’s like when we kind of started emerging a little bit more in terms of parenting and I needed to find trust in Paul as a father, not just being out there in the world and not just as my partner, but also as a father.

Sometimes I think that when your identity becomes so wrapped up in the notion of motherhood, it’s extra damaging when someone is trying to tell you how to do it. Like, “No, I know this stuff!”

Paul: I’m here all day. Who the hell are you?

Yeah. I definitely understand how difficult it is to open up the space for that trust, and then how often you have to remind yourself of it.

Sa: Also, now that she is older, she’s almost seven, looking at her and seeing aspects of Paul in her, that actually in our relationship, in the beginning, they were aspects that would drive me crazy. Then when I see it in her I’m just, “Oh, look at this!” and like my whole attitude towards these things is changing.

I was just saying this to a friend. We were discussing schools and how structured schools should be. I’m a person ... I love structure, I was raised with structure, I can totally be in it and then there is a lot of wiggle room and creativity within that given structure.

Paul is the opposite. He comes from a lot of creative, sometimes chaotic energy and then he finds structure through that. Our daughter is very similar. If we play a board game once and then a second time around she will make up totally new rules. It’s really interesting. I'm glad she has that because I don't have it. I could never give that to her.

Yeah, and I think that’s a really exciting part of raising children with a partner is that you start to see all those traits that you lack, the reasons, probably, that you chose your partner, you see them developing in your children. Even though, like you said, those are things that drove you crazy in your partner, it’s all the good stuff.

Paul: This morning our daughter said, “See, Papa, here are all my pens and my pencils and they each have their own box.” This is like my German daughter. And I’m like, “I’ve never done that.” My stuff is always in big random piles. And now that I run my own companies I hire people to order things for me because I’m incapable of doing it. So she’s, like, keeping her pencils in the perfect place, and then at the same time she’s inventing new ways and places to put them, so she’s kind of taking both parts of ourselves. It’s neat.

So what is the theory or thought at the heart of this shared context you’re talking about?

Paul: The key thing about our parenting approach, which I really think comes from Sa, is that everything that a child feels, wants, desires, thinks, whatever, it’s okay. How they act isn't always okay.

If you say, “You shouldn’t want this,” the minute you do that, you create a conflict within the child, and then they’re suddenly filled with shame… Shame creates trauma and trauma is - we can’t see the trauma in ourselves. When you get to be an adult it creates impulses that are opaque to us that we can’t really control. The key thing that we do in our parenting, and this was really hard for me to get, is that everything that our daughter feels and thinks is okay.

If she wants to do something, if she wants ten cookies and she’s only had one, we don’t say, “No, you shouldn’t want that cookie.” If she doesn’t want to go to bed we say, “No, it isn’t that you shouldn’t want to go to bed now. You have to go to bed now and it’s okay that you’re sad or heartbroken or angry about things,” and Sa’s been really amazing about that and has really taught me a lot. To me it’s like, that’s the biggest thing that we are doing that, when I look around I see hardly anyone holds that context well; the context that everything’s okay, even the feelings that we ourselves are not comfortable with.

I remember when we were first together, Sa realized that she was uncomfortable with happiness. I was uncomfortable with sadness. I had a great time being angry; for me getting pissed off was not a big deal. But getting sad and grieving has been hard for me. But Sa, as a person,it was harder for her to let herself just be happy. We realized that, and if that had continued, she could have passed on an inheritance where being really happy was not okay for a little girl and I could have passed on an inheritance where every time she was sad, I’d try to make her feel better. But instead, when she’s sad, we hold her and keep her close, then we let her cry. She cries it out, she grieves it - that she didn’t have nine cookies or that she needs to go to bed now - then she cuddles in our arms and falls asleep.

It’s hard. It’s really hard.

It is so wonderful that you both agree on that. It sounds like a pretty spectacular framework under which to raise kids. The fact that you are unified in that is pretty great.

Paul: It wasn’t easy.

Sa: No, it took a lot of work and a lot of discussion.

Paul: Yeah, Sa discovered this and I was resistant to it to some degree, and then I softened to it when I saw that it was working, but it was also very difficult for me.

Were you resistant to the idea of it or to the challenge of implementing it for yourself?

Paul: I think the type of person I am, I can understand things very quickly, but I can’t actually seem to apply them to my life until I can get them almost in my body.

