I love working with parents. I love listening to us, I love how hard we work, I love what a force for change we represent – we would do almost anything for our kids. I love how hard we strive for integrity.
This year, what would I like for parents? I’d love that we get paid for the work we do. I’d love that we had enough training. I’d love that there was enough practical help and support that we could get a regular, reliable break when we needed it.
But the real killer, for parents, is what happens to the inside of our heads. We are soooo hard on ourselves. I’d love for us to stop that.
I understand. The places where we struggle end up having an effect on our kids, the people we care about most. It almost looks like we deserve to feel bad. Not just feel bad, but we are bad.
It started a long time ago…
While our struggles might look bad enough to justify giving ourselves a hard time, this is a habit of mind which rides on the back of much earlier times in our lives. Times when somehow or other things had gone wrong and we felt at fault and were unable to fix things or influence things. I think many of us had feelings (maybe not often, but at least sometimes) that we weren’t good enough. The people around us – often the people we most cared about and depended on – might have actually told us that.
In my experience, this starts very very early. Maybe even at birth. If we’ve been lucky, and have not accumulated trauma pre-birth or during the birthing process, we come out into the universe with a deep sense of connectedness with all other living things, and a sense of our own power. We expect to be able to influence things to get our needs met. We expect, of the people around us, to be met with a willingness and ability to connect.
But often, more often than we can imagine, this doesn’t happen. We aren’t able to pull the human beings caring for us in close enough. And because we don’t have a lot of information about the world at this point, we think it must be our fault. We don’t think, when we observe our mother unable to connect well with us after a challenging birth: “Oh! She’s exhausted and needs someone to listen to her about everything to do with that experience she just had. When she gets the support she needs, she will be able to connect with me.” We don’t know that this is all it might take. In the face of distracted adults and difficult times, as children we tend to think it was our fault. Things go badly, and we feel bad about ourselves.
The way our minds work, when daunting circumstances present themselves, we go back to search for what we already know about similar times. We pull up earlier memories of difficult times – which come wrapped up in feeling bad about ourselves. These old feelings “turbo charge” any current difficulties.
As parents, there are challenges we can’t avoid
Before we had children, we might have been able to avoid doing things that triggered that feeling. And when we got caught in the feeling of badness, we might even have had the time and attention to do things that pulled us out. Things that helped keep us on track. Like getting enough sleep, rest, exercise, company…
Once we have children, however, we can’t so easily side-step difficulties. In fact, our commitment to parenting, our commitment to our children, means we often have to remain in an uncomfortable space much longer than we might otherwise have done.
We make mistakes
In addition, our sense of being bad really “gets legs” when we slip up, when we make a mistake and do something which tears at the fabric of our relationship with our children. It’s like it goes on steroids. The evidence of our badness is right there before our eyes, in our screaming child, or our child who says they hate us, or our raised voice or fist.
We are also vulnerable because as parents, there are a bunch of expectations out there in the world about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. However, those expectations often don’t fit what actually happens. These are expectations about how we should discipline, feed, sleep, educate, inspire our children. How our children should behave. How we will manage the complex business of earning a living and parenting.
Often, these expectations are based on wrong assumptions. Assumptions that don’t take into account that many of our children’s struggles are emotional in origin. Or that difficulties stem from, and are magnified by, lack of connection. Assumptions which don’t acknowledge how under-supported parents are.
Sleep is an example: Where I lived when I was parenting young children, in my culture[i]*# children were expected to get used to sleeping on their own. But in cultures different from mine, there is a very different expectation about sleeping arrangements. People regard it as normal to sleep with their children. My point is not that there is some “right” sleeping arrangement. It’s just that many, many parents struggle in vain to get their very young children to sleep alone, or sleep through the night. And then they feel bad when their children won’t (and it’s more than just sleep deprivation, although that doesn’t help!). It’s possible, however, that this isn’t a reasonable expectation. Perhaps little children need to stay close to someone at night. (That said, everyone deserves a decent sleep, and if you’re struggling on this front in your household, I recommend getting some help to sort it out. It isn’t a bad thing at all to aim to have your children sleeping alone – you just need good information about what is possible and a plan for how to go about it.)
Bad, or insufficient information
Other times, we are hobbled because we don’t have enough information. We are trying to do the right thing, but it turns out to be challenging. When we struggle, we think it is our personal fault. An example? Perhaps getting children to eat a varied diet. I learned this week that just because of our human biology (i.e we are biologically set up to favour sweet over savory), you have to offer an infant a savory food 13 times before they will accept it. And (as every parent would know), you only have to offer sweet food once.[ii]
So it’s not your child’s failing, or yours, that it’s hard to get them to eat a range of foods. If the expectation met the reality, then you’d know you just need to persist. Bring the limit, and hold it (in this case, keep offering savory food). The challenge would be easier to understand: parents need to offer savory food many many times. And controlling sweets is a case of the parent as “safety manager”, because biology is working against children easily being able to keep themselves safe in this regard.
The bigger picture
There are so many forces at play which have an impact on our parenting and our family. Big, powerful, forces: the way the medical system is set up; the way wealth is distributed; the way education is structured; the way work is organised and communities are formed. The way different groups of people have differing amounts of power, money, control – due to sexism, racism, homophobia and the way young people are treated.
