I wrote this article for Wellbeing Magazine based on my experience dealing with ‘mum-guilt’…
One of the toughest aspects of parenting in the modern age is the smorgasbord of conflicting parenting advice on offer. As a mother of two young children, I have found reading parenting books has often led me down a path of guilt and shame because, just as I think I’ve made progress, another challenge comes along and, with it, a barrage of “tips” that are conflicting, confusing and, at worst, damaging.
Feeling guilty about parenting failures does not result in change but, rather, a feeling of defeat and futility. The medicine for these feelings is self-compassion — nurturing yourself, establishing healthy boundaries and modelling self-care for your children. Every time I cultivate compassion for myself I am blessed with a fresh perspective on how to solve behavioural challenges with my children.
Self-compassion is about observing and controlling fearful or negative thoughts as they arise in relation to your children.
Self-compassion is about observing and controlling fearful or negative thoughts as they arise in relation to your children. I often notice a futile voice that says things like, “I can’t stand this any more” or “Why can’t you get this under control?” When these voices start shouting, it’s time to replace them with, “I know you are doing your best right now” or “This isn’t a disaster — let’s just see how it plays out.”
Self-compassion opens up space for creative problem-solving. As you speak kindly to yourself, you will naturally relate to your children with kindness and compassion, which is often all that’s needed to calm a situation and reverse negative behaviour.
Letting go of the enemies of self-compassion
Compassion has been sidelined by “being better than” or “getting it right” for so many parents. The problem is, you only get it right for a little while before another challenge crops up. Perfectionism leads to a feeling of constant failure. Try to notice the perfectionist in your psyche next time she pipes up during a challenge. As you notice feelings of not being good enough, generate your own affirmations to contradict them: for example, “I am doing my best and my best is good enough.” Nobody is perfect and your children don’t need you to be perfect. They need you to be you.
Shame and excess guilt
A little bit of guilt is OK but too much just spirals your mood downward and prevents you from making any lasting changes. Guilt and shame also cause you to lose your boundaries with your children, making it difficult to impose effective limits.
I have learnt this the hard way. After experiencing years of shaky boundaries with my kids (induced by reading parenting manuals that suggested being constantly available to my children), I am finally coming out the other side and wondering how I survived the years of constantly meeting the demands of others while my true self was relegated to the sidelines. Since then I have been establishing healthy boundaries that demonstrate to my children that I value my health, my interests and my personal space. My children are calmer and happier as a result. Setting healthy boundaries is self-compassion in action.
Competition and comparison
A by-product of conflicting parenting styles is competition. If someone’s not doing it your way, they are failing, right? Wrong. There are a million ways to parent and one person’s decision may be wrong for you but right for them and their unique situation and vice versa. If you feel the need to appear superior to or more knowledgeable than other parents, chances are you are not feeling too much compassion for yourself. I know this from experience; if I need to make someone wrong, it’s because I’m feeling insecure about my own choices.
Applying affirmations that promote self-compassion is the antidote to competition. By celebrating the wonderful, if imperfect, job you are doing as a parent, you free yourself up to enjoy diversity and connect with other parents. When you stop judging yourself and others you are open to new friendships and inclusive communities of parents who support each other.
Excess busyness often makes healthy habits and rituals fall by the wayside, leading to stress and anxiety and amplifying that nasty voice that tells you you’re doing a bad job. Simplifying life encourages self-compassion and kindness by giving you the space you need to see all the possible responses to your child’s behaviour.
In what ways can you simplify your life? A good way to start is by thinking about what you love and what nurtures you and how to do more of it. Pitch that against what you don’t enjoy and what you can let go of. It can be enlightening to discover that you don’t need to do or have much of what you impose on yourself and your children. Does your child need to do afterschool activities four days a week? Can you simplify your wardrobe or take some toys to the op shop? Simplifying your life is calming and creates a welcoming environment for self-compassion.
Neglecting your own needs
Self-care is the basis of self-compassion. I constantly remind myself of this when faced with the choice to do one more thing for someone else, to say yes to another commitment, to read my child the fourth book of the night. Putting yourself first seems selfish but leads to a happier family. If you are happy and feel supported, you are free to let your love overflow to your children and they will feel that you genuinely want to play with them because your cup is full.
For me, self-care is about being mindful enough to make good small choices; for example, to put my kids to bed earlier so I can spend time painting. Modelling self-care in this way is a powerful way of showing your children that they too can love and care for themselves in the same way.