Yeah, until it’s second nature.

Paul: It comes into me and then I’m like, “Oh! Okay, I get that.” It took me a while to see like, when your daughter is crying and crying and kicking and screaming in your arms, because she doesn’t want to go to sleep, she says, that’s what she says she wants but it’s not really what is going on. What she’s really doing is releasing a lot of pent up energy.

You know, it’s a bitch to be a little kid and be growing up, it’s hard, it’s very frustrating. People are telling you what to do, your body is changing all the time, your stomach hurts, you get sick, you feel powerless, and then you feel powerful. And then it all translates into, “I don't want to go to sleep now,” or, “I just want another ... ” whatever it is.

For me, to actually hold her and have her kicking and screaming in my arms, I would think, “Oh, I’m traumatizing her!” But after a while, and Sa pointed this out very early, I realized that she’s safe. She’s literally in my arms and I’m telling her I love her over and over, but she’s struggling and fighting. And all these feelings, I realized, are feelings that I’m uncomfortable with. She is the one having them. Yes, she would like them to end so she could have another cookie, but the fact of the matter is that I’m the one with the problem with those feelings, not her. She goes through them over and over and then I would watch her go all the way through and literally just run out of steam and then just cuddle her in my arms in a way that just makes me cry. Then afterwards she will just be so deeply focused and connected to us.

Sa: I remind Paul, connect before direct. It’s such a simple slogan but really, if you go and have the connection with the child, usually then they follow your guidance. The connection can be disrupted for various reasons, depending on the relationship or what happened during that day.

And Paul, I’ve seen you really make an effort to change and really coming home and connecting with our daughter first. Because her thing is like, “Hello! Will you tell me a story?” In the beginning Paul was like “No, no, no I’m tired from work,” or whatever. Now he’s like, “Okay, a short one,” and that little short ...

Paul: Three minutes, yeah.

Sa: That little short story establishes the connection between the two of them and then she’s much more ready to take guidance from him. The whole evening is much more peaceful. But he had to feel that it actually isn't just a slogan, it’s actually something that works.

Yeah, that’s great advice.

Sa: If we look at the brain in a very simplified version, there is the spinal cord and the brain stem and the limbic system and then there is the cortex on top. The limbic system is where all the emotions are being processed and the pre-frontal cortex is where a lot of our thinking is happening. Usually there is good communication between those parts of the brain but if we’re emotionally overwhelmed or if our cup gets too full, then the firing of the brain doesn’t work right anymore, meaning you can’t actually think straight and then we act out in ways that don’t seem appropriate. We need to empty out that cup; the emotions need to be released and heard.

Paul: In a safe way.

Sa: In a safe way, not in a destructive way and then we can start thinking again and then we can start following directions again, and then we don’t need to show off-track behavior anymore.

Any kind of off-track behavior in a child, even though it might be disturbing to us because it’s aggressive or regressive or whatever, our understanding is that it’s an expression for a different kind of need. It’s not about stopping, I mean sometimes you need to stop a behavior because it’s hurting somebody or themselves, but it’s a sign that there is a need for an emotional release and building connection to a loving person.

Paul: That’s why timeouts are evil. Timeouts are like your most ... Like, really? Basically your child is acting out because they need connection, so what are you going to do? You're going to send them to the corner? Disconnect from them, send them to the corner and make them wrong and bad?

The only place I can see for timeouts is the parent takes a time out because they can’t handle it, and they take responsibility for it, which I’ve seen Sa do. Sa occasionally will say, “Okay, I just can’t handle this. I’m going in the other room. It’s not you, it’s not your fault,” even though our daughter’s losing it. Sa will go to her room, she breathes 20 times and comes back again and can finish handling the situation.

This is reminding me of something that’s come up recently for my husband and me in couples therapy. I’m curious, are you able to show a similar compassion for each other when you’re having the adult version of a tantrum?

Paul: Sometimes.

Sa: I think, over the years I would say we’ve been getting better and better with the help of therapists, too, along the way and a lot of dedicated practice. We had a therapist once who said, “You need to hug at least for 20 seconds in order for the resonance actually to happen,” so we tried it. She said 20 but we changed it to 30 because we felt like 20 wasn’t quite enough.

