The Smith kids’ mom died yesterday, having never successfully lost the rest of her baby weight. Through three children and four grandchildren, she tried multiple approaches to getting them to sleep, but clearly did it wrong, as each baby insisted on waking up during the night sometimes. The way she fed her children is now considered woefully, laughably outdated. She scheduled her first child for too many enrichment classes, and her second for too few. The Smith’s mom’s efforts were noted, but when it comes down to it, she just wasn’t good enough.
Ridiculous, right? But I don’t know many moms—myself included—who haven’t had some version of these thoughts. Parenting can feel like a study in comparison and inadequacy. Is my child crawling/walking/talking/riding a bike/graduating from school at the right time? Is my child attached/independent/smart/tall/strong/social enough? If I let her nap in the stroller/co-sleep/crib sleep/breastfeed/drink formula/send her to private school/send her to public school, will I mess her up? And, more to the point, how does all that stuff reflect on me? Do people think I’m a good parent? Am I a good parent?
My favorite description of meditation is that the rapids of your thoughts are rushing along through your mind as they always do, but instead of getting pulled into the current, you get to sit by the edge of the stream watching them flow by. From that slightly removed place, what had seemed like an indistinct flood of thoughts becomes visible instead as a collection of rivulets, each one worthy of consideration. (For instance, I just stopped writing this to scroll Instagram. Why? Because I’m feeling vulnerable about sharing these thoughts because I’m not sure if I’m a good enough mother or writer or meditator to have a right to share them. What would I have said about my scrolling break before I started practicing meditation? “Eh, I guess I just don’t feel like writing right now….”) Let’s break down some of these “bad mom” messages that flow so frequently through the thoughtstream of our brains.
I think that underneath our feelings of inadequacy as parents are two big fears. Fear #1 is that our child won’t be like us, and fear #2 is that our child will be like us.
Let’s start with the first one. Think of things you really like about yourself and your life, past and present. Now imagine that your child also has these qualities and experiences. Feels good, right? But now imagine that your child does not have these qualities and experiences. If you’re anything like me, that triggers a bit of panic. Why not? Where did I go wrong that I couldn’t provide him with these? What could I have done better to make her personality and path more like the good parts of mine? Whether we have young children and are living this fear in anticipation of their growing up, or have grown children and are living this fear in judgment of their lived experience and expression, it’s strangling in its effects on our children’s self-worth as well as our own.
And then there’s fear #2. It may be a familiar trope that we judge in others the things we feel icky about in ourselves, but that doesn’t make it any less true. We all carry shame about some parts of our selves and our lives, and if we haven’t done (or, let’s be kinder—started, just started) the work of shining light on it and letting it dissipate, we easily become fearful of our shame parts showing up in our children and exposing us. Thus, we may come down hard on our kids out of a primal protective instinct—a belief that we’ll be able to prevent them from doing and being in ways that will bring them (or, really, us) shame. Problem is, this instinct is utterly counterproductive. More than likely, if we’re trying with clenched jaws to steer our young charges away from the still-hurting shame spots in our own lives, we’re going to create new shame spots for them.
So what to do? Brené Brown, whose pioneering work on shame and its opposite, vulnerability, offers so much space for healing, give us a good starting point in “The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto.” Say to your children, “I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections. … I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly, deeply, seeing you.”
Did you get that part? I will not parent perfectly. Why? Because I am imperfect. And also, there’s no such thing as perfect parenting.
So next time we find ourselves listing our shortcomings as parents and stressing to find the right answer to a parenting problem, let’s pull ourselves out of the rushing rapids for a moment and ask what fears are lurking behind these concerns. Maybe even write the parenting obituary you want to leave behind when you go. And try to remember—love is right. Non-love is wrong. The rest is details.