It had been a long afternoon. I arrived at daycare to find two little girls in the midst of huge meltdowns that left both me and my daycare provider completely baffled. It took the entire drive to the pool to calm them down, but once they were in the water for their swim lessons, it started all over again. The crying, the whining, the negotiating with their swim teacher over every single thing she asked them to do.
By the time we got back into the locker room, I was exhausted.
I herded the girls into the shower, which sapped every last bit of patience I had.
“Take two steps forward, please. PLEASE. One more step, please. You have to get under the water.”
“You need to rinse off your belly. NO, not your BACK, your BELLY.”
“You still have soap in your hair. Please turn around… ALL the way around.”
“Can you please stick your leg under the water? See the bubbles on your leg? We have to get those off. Put your leg under the water. The water. Over here. THIS water.”
“Please don’t hold on to your sister. You’re both going to fall over. Please hold on to that bar. Let. Go. Of. Your. Sister.”
Even as the words kept coming out of my mouth, I was beating myself up about every single one. “Why can’t I just calm down? I need to take a deep breath. I need to stop barking at them. Why do I have to be so naggy all the time? That’s probably where they learn the nagging from. Damnit, I’m screwing everything up. All of the other mothers are probably listening to me and thinking what a terrible, grumpy, bitchy Mom I am. Why can’t I be more patient? They’re so little. Why do I have to be so controlling all the time? Ugh. This is miserable. Why am I making them suffer through these swim lessons? Wednesdays would be so much easier if I didn’t force them into the pool. They’re going to hate swimming for the rest of their lives because I’m doing this…”
It went on like that for the entire shower, and even as we headed back into the locker room to get them dressed.
As the girls were pulling on their skirts and shirts, a woman came in from the showers. She looked at me and the girls, and I was sure she was judging me for the pathetic job I was doing.
“Are you a teacher?” she asked me.
The question took me by surprise. “Um, no. Just a social worker, and a tired Mama.” I smiled pathetically.
“You were so great with them in the shower. You were giving them really concrete instructions and telling them exactly what you wanted them to do. I do early intervention with kids, and I work really hard to teach parents how to do that. I thought maybe you were a teacher.”
I couldn’t have been more shocked if she had told me I just won the lottery.
Somehow in the past five years I have become my own worst critic. It’s been a problem my entire life, but it’s gotten a lot worse since becoming a mother. I judge virtually every parenting move I make, and rarely do I give myself a good grade. I’m too mean to the girls, too lenient, I don’t spend enough time with them, I’m not focusing on my career enough, I really need to learn to cook, I didn’t do enough crafts with their preschool classes, I’m too focused on the swim lessons… the list goes on and on.
The Buddha described this kind of intense self-criticism as the second arrow. Life (and parenting) are tricky, and they shoot arrows at us all the time. Some of those arrows are pretty sharp and hit right where it hurts–a child gets injured, a marriage falls apart, we lose a job–while others are fairly blunt and leave nothing worse than a small bruise, such as a bad afternoon at the pool.
Those arrows can leave us feeling sad, angry, confused, frustrated, tired, irritable and overwhelmed. When we respond to those difficult feelings with judgment or self-criticism, it’s like we’re shooting another arrow at ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt happier, calmer, stronger, more connected, or more motivated after being hit by an arrow, much less two. I felt hurt, angry, and tired, and I end up taking it out on the people I love. It literally makes things worse. And the craziest thing about the double arrow is not only that it hurts us, but it’s often WAY off the mark, as I learned the other day in the locker room with the girls.
Mindfulness practice is about more than just being present, it’s about being present and accepting of whatever is going on. Instead of berating myself for what I assumed to be terrible parenting, I could have had a few thoughts like this:
“I’m tired today–we’re all tired today– and that’s OK. I did a great job getting them to their swim lessons, and it’s OK if we’re all feeling grumpy. Grumpy happens, and it’s fine. We’ll finish our shower, and have dinner and an early bedtime. Right now I just need to focus on getting them rinsed off.”
When I able to treat myself with kindness, I am much more likely to do the same for my daughters.