So we just sometimes say, “Do you need a 30 second hug”? It takes the edge off because sometimes when I’m in that state of “aaarrrrgh!” I don't even want Paul to touch me. But if he says, “Do you need a 30 second hug?” I know we are in the same boat. It’s almost like a code word and it works.

Paul: I remember when the therapist said that, and I was like, “Of all the things that I could be asked to do, I know I can do that one.” Sometimes it’s really hard, but I know I don't have to change who I am. I don't have to say I’m right or wrong, I don’t have to let go of anything, I just have to give a 30 second hug. Okay, I can do that! And then afterwards it’s just like, “What were we talking about?”

… The thing is, I think it’s hard because what's shifted for me only recently is this thing that Sa had been saying and other people had been saying and I’ve been listening to Buddhist teachers saying this shit to me forever, and I just never got it. I finally just got it. Like, oh! I am basically responsible for my happiness and everything else. I am responsible for all of it. She’s not responsible for any of it.

If she does something that pisses me off, it’s really not what’s going on. What’s really going on is that I am pissing myself off. I’m already carrying my pissed off around with me before she even showed up. She’s triggering it, and then I can decide what to do about it.

Sa: Also, what we’ve been doing, not so much recently but over the years, especially when times are hard, when there’s more conflict, what we do is a listening exercise.

Paul: It's so great. It's like, you're talking about this thing with your husband, you should try this. It’s really good with Jewish men who’ve had fucked up relationships with their parents, especially their mothers (laughing). This exercise is like the best thing ever invented.

Sa: Yeah, and it takes a lot of practice to actually find the value in it. In really hard times we do, I think, every night 20 minutes. And what we do is we just sit in front of each other and we actually set a timer and one partner speaks for 20 minutes and everything is pretty much allowed but you try to speak as responsibly from a perspective of myself instead of blaming, blaming, blaming. Sometimes it happens, it’s hard but you try your best, I would say, to do that. The other partner does not comment, does not say anything. He or she is really trying to make themselves just ...

Paul: Not a word.

Sa: Not a word.

Paul: You don’t say,”A-ha,” you don’t smile, you don’t nod, you just listen and then you switch.

Sa: Then you don’t discuss it afterwards.

Paul: You just empty. You can say, “When you did this, I felt like this and it was like this ... ” and you know if you said it in a conversation the other person would react and lose it. You get to say it and they have to hear you, and then you feel you've been heard. You actually find yourself speaking a lot more responsibly after a while. You’re like “Oh, but I realize that maybe I wasn’t very kind when I said this,” and after a while you’re empty, and then the other person just talks and empties.

Sa, do you ever feel that you are somehow facilitating Paul’s life?

Sa: Yes.

And how are you with that?

Sa: (laughs) It’s a good question.

Paul: It is a good question.

It’s a selfish question because I certainly feel that way about my husband a lot of the time.

Sa: No, I totally get it. It’s interesting because about half a year ago a friend of mine was visiting from Germany and she asked me the same question. I would say that I never question it or it’s never challenging to me but it’s … how can I put this into words?

Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is I feel I have a wonderful husband who adores me and who is in this relationship with me, and in this adventure of life and raising a family with me. For me it’s actually not separate. I don't know how else to describe this.

It’s like, so this is my life right now, it’s this family. Once our daughter leaves and goes off to college or whatever, then something else is going to come up, or when she becomes a teenager, becomes more independent, I don't know. I think in this phase of our life right now, this is our family and I don’t feel like I’m separate. I feel like our family works with me facilitating Paul’s life in that way. So I don't really question it because I feel the benefit, and this for me is what I want for my life… I feel like I get the commitment and the love and the adoration and the support that I want for me as a wife, as a woman, as a mother.

Paul: We’re both trying our best, and I’m really fucking immature in some ways, and she’s immature in some other ways, but I’m really much more immature, I think, than she is in certain ways. If our relationship is going to work, which it does, there's no “should” left anymore. We look within the relationship for solutions and this is the condition of the relationship. So if she has to facilitate certain parts of my life to have this harmonious relationship, and yet she can still ask me to act differently - I don't know if you can actually ask someone to change, but you can ask someone to act differently - she can ask me to act differently to my capacity and when it gets beyond my capacity she has a choice. If she takes responsibility for that choice, which I see Sa do over and over, 95% of the time, or 99, which I think is the most you can ask any human being to do, then it works.

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