I remember, when I first became a parent, being struck by how these forces played themselves out in the nitty-gritty of my family life. For instance, after the birth of our child, my husband became the main breadwinner, because he earns a lot more than I ever did. Some of that is because of decisions I made a long time before becoming a parent. But the fact is that in general, men earn on average more than women[iii] , and that will often have a big impact on parenting arrangements. Another might be the cost of childcare – which may turn out to be so great that returning to work after the birth of a child isn’t worth it financially. The point is that we never had a chance to choose the broader circumstances, policies and practices which shape our family life.
Families are often at the “pointy end” of these broader forces: in the end it comes down to each of us as individuals, trying to make it work in our family, with our children. These forces get played out in our relationship with our children, between us and them.
Homework is one of my pet hates in this category. Which school ever asked me if I wanted to support and supervise my child to do many, many hours of school-work after school, much of which I struggle to understand myself? What if I don’t speak the local language, or come from a very different culture? What if I am on a low income, work long hours and simply don’t have time? Which school set up support mechanisms so that it was easy for me to provide that support to my child? Very few. I’m left having to try to get my child, each night, to do her homework after a long day at school. To try to change this cultural practice would take more time and energy than I have. (Especially galling is the fact that, apart from being unsupported, there’s quite a lot of research to suggest that some kinds of homework aren’t that useful for learning. But that’s for a different post…).
We are isolated
As parents, we tend to be isolated. If we are lucky, we might have a network of other parents where we can check things out, get information, ask for advice. But often, burdened by the expectations that we think we should follow, and assuming everyone else has complied, it’s hard to ask for information. It’s hard to admit that things are really as hard as they are, or that we are as confused as we feel, or that in our family we can’t meet the expectation. Especially if it looks like others are coping fine.
We end up trying to meet these expectations, are unable to do so, and then are vulnerable to feeling that we have failed, individually. But really, there was something wrong with the expectation or the circumstance. There was something wrong socially.
That’s one of the big raw deals of parenting. That the expectations of what we should do are often based on wrong assumptions, and so don’t work the way we need them to, and then we bash ourselves up. I think we almost have to make a “policy decision” not to give ourselves a hard time. There’s stuff we have yet to figure out how to handle, and mistakes we have to fix up, and various other challenges, but It’s not useful to give ourselves a hard time.
We are hobbled
So there are a lot of reasons why we get “set up” to feel bad. We don’t have enough information, we aren’t served well by expectations, and our family life is shaped by big societal forces way beyond our control. At the same time we are duped into thinking it is all our personal responsibility to figure it out, and our individual fault if we can’t.
The trouble is, when we go down that rabbit hole of feeling like the worst parent on earth, it skittles any capacity we might have had to fix things up. Feeling mortified, guilty and sad; feeling that we have failed; feeling ashamed; feeling that our parenting mistakes prove that we are bad. All of that knocks us out at the knees. We are stuck, without the reserves to pick ourselves up, address the problem, and fix things. Even if our feeling of being a bad parent were deserved, it isn’t remotely useful. It hobbles us, it stalls our thinking, it cramps our creativity. It doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes, or that we don’t make messes. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for fix up those messes and correcting our mistakes. But feeling bad simply knocks out our capacity to do that.
Before I ever became a parent, as a young woman starting out in the world of work, I noticed this phenomenon. I’ve found it takes a few months in a new job before things begin to make sense. Before than, it often feels hard. Early in the job I was sitting at my desk, feeling incompetent. Worse, actually. I probably was feeling incapabable i.e. that I was too stupid to do the job. I was feeling BAD. And I probably was incompetent, more or less. But with my mind in that place, I couldn’t think what to do. Thinking I was incompetent made me so. I thought “This may be true. But right now, I can’t believe it, or it will become true.” With that, I decided to put the worry away. I started work again, my mind able to begin solving the problem at hand.
We have a choice
So I’d like to hold out that as parents, we decide not to go there. We can look honestly at what we have done. We can take our deep heartbreaks and regrets to our Listening Partners. We can set ourselves challenges. We can release the sadness and grief and anger and feelings of exhaustion. And we can work out how to fix things up. All of it without giving ourselves a hard time. You are, honestly, doing your very best. If you could do it differently, you would. You are responsible. You need support. But you aren’t bad. I don’t want any parent, ever, to be crippled by feeling bad. That’s my wish for the New Year, and every year.
[i] I’m white, anglo saxon, with enough money to live in a home where everyone might have their “own” room.
[ii] Attia, P., M.D., & Listig, R., M.D. (2018, September 11). Robert Lustig, M.D., M.S.L.: Fructose, processed food, NAFLD, and changing the food system (EP.14). Retrieved January 5, 2019, from https://peterattiamd.com/roblustig/
[iii] Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). n.d.. What is the gender pay gap? Retrieved January 5, 2019, from https://www.wgea.gov.au/addressing-pay-equity/what-gender-pay-gap
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The photo above is called Fireworks (Rockies Red Glare) by maf04.