In my last post, I wrote about why parenting when you were under-parented can be so hard. It’s harder because those of us who grew up in chaotic homes may want to raise our children in drastically different ways, which means we’re basically reinventing parenthood as we go along. In addition, we may be more likely to be triggered by our children’s challenging behavior, sending us down an emotional “low road,” which can lead to angry outbursts and out-of-control behavior—precisely what we were trying to avoid in the first place.
In this post, I’m going to offer some suggestions for how to move beyond our own difficult childhoods so we can become the parents we want to be. As you read this post, keep in mind that these are not easy tasks I am suggesting. They require time, hard work, and a lot of self-compassion for ourselves when we miss the mark (which we will do, just as every other parent does). I am still doing this work—with the help of a therapist, supportive friends and family, my meditation practice, and most importantly, ongoing reminders from my own children about why I am doing all of this.
The first step is coming to terms with your childhood. This is an ongoing process, which inevitably involves cycling through the anger, frustration, and grief about what you had and what you will never have, and then letting go of it. Once you think you’re over it, something will happen and it will all come back to you as if you had just moved out of your childhood home last week. Let it come, and then let it go. The goal here is not to get to a place where you are “totally over it.” This is your family we’re talking about, and it will always be a part of you. Rather, the goal here is to be able to accept that your childhood will never be what you would have hoped for, and to accept the anger and grief that will inevitably arise from time to time.
Let go of the perfectionism. This is a biggie for most parents, regardless of how we were raised. A lot of us try to compensate for chaotic childhoods by turning towards perfectionism, which is often a response for a deep sense of shame or unworthiness. For me, it’s about never feeling like I’m good enough. I won’t be a good enough mother until I learn to cook. Or finish knitting my daughter’s baby blanket. Or figure out how to get the girls to enjoy their swim lessons. Or whatever. Because I don’t have a clear model for the kind of parent I hope to be, I tend to think that getting parenting right means getting everything right. When I slow down and stay present, I can see that what really matters is my relationship with my daughters, and whether or not I farm out a birthday party to My Gym or go all Pinterest on it—well, that just doesn’t matter.
Practice forgiving yourself. Every parent makes mistakes, every day, and from what I’ve seen, we’re all pretty good at beating ourselves up about it. Those of us from rough childhoods may be more likely to do this, and it can be especially hard for us to forgive ourselves. Forgiving ourselves for an angry outburst doesn’t mean it was OK, and it’s not giving ourselves license to do it again. But as long as we are spending our emotional energy berating ourselves for something that that we can’t change, we won’t have any energy left to change the things we can.
Find kindred spirits. You may have many supportive friends in your life, but it’s important to find someone who really gets what it was like to grow up in dysfunctional family. I have a good friend who has a past similar to mine, and like me, she struggles to overcome it in her parenting. When I call her up to vent, she gets it before I’ve even finished the story. She understands exactly how I am feeling, in ways that even some of the most supportive people in my life don’t–not because they don’t care, but because they just didn’t grow up with it. I can tell her any of the crazy stories from my childhood, and I don’t worry about being judged or misunderstood. I feel less confused, less alone, and less crazy after I talk to her, and I feel good knowing that I can support her in the same way.
Prioritize taking care of yourself. This is important for every single parent, and it is crucial for those of us who may be easily triggered by our children. I’m not talking about sleeping when the baby sleeps or trips to the spa or weekends in Vegas. I’m talking about making a conscious choice to spend time doing things we know will help us be better parents. For me, that includes meditation, yoga, walking, spending time with friends, date nights with my husband, and writing. This list is going to look different for everyone—for some of my friends, a yoga class is pure hell, and they would prefer to run or cook or quilt. It’s not about following whatever is trending on the Huffington Post (says the Mama who writes about mindfulness for HuffPost. HA!). It’s about figuring out what you need to do each day in order to nourishes your body, calm your mind, and stay as present and centered as possible through the storms of parenting.
Figure out how to be here, now. This is biggest challenge of all, and perhaps the most important one. The vast majority of the time when I yell at the girls, it’s not because I want to yell or because my daughters’ behavior warrants a Mommy freak-out. It’s because the last time my brain was in a parent-child relationship, it got a lot of practice panicking, so that’s what it’s doing now. Every time I yell, I’m responding to a confusing, and often unconscious, jumble of my daughters’ behavior and my own history. So my challenge now is figuring out how to respond to what is actually in front of me. No matter how much I try to tell myself to stay present, it’s hard. I get distracted—by my phone, by random thoughts, by my worries about what to make for dinner or whether or not I should call the pediatrician about my daughter’s latest rash.
Practice staying on the “high road”. As I mentioned in my previous post, Dr. Dan Siegel makes a distinction between when our brains are on the high road, able to make thoughtful, rational, deliberate decisions, and when we’re on the low road (which I prefer to think of as “losing my shit”). When we get triggered and find ourselves yelling at our kids over something relatively benign, we’re on the low road. Every parent gets there from time to time, but those of us who grow up in a house where our own parents spent a lot of time on the low road are more likely to go there more often.
The best way I have found to stay present and off the low road as often as possible is to meditate. Each time I sit still and focus on my breath, I am slowly retraining my mind and body to stay in the present moment, rather than consciously or unconsciously replaying old tapes in my brain. Meditation strengthens the part of my brain responsible for rational, logical, and balanced perspectives (the high road), and starts to weaken the parts that lead me to freak out, yell at my kids, and head into the kitchen to scarf down chocolate (the low road). I find the more I meditate, the more likely I am to take a deep breath, and find the space to make a choice about how I want to respond to my children when they are being annoying or pushing my buttons, rather than just exploding at them.
I know I’ve made a lot of suggestions here, and they require a lot of time and work. They’re not a destination, either—the truth is that none of us, no matter how or where we grew up, will ever get to a place where we finally have it all figured out. Rather, these ideas have become my northern star. When things get messy, when I get irrationally irritated at my daughters, when I feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of parenting, I try to come back to them. What do I need? What do my girls need? Forgiveness? A conversation with a good friend? A visit to my therapist? A little perspective? A little care?
At the core of each of these, of course, is mindfulness: the ability to stay present, with kindness, for our deeply flawed selves and the children who need us. They don’t need us to be perfect, thankfully, but they do need us to be as present and as connected as we can, as often as we can.
If you’re looking for resources related to this topic, here are some of my favorite books:
Motherhood Without a Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within by Kathryn Black
Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
Mommy Mantras: Affirmations and Insights to Keep You From Losing Your Mind by Bethany Casarjian and Diane Dillon.
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Last reviewed: 30 Oct 2013