We all know that parenting is the hardest job ever.
It challenges us in many unexpected ways. And every parent I know has had moments (sometimes days or even years) when they feel like they’ve completely failed and fear they’ve “messed up” their children. We are incredibly hard on ourselves, expecting ourselves to be perfect parents, which, of course, is impossible.
My colleague Lisa Marchiano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and parenting expert, wrote this wonderful article Parenting Imperfectly: An Opportunity for Growth, to remind us that our mistakes and blunders as parents are not only normal, but also opportunities for us to grow as people and parents.
As a mother or father, we can find ourselves under a lot of pressure to “get it right” when parenting. We love our children and want to do what is best for them. Their well-being is a tremendous responsibility that rests squarely on our shoulders. In addition, we are surrounded by parenting advice offered by well-meaning friends, family, and professionals. Though such advice can often be helpful, it can sometimes undermine our instincts, and convince us that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to parent.
Parents often feel like failures
It isn’t surprising, then, that many mothers in my therapy practice admit to feelings of failure or shortcoming with a great deal of difficulty. One mother recently struggled to disclose to me that there were times she found it hard to like her daughter. She felt deep shame about this and assumed it meant that she was somehow fundamentally deficient as a mother.
She was surprised when I suggested that just the opposite might be true. What if our struggle with aspects of motherhood is, in fact, an indication that we are doing something right? Of course, her worry about her periodic disconnection with her daughter was in and of itself a measure of how deeply she cared. But her struggles were also evidence of how hard she was grappling with the difficult feelings that parenting can provoke. Engaging dark, difficult emotions is how we become better acquainted with ourselves, and expand our capacity to tolerate strong feelings in others – including our children. It is a sign that we are growing.
Learning to accept our imperfections and struggles
My client was surprised to hear that many mothers wrestle with profound ambivalence.
“No one talks about that in a serious way,” she said. It is easy to find references to the dark emotions of mothering in humorous memoirs, or edgy banter with other moms. The trials of motherhood make for great comedic material, and laughter smooths the edges of our disquiet at experiencing taboo feelings. Yet few mothers ever really hear another mom say with raw honesty that she struggles, that there are times that she feels miserable and hates some aspect of parenting – or even some aspect of her child. Having permission to admit this to ourselves can be remarkably relieving.
When we can allow ourselves to have a full range of feelings – even not so perfect ones – space opens up. We find reserves of compassion for ourselves and approach our experience with curiosity. And when become curious about our emotional lives, we are creating the conditions in which we can develop psychologically and become more whole.
Recent research confirms that accepting all of our emotions – including negative ones – can be important for psychological growth and well-being. Years before psychologists began studying emotions, the 13th century mystic and poet Rumi already knew this truth. In his poem “The Guest House,” he encourages us to welcome all of our feelings.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
Parenting struggles can lead to personal growth
Motherhood can help us grow into the person we were meant to be precisely because it often stretches us to our emotional limits.
When we feel as though some aspect of motherhood has gotten the best of us, that is likely to be the moment when we are on the brink of a significant psychological growth experience. Coming to realize that an old attitude or way of coping won’t work anymore in our new situation can feel like a defeat. In such reversals, we are thrown back onto ourselves. We realize that our conscious personality doesn’t have all the answers, and find ourselves relying on inner wisdom.
It’s always helpful to accept our emotions without judgment – though it is necessary to be discerning about how we choose to express these emotions. It is perhaps especially important to extend this acceptance to ourselves when we are parenting, as few other life experiences generate such strong feelings.
I find that using fairy tales to explore any emotional landscape can deepen our understanding, and reduce defensiveness and self-attack. Fairy tales are beautiful and intriguing. They beguile us into a playful, curious attitude. They give us rich imagery that can express complex psychological experiences. And they remind us that our struggles are universal.
In my free email course, I use three different fairy tales to explore how a defeat for the conscious personality while mothering can help us discover inner resources we may not have even know we had. These tales come from all parts of the world, and some are thousands of years old.
There is a Native American tale, a modern take on a Jewish legend, and a Hindu myth. In every tale, an adult is bested in some way from the experience of parenting and learns something important as a result. These stories help us to remember that we are not the only ones to struggle with the emotional demands of being a mother. They can help us be a little bit more compassionate with ourselves when we have a hard time mothering and remind us that such experiences might even help us to grow into the person we were meant to be.
About the Author:
Lisa Marchiano, LCSW is a parenting blogger and Jungian analyst interested in how motherhood can be an opportunity for personal growth. You can find more of her writings at MotherhoodTransformation.com or at Big Picture Parenting. You can also sign-up for Lisa’s free parenting course here.