Parenting Shame - it's a real challenge, so how do we deal with it?
This is pretty painful to write about, but I think it is worth sharing, because we all suffer painful experiences in our lives, and here I’m going to outline some strategies that I use.
Yesterday my young daughter told me that she wished I was dead because then she would be free to do “all the things she wants to do”. She’s only seven, so her choice of words had perhaps more impact than she intended, and we’ve all felt those early feelings of wanting our independence, and frustration with grown-ups who “just don’t get it”!
However parenting can be a deeply shaming experience, and her words were deeply wounding to me.
I found myself sobbing as I watered the garden last night. My tears had more impact on the garden than the watering can. I went to sleep feeling sad, and I awoke still feeling sad.
For me, these words brought up all sorts of deep pain. My own relationship with my mother. My fears as a parent of “not getting it right” or of not being able to protect my spirited daughter. Anticipated pain of her becoming a teenager, and not wanting or needing me, or of her suffering terrible anguish herself but not wanting to share her upset with me. All the joys and deep love of parenting are tinged with fear and regret. It’s a bitter-sweet experience.
So what steps do I take to get myself out of this spiral?
Notice what is going on inside my body. I can see that my fears are swirling around inside me. Practising mindfulness has done wonders for my ability to see it all “in the moment”. I can see that I’m panicking that my daughter is rejecting me, that my attempts to be a supportive and caring mother seem to be not what she wants. I’m comparing myself to other parents, and wondering if I restrict her freedom too much, if I’m not open enough to play dates and sleepovers (although we seem to do many). The pressures of being a parent!
Notice shame. Shame is where rather than thinking "I've done something bad" we think "I'm bad, I'm flawed". It implies a permanence, and it's an emotion that we can get stuck in. I’ve learned to recognise the sensation of shame in my body. This took some practice but now I can pinpoint the hot panicky feeling in my chest and abdomen and the rising tightness in my throat. As author Brene Brown outlines in her book “Rising Strong” the best antidote to shame is not to hide away, but to name it and if possible to reach out and talk about it. My husband is abroad, and we would usually talk, so today I needed to recognise that I was vulnerable to staying in a shame storm! I nearly called my sisters, or my best friend, but actually just naming my feelings of shame out loud to myself in the privacy of the bathroom was enough to bring me back to reality. That bathroom mirror can be useful at times!
Bring in some self-compassion. Kristen Neff (in her book “Self-Compassion”) reminds us of our shared humanity. “This is the parenting experience”, “all parents feel like this at times”. It’s deeply soothing to remind myself that parenting isn’t something we master, or fix. It’s a long term relationship, full of mistakes and inadequacies, and shared learning. By practising self-compassion exercises regularly, I've learned to remember the need for self-compassion in difficult situations. It brings me out of my reaction, and into something more constructive.
Invite myself to stay with the pain a little longer. This may sound counter-intuitive, but when we are faced with a situation we don’t like, it’s easy to react, push it away and learn nothing. However this “life-shock” (as Sophie Sabbage describes in her book “Life-shocks") is revealing a part of myself I prefer to ignore. When I sit down with my upset feelings, I notice that I play a role of “loving supportive parent” perhaps more visibly than some, because underneath I fear that I am not lovable, or that my children might reject me. (This is old stuff, but it's amazing how it resurfaces when you are parenting.) So when my daughter makes a remark which suggests she finds me a little stifling, it triggers a response in me. Probably the reality is somewhere in between – I deeply love my children, but sometimes my desire to be deeply loved results in me being a little too tactile, or a little too involved. She’s telling me she wants to feel a bit more independent, and that’s ok! I don’t need to blame myself for being this way, and I can learn to adjust my behaviour to acknowledge her needs. It doesn’t mean I don’t worry about her safety, or that I ignore my need to assess whether she is ready for certain scenarios, but perhaps I need to be more mindful of her feelings. Maybe it’s even ok to laugh about the fact that I spend most of my time as a parent terrified that something awful will happen to my kids, and perhaps I could learn some strategies to temper that response towards something more realistic!
It’s 11am now, and already the depth of pain is receding. I feel calm and accepting. This is what Mindful Self-Compassion does for me. It gives me a process. It allows me to stay with the discomfort and learn from it. I have so much to learn. I keep writing about it, because I want to share the practice with others so you too can benefit.