Parenting is like surfing. Through experience, some learn to do it gracefully without falling off too often. As a parent I have had numerous moments that challenged my balance. There were times when I completely slid off and felt like I was drowning. But over time, I learned to climb back up without feeling that engulfing sense of ineptness a lot of parents are familiar with. In fact, I have come to enjoy the falls because with each one, I discover something new about myself and my child.
Many parents I talk to in my field of work are often afraid of falling and are consumed by guilt, inadequacy and self-doubt when they do inevitably fall. These psychological responses usually stem from the unrealistic expectation that we, as parents, need to be perfect beings always knowing the ‘right’ thing to do and say. A sense of inadequacy creeps in when we fall short of this expectation. The guilt is the result of experiencing feelings that we believe are ‘bad’ or ‘unacceptable’ in our role as parents. The three most common guilt-inducing scenarios that I hear over and over again are: when parents view their child’s behavior problems as a reflection of failed parenting; when parents take time for self-care (the guilt intensifies when they find themselves actually enjoying the time away from their child); and when parents’ emotional distress finds an outlet and they “lose their cool” in front of their child. This guilt then paves the way for the crippling feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
Acceptance of my emotional struggles as a human being has helped liberate me from the clutches of guilt experienced as a parent. I am aware of my emotional challenges as they sometimes get flamboyantly expressed in my interactions with my child. But I try not to be ashamed of them. They are what make me human. So when I find myself getting upset at my six-year old for wanting to wear her favorite, worn-out pink sweatshirt to yet another birthday party, I realize that my frustration is not caused by her actions. Rather, it is caused by the undue importance I give to what people think. I am reacting to my fear of people judging my daughter and thereby indirectly judging me. This emotional struggle that gets expressed as frustration towards my child does not make me a bad parent. What does impact my relationship with her and influence her development is what I do after the initial reaction. So instead of feeling guilty or ashamed at my reaction, I apologize to her for my outburst and openly validate her love for the sweatshirt. We then compromise and choose a middle ground between the sweatshirt and the floral dress. Resolutions on the emotional battleground may not be this smooth all the time. But no matter what the outcome, I make sure I acknowledge how difficult the situation is for me as it is for my child. This simple act of acknowledgment makes a big difference to how competent I feel as a parent. Additionally, a nice side-effect of practicing self-acceptance is that it not only teaches us to accept ourselves for who we are, it also helps us accept our children as they are. Instead of trying to mold them into how we want them to be, we begin to appreciate their unique qualities. Children, in turn, are able to challenge the expectation of perfectionism that is so embedded in our society when they see their parents treat themselves with kindness and compassion in spite of all their imperfections.
When it comes to attributing a child’s behavior struggles to something the parents might or might not be doing, I often tell parents that though parenting plays a big role in a child’s emotional development, there are other factors that influence it. The child’s unique temperament is one such factor. Before starting to drown in feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt it is wise to consider this very crucial aspect of the child’s personality. Parents may be doing the right things but the child may not be responding positively due to certain inborn personality traits of their own. It may just be a matter of changing the parenting style rather than it being a reflection on parenting abilities.
Finally, I have come to realize over the years that it is completely acceptable to spend time away from my child from time to time, nurturing myself and unwinding from all the flurry and excitement of parenting. It is in fact healthy for the parent-child relationship when the parent has had time to attend to his or her own needs on a regular basis. Seeing their parent honor, value, and respect their own needs teaches children the importance of self-love and self-respect.
Learning to see the humanness in us, learning to accept our glorious fallacies and unique quirks, our psychological struggles and emotional challenges helps us develop self-compassion as we tread through this parenting journey that is filled with unexpected twists and turns. And so I surf on, facing each challenge with self-compassion and kindness. Sometimes I cross step, sometimes I cutback and sometimes, if I am lucky, I land the coolest alley-oop, but there is never a dull moment. So ride along, my fellow surfers, noticing with curiosity and kindness your responses to each of those challenging waves that make the ride so exciting!
Devi Natarajan has a MA in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University and lives in Chicago, IL with her husband and six-year old daughter. She is a therapist and a mindfulness consultant. Devi uses mindfulness in her personal life and in her work with clients. She specializes in children and maternal mental health.