Five benefits of self-compassion
1. Deeper connection with others
When you are feeling love for yourself, you radiate it to others through your smile and body language. Compassion liberates you to truly listen to others, including your children, because you are secure in yourself. With deep listening, miracles occur and you will experience true connection to others.
2. Creative problem solving
Self-compassion releases tension and opens your mind to creative solutions. When the tired old voice of self-flagellation is at work, there is no room for thinking outside the square. Silence that voice and, all of a sudden, you have found a new way to inspire your kids to clean up after themselves or to calm your toddler mid-tantrum. Amazing things happen when you are kind to yourself.
3. Health and happiness
Self-compassion means nurturing yourself and constantly sending yourself loving thoughts throughout the day, leading to a calmer, healthier state of mind that will shine from your face like sunbeams. Your children will feel the security of having a healthy, happy parent.
4. Encourages compassion in children
Children are often naturally compassionate when it’s modelled for them. When you show self-compassion you are teaching your children to value themselves and setting them up to be emotionally intelligent.
Self-compassion frees us from the stress of the moment, allowing us to more effectively problem solve and work through our challenges without falling into a heap of guilt and shame. This is true resilience.
11 ways to cultivate self-compassion
Self-compassion is a choice you make over and over again. When you begin to focus on compassion, you will begin to notice so many examples of it around you and admire it when you observe it in its many forms. As you admire it, and see it, you draw it to you and become a compassionate person. I now treat compassion as I once treated perfection — as something to constantly move towards, and it feels so right.
1. Become aware. A good place to begin is by becoming mindful of the way you speak to yourself throughout the day. This can be painful. It means feeling the sting of shame and guilt when you have made a mistake with your kids. Focusing on the physical sensations can help you to truly face your pain without judging it. Then choose to let it go and replace it with a new thought or belief. Notice the times you feel bad about yourself and write them in your journal. Send love to the child inside who wants to do everything for everyone and tell her she is enough. Relax and let go of all that is undone and celebrate all that is done.
2. Meditate. A meditation practice is the most effective tool for increasing mindfulness and self-compassion. Even 10 minutes a day can be life-changing.
3. Become your own biggest fan. Make a list of everything you have achieved, including small wins with your children. Take the time to really think about how amazing you are and how much you have evolved.
4. Keep a gratitude diary. Taking the time to be grateful for the small things in your life naturally promotes a positive headspace where self-compassion can flourish. Once you begin, you will notice how abundant your life is and how much you have to be grateful for. And, more importantly, how much you deserve it all.
5. Keep a level head during times of success. This is a huge challenge for me as I am inclined to rest on my laurels when I am nailing life. This means I stop my self-care rituals, my yoga practice and start thinking I can do it all and do it all better than anyone else. It pays to continue to be mindful and conscious that “this too will change” when things are going swimmingly because when they go pear-shaped (as they always do in the ebb and flow of life), you won’t be left in a crumpled heap.
6. Celebrate others’ strengths. Make a list of all the things you admire about your friends and commit to telling them. Notice the feelings that arise around acknowledging the strengths of others: jealousy, anger, sadness? Affirm that these feelings are OK and tell the child inside that she is loved and worthy. Feel the pain of jealousy and apply the medicine of self-compassion. This way, you will be able to genuinely celebrate the successes of your friends — parenting and otherwise — and still feel good inside.
7. Affirm what you want more of. Create some affirmations to say religiously before you leave the house. An example could be, “I love and appreciate myself” or “I intend to have a wonderful day” or “I intend to be connected and compassionate with my children.” This sets up the law of attraction to bring you what you want and also creates a platform for conscious decision-making throughout the rest of the day.
8. Listen to your heart. When in the midst of a conflict with your children, ask, “What would compassion do?” Then listen for the first answer that comes. Intuition is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and asking questions like this takes you out of your head and into your heart — the space where magic happens.
9. Do what you love. Brainstorm ways to incorporate the things you love into your life and introduce your children to them. For me, painting, writing poetry and yoga are what makes my heart sing and I make a practice of introducing these hobbies to my children whenever I can. They love to see me doing what I love and “playing” in my own way. Make a list of things you love and examine how to turn these things into practices and gifts for your children.
10. Set strong boundaries with your children to protect yourself. Sit down and list what is non-negotiable for you. A non-negotiable for me is speaking with manners and in a respectful tone. Determine what behaviours are unacceptable for you and set strong limits around them. Healthy boundaries are a huge part of self-compassion.
11. Trust in the process. Accept that your life is a work in progress and you will never, ever be finished learning and growing. Love yourself for how far you have come, celebrate your successes and keep moving forward with compassion and commitment to growth. Know deeply that you are absolutely the right parent for your children.