Part of me can't believe I'm writing this, yet I know how badly you all need to hear it. If I had not had the pleasure of supporting so many amazing parents in my career, I wouldn't dare "out" myself. But I know we've all said or done things in our parenting that are, to be kind, less than stellar. And it is not my goal to offer you the illusion of my perfection. I, too, make horrible mistakes.
Last summer my son turned 12 and I called him an asshole. Not the birthday gift I had in mind. Actually, it's even worse than that. He was driving us all so crazy with his in-your-face energy and his snarky remarks that his brothers and I had to leave the room. And then when one of them asked why he was acting "that way," my feelings got the better of me, and I said something to the effect of, "I don't know. He's just an asshole!" And after an hour of not hearing anything any of us were saying, he heard me loud and clear! Really!
Sometimes things just don't come out the way we mean them to. Okay. That's an understatement. Sometimes we just plain say shit to our kids that we shouldn't! As I see it, we may get lots of support and generally do a pretty fabulous job of keeping our feelings in check and our parenting on track, but at some point we're all going to blow it.
As 2014 comes to an end, I've been thinking about what resolutions I'll be making, and it occurred to me that while I'm sure I can successfully resolve to sign up and show up for another series of swing dance classes, when it comes to changing my behaviors, I start to worry that I'll fail. After all, I'm doing the best I can. Otherwise, I'd be doing better.
So this year, rather than promising myself I'm never going to lose my patience with my boys, or some other equally impossible-to-fulfill resolution, I'm going to resolve to cut myself some slack.
Even though I'm sure I'm going to royally screw up again in 2015, I'm going to be compassionate with myself and chose to keep my "great mom" status regardless. Here's why.
The Not-So-Great Parenting Moment
We were half way around the world from our home, recovering from jetlag, and finally putting on clean clothes now that our bags had arrived -- three days after we landed. I was single parenting our three boys, and trying hard to get my website copy to my designer so that I could launch my new site by my self-imposed deadline. Still, I shouldn't have been calling my kid an asshole.
My oldest son had slept in that morning, and I was trying to think of what I could do for him that would make him happy on his birthday, the first of which had been the most earth-moving, life-altering, emotionally intense day of my life. I came up with a sushi brunch. I walked to the corner store, to the neighbor's, to my sister-in-law's, gathering all the necessary ingredients and tools of the trade. This was no San Francisco, and there was no fresh sushi-grade fish, but there was a can of tuna, some lox and cream cheese, and some cucumbers. Sounded good to me!
I walked back to my brother-in-law's, where we were staying, rolled up my sleeves, and did what I least enjoy doing -- I prepared a meal. I boiled and stirred and chopped and spread and rolled and sliced and set each piece carefully on a plate with flowered trim. And then the three boys and I sat down and ate. I'm not sure anyone said thank you, but I was happy to be able to offer them this special meal on that very special day.
This boy's coming into the world changed me forever. Four days before his due date I weighed in at 202 pounds -- 52 pounds above my normal reading. We sat down at the dining room table in my mom's condo and we had a talk. "Choco," I said. (That was his in-utero nickname.) "I know you're not due for another four days, but I just want you to know that we're ready when you are." I sat with my hands on my full belly. And then I decided to walk the mile or so home on what must have been the hottest summer day on record in Oakland, California.
As I left the building, the doorman insisted that he hang a "Be Back Soon" sign on the door and drive me home. I insisted I walk. And I did. Very slowly, but steadily, with only one stop at the convenient store for a Drumstick ice-cream cone right before the big uphill stretch.
Labor hurt like hell, but was quick and efficient. I walked in the door at 4, and my son joined us at 8:01. He slid out (after some hellish back labor and hard pushing), I held him in my arms, and he looked me straight in the soul, if you know what I mean. I don't think anyone had ever looked at me like that before. We all cried tears of joy.
And on his twelfth birthday, I called this boy an asshole.
As I write this, I'm crying. How can we hurt someone so badly whom we love so much? I wished I could take the words back. I wished I could zap those brain cells of his that I imagined had stored that horrible memory. But I couldn't. The best I could do is the best that any of us can do: apologize, lean on my ever-supportive, amazing community of parents who I knew would never lose sight of my goodness despite my regressions, have self-compassion, and do better next time. And I have.
All parents screw up. Even if we had all the support we deserve, we'd screw up. So forgiving ourselves is a must.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D, is one of the world's leading researchers on self-compassion and has concluded that it actually has a physiological underpinning. Self-compassion is now scientifically proven to be strongly linked to well-being, reductions in negative mind states, and increases in positive ones.
When we are compassionate with ourselves while we are suffering, we activate the mammalian care-giving system (aka the attachment system), and release the feel-good chemicals, oxytocin and opiates. This allows us to let go of our many inevitable mistakes and move forward without beating ourselves up.
How To Be Self-Compassionate When You Have A Sucky Parenting Moment
Dr. Neff defines self-compassion as "treating yourself with the same kindness, care and concern you would treat a friend who was suffering in some way," and suggests that a good place to start is to take a deep breath and imagine what you would say to a friend who did whatever you just did.
Would you attack, criticize, shame, put them down, or otherwise make them feel like crap? Of course not!
Instead, you would listen with a caring, compassionate tone. You would express empathy, and offer help if that were appropriate.
Neff suggests that when we are suffering, we should hold ourselves in "loving connected presence."
By wrapping our arms around ourselves, for example, or by vocalizing a soothing sound (like you would if someone else were suffering), we can activate our own attachment systems, and presumably get back on the road to parenting better.
As I was writing this, my oldest popped his head into my office and saw the working headline, "You Won't Believe What I Said To My Son On His Birthday," across the top of my computer screen.
"What did you say to me on my birthday!" He pleaded for an answer.
I asked him if he remembered. He didn't. Then I asked him if he remembered the special meal I prepared for him to celebrate his 12 years. He didn't remember that either.
So there you have it.
Happy 2015 from the "great mom" in the grocery line giving herself a big fat hug and cooing!