Parents, Stop Shaming Yourselves
A pediatrician and mom says we're important to our kids, even with our shortcomings
Dr. Vanessa Charette provided wise counsel in her blog titled “Do you ‘Mom-Shame?’—Well Shame on You.” As a complement to that, I would like to propose an important next step—that we parents stop shaming ourselves. We almost all engage in this, and the habit is really not healthy.
How do I know parents shame themselves?
First, I know that parents shame themselves because I AM a parent, and I do it. For example, in the spirit of full confession I will tell you that – once when my son was a toddler – we went to a playdate at a pebble-layered park during which I completely failed to notice his slipping a little handful or two of said pebbles into his mouth. I thought I might’ve seen him sneak something stealthily into his mouth, but I convinced myself otherwise (clean tongue, no dirt on his face). Two hours later at home, he awoke crying from a nap and vomited a pile of pebbles. “I burped, Mommy,” he said, pointing to that which he ejected. Guilt for allowing him to ingest choke hazards followed. “Bad Mommy,” I told myself. Another time, I got confused about the date and time of a much anticipated birthday party. We rang a family’s doorbell with gift in hand only to be told the party had been the prior week. Quiet tear fall on my daughter’s cheeks ensued. “Bad Mom,” I told myself. These are just two examples, but you get the drift, right?
Second, I know that parents shame themselves because, well, I’ve got this gig as a pediatrician. In this line of work – in which I am fortunate enough to be privy to many joys and happy events among my patient families – not a day goes by that I don’t also see and hear parents judge themselves as “unworthy.” I often see tearful new parents in the midst of extreme sleep deprivation with their wailing and yellowing (jaundiced) neonates put to breasts that aren’t yet fully cooperating with the nursing plan. “Bad Mommy,” the moms tell themselves, for not satisfying their babies at the breast. “Bad Daddy,” the dads tell themselves, for not being able to better comfort and support their wives and new baby. I have seen many parents fret when I have diagnosed their baby with an ear infection after a rough night of letting their little one “cry it out” in sleep-training. “What bad parents, not going to our crying baby in a time of need,” they tell themselves. Parents have come to me after hearing from a teacher that something was less than great about their child’s performance. They have often internalized this problem or flaw as something they might have prevented “if only we were better parents.”
Honestly, I’ve seen parents – I’m talking about wonderful and oh-so-very well-meaning people – stack everything their child does “less-well” or more slowly or less confidently or less joyfully than others onto their own backs as their burden to bear in self-flagellation. And self-flagellation doesn’t feel good! The time has come, my friends, for us to stop this abuse of self. Together let’s take steps toward self-preservation, realism, self-acceptance, and love.
STEP ONE: Silence the Self-Critic
Amy Poehler, the awesome one of SNL and Parks and Rec, has a chapter in her book Yes, Please called “plain girl vs the demon” in which she refers to the voice in each of us that “talks badly to us.” She writes that the demon might say to one’s self, “I am too fat or too skinny or too tall or too wide or my legs are too stupid and my face is too smiley or my teeth are dumb and my nose is serious and my stomach is being so lame.” And, on the flip side, another critical voice may then retort (to itself, yourself), “I am so ungrateful – I have arms and legs and I can walk and I have strong nail beds and I am alive and I am so selfish and I have to read Man’s Search for Meaning again and call my parents and volunteer more and reduce my carbon footprint and why am I such a self-obsessed ugly [bleep].”
This is the same self-critic I am suggesting we silence. It is the very one that tells us we are not the model parent we had hoped to be. It says, “You stink, you enabler of pebble-eating, failure-at-exclusive breastfeeding, and non-responder to ear pain – you are a Bad Parent!” In the name of self-preservation and positivity, we must kick this nasty voice out of our consciousness – STAT! Plug your ears and say, “Lalalala,” because the inner demon is a bully.
In addition, our inner demons often talk crazy -- that is, their comments aren’t grounded in reality. By way of illustration, imagine I am looking at myself in the mirror after donning my best fancy attire with grooming and make-up quite beyond my usual jeans and T-shirt, around-the-house look. I just might look at myself and think – “ Hey, I like this dress – it’s nice to get dolled up sometimes, and I like the way I look today.”
But what would happen if instead an inner crazy-talking voice then pointing out to me that “Nope, Supermodel ___(blank)____(insert the name of your supermodel of choice) would look a lot better in this dress – you actually look bad.” If I listened to that voice, I might feel pretty deflated, as – let’s face it – it is true that any supermodel would look better than I in any dress. My point, however, is that I should not listen to that voice, as why would I compare myself to a supermodel anyway? And even supermodels say that their Perfect 10 appearance in pictures is not their “real” look and is much helped by Photoshop and make-up artists and the like.
The point is that the self-critic is a bully who encourages unhealthy comparison to unreachable ideals. And this brings me to the next step.
