The Not-So-Great Parenting Moment
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.
So, today my son turned 12 and I called him an asshole. Not the gift I had in mind. Actually, it’s even worse than that. He was driving us all so crazy 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!!!
We’re half way around the world from our home, recovering from jetlag, and finally putting on clean clothes now that our bags have arrived – three days after we landed. I’m single parenting our three boys, and trying hard to get my website copy to my designer so that I can launch my new site by my self-imposed deadline. Still, I shouldn’t be calling my kid an asshole.
He slept in this morning, and I was trying to think of what I could do for him that would make him happy on this day – his birthday, which to me was the most earth shattering, 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 came back to my brother-in-law’s, where we’re 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 this very special day.
My boy’s coming into this world changed me forever. Four days before his due date I weighed in at 202lbs – 52lbs 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 today 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 wish I could take the words back. I wish I could zap those brain cells of his that I imagine have stored this horrible memory. But I can’t. The best I can do is the best that any of us can do: apologize, lean on my ever-supportive, amazing community of parents who I know will never lose sight of my goodness despite my regressions, have self-compassion, and do better next time. And I know I will.
All parents screw up. Even if we had all the support we deserve, we’d screw up. So forgiveness is a must.
Kirstin Neff, Ph.D, is one of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion and has concluded that there is actually a physiological underpinning to both self-criticism and self-compassion, and that acting on either one will affect our brains.
When we are self critical, we activate our threat defense system, and release the stress chemicals, cortisol and adrenaline. Patterns of self-criticism have actually been linked to anxiety and depression, and none of us want to go down that road if we can avoid it.
Self-compassion, however, 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.
At a recent conference I attended at The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, Dr. Neff went so far as to say that self-compassion leads to better parenting! I’ve got to look more into that!
If you’d like read the research, Dr. Neff’s website links to almost all the self-compassion research that’s been done.
How To Be Self-Compassionate (Rather Than Beat Yourself Up) 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,” so a good place to start is to take a deep breath and imagine what you would way 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 we are suffering, we should hold our self 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 get back on the road to parenting better.
Check out Dr. Neff’s site for more practical tips.
As I was writing this, my oldest popped his head into my office and saw the 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.