These days, we parents often burden ourselves with unrealistic expectations for how we will rear our children. Parent and parenting author/blogger Bunmi Laditan summarizes things well and humorously:
“How to be a parent in 2017 (now 2018): Make sure your children’s academic, emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, nutritional, and social needs are met while being careful not to over stimulate, under stimulate, improperly medicate, helicopter, or neglect them in a screen-free, processed foods-free, GMO-free, negative energy-free, plastic-free, body positive, socially conscious, egalitarian but also authoritative, nurturing but fostering of independence, gentle but not overly permissive, pesticide-free two-story, multilingual home, preferably in a cul-de-sac with a backyard and 1.5 siblings spaced at least two years apart for proper development, and don’t forget the coconut oil.
How to be a parent in literally every generation before ours: “Feed them sometimes.”
Many of us lucky enough to have had supportive and loving parents strive to be like them. However, in many cases societal expectations (safety seats, seatbelts, no smoking, etc) and also our own expectations complicate the mix. Perhaps we have added two parent full-time jobs with ambitious goals for promotion to our list. Perhaps we have added travel, dietary limitations, or exercise ambitions to the day. Perhaps we don’t live close to other family members and have to go at it alone or with the help of nannies and baby-sitters. We have a lot on our plate—too much, if we don’t also throw in some forgiveness and self-acceptance.
Alas, we are only human, and there are only 24 hours in a day. We will not be able to do it all. We all make mistakes. We hope to recognize them. With a positive growth-perspective, we can plan to manage things differently next time, but we will be sometimes misguided and imperfect people even then. And that’s okay. We are great even in the striving. We wear the clothes well, even if not like a supermodel might.
STEP THREE: RECOGNIZE THAT WE ARE ALL SPECIAL, FLAWS AND ALL
In the words of the inimitable Mr. Rogers, “Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.” Working through the steps of this blog, we hopefully have moved away from shaming ourselves and from listening to a cruel inner critic to instead accepting our own humanity. Now we should move beyond self-acceptance to a point of appreciation. Let us even embrace some of our limitations and imperfections.
When I was younger, Christmases in our family were great, complete with baking cookies, singing carols, playing games together, and enjoying Christmas movies. One area in which my child-self felt we might improve, however, had to do with decorations and the spectacle of it all. I had some friends whose families really went “all out” in that area—they had amazing decorations and lights inside and outside their homes, beautifully wrapped gifts topped with bells and elaborate bows, and Christmas morning resplendence as in the opening scene of The Nutcracker Ballet.
One day I asked my mom why we didn’t do more of that. “Daphne, I have our family to tend to, a full-time job, and even night classes—the choice is between my using my scarce free time to decorate our home and fancily wrap gifts or my spending that time enjoying the season with you and our family.” She went on, “I thought it would be best to cherish the time together – don’t you agree?” I really did agree. My mom showed me that -- within the limits of our situation – she chose us. This was a wonderful lesson of love that sprung directly from human limitation, and I love and thank her for it.
As for my dad, according to what some parenting books say, my dad was a little too loud, yelled a little too much, and wasn’t measured enough in his reactions to the world around him to fit the bill for their “no-scream” and always- calm parenting principles. He was emotional and ever expressive—(mostly in love and joy, but on occasion in frustration or anger ) – a true “spicy Italian,” as my own husband referred to him. We always knew where he stood on any given issue.
Though yell he would, if for example the cat pooped on the white carpet or my sister and I misbehaved or talked back, the other side of his honest expression of emotion was that he was the loudest and biggest declarer of love I have ever known. His voice carried so far that – in a piano recital or dance recital or school awards program or anything – I could always hear my dad’s voice above the others, shouting proudly, “Brava, Daphne!” It wasn’t the volume of his voice, though, that made him so special — it was his passion, eloquence, and most importantly his sincerity. Not just at weddings or parties but also very often in our day to day life, he opened his heart to us. I grew up hearing him express how much he loved me, my sister and my mom, how great he thought we were even in our differences, and how lucky he felt to have us. So actually, the expresssiveness some parenting gurus might call his “imperfection” was just the other side of what made him so incredibly special as a father, the best of fathers, truly.
So no more self-shaming! We are important to our children, even with our constraints and our shortcomings. We strive to show them how special they are, but it is important to turn that support and appreciation inward as well. We are unique, and we make a positive difference.
Let us finish with a boost from Mr. Rogers, a voice truly opposite to that of our harsh self-critics. “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you,” he always said at the end of his shows, “There’s no person in the world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
Get to know Daphne N. Shaw, M.D.
Dr. Shaw is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Fort Worth (Henderson), board certified in pediatrics. To make an appointment with Dr. Shaw, call 817-760-2096 or click here. Dr. Shaw graduated with honors from Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., before earning her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. She followed with internship and residency at Baylor College of Medicine’s general pediatrics program at Texas Children’s Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital. She wrote and illustrated a children's book called No Shots for Me about a little girl confronting her fear of getting vaccines. Her outside interests include spending time with her husband, two children and two dogs (as well as some fish and even a gerbil), as well as traveling, reading and writing.