Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Motherhood And Parenting Are Shame Minefields

Shame is, perhaps, the most powerful emotion.
Have you ever had the experience where a stranger shares something and it sparks a change in you? They probably have no awareness of their impact, but they have created a ripple effect in that act of opening up and sharing their own pain or questioning. 

I've noticed this happen when I share my own struggles; somehow it gives others a sense of relief to know that there are others who have the same troubles. But it's hard. It's hard to open up, it's hard to let others know your weaknesses, it's hard to confess to not doing things as well as you wish you could.

Shame. 

Guilt. 

Embarrassment. 

Those are really difficult emotions to overcome, and they can keep you locked in a box of loneliness and isolation. But every time you share what you see as your weakness, you find that there are so many others who reach out in relief to say that they so needed to know that they weren't alone in their struggle. And in their reaching out, you find yourself both relived of this burden of shame and uplifted in knowing you have helped someone else.
Who hasn't experienced being criticized for their
 parenting choices? (illustration credit: Brené Brown)
And yet, being the one to share first can be so incredibly hard. As Brené Brown writes:

"Research shows that we judge in areas where we feel vulnerable to criticism and shame, and we pick someone who is doing "worse than we are." This is why motherhood and parenting are shame minefields.

The biggest lesson for me? Stop comparing and don't take someone's decision to do it different than me as a criticism of my choices.

I hate that parenting has become a competitive sport. It's tough enough without the eye-rolling, whispers and self-doubt."

I feel at ease with my parenting choices. I know not everyone would agree with all of them, and there are things I wish I had known more about when my kids were younger, but I am confident that I am doing the best I can by my family. 

I am also aware that I put a lot of value in that sense of knowing I am doing things well and that I am able to manage even the most difficult of situations. This pride in my capabilities can be a double edged sword, however. What it does is allow a little voice to creep in when things are tough which says, "You're just a fake. You don't know what you're doing. You're failing at this."

Asking for help has never been a strong suit of mine. I never judge others who need help. I love giving helpful advice and making life easier for other people. That's one of the main reasons I do what I do. But when I am the one that needs help, I make that need mean all sorts of things. I worry about what people will think. I feel like I have given up.

Sharing from the heart is both freeing and terrifying.
Brené Brown again:
"The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic.
We certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage."
I have never been comfortable being "seen", yet I (like everyone else), long to be truly understood and accepted for who I am. Despite the discomfort, something compels me to keep sharing, to keep peeling back layer after layer to expose myself. Perhaps I do it because it helps you, but I know it also helps me. And yet, with each decision to share more, I do it with trepidation.

In the last year and a half, I have moved from being a mom who tended to be a bit neurotic and anxious, to being off the charts frustrated, can't get out of bed depressed, angry at everyone and everything so much so that in my rages I would scream, slam doors and fantasize about escaping from my family. 

How's all of that for a shameful confession? 

I plodded along, thinking that more therapy, more time with the kids, more time without the kids, more help from a nanny, more exercise, more classes, more information, more, more, more would make things better.

It's so easy to feel isolated when you feel as if you are
the only one with these thoughts and emotions.
But it didn't get better. It just got worse. I cried constantly. I wasn't functioning at all, let alone functioning like the mother I knew I could be. But I was afraid of my husband's suggestion to take some kind of medication. I was afraid it would make me into a zombie. I was afraid it would take away my ability to connect and read my kids. I was afraid of what it would mean about me. In my heart of hearts, it felt like a defeat. 

In the end, I went to see Dr. M. She talked to me for a while about things like how mothers of multiples are actually more prone to postpartum depression, how my husband's heart attack a year and a half ago must have been very stressful, about my difficulties with my daughter's behavior, about family history, about changes in the body's chemistry as one gets older, about how the fact that I don't even take aspirin makes my accepting the need for pharmaceuticals a really big deal.

But you know what? That tiny white pill I started taking has changed my life. I don't say that to recommend taking a medication as a way to fix your problems, but it really has given me my life back. I am not screaming any more. I am able to pause when something happens with the kids and consider my response. I no longer cry inconsolably in my car for no reason. I am once again the connected, empathetic, mindful mama that I once was.

Of course I am not perfect. I still have moments of irritation and losing my temper. But it is a world of difference from the way I was a few months ago. 

I wasn't planning on sharing this because it felt so incredibly shameful that I would need a pill to help me be a better mom. But I got an email the other day from a reader who was asking for help in a way I related to so deeply. I realized that it was possible that there were parents out there who, like me, had read everything and knew everything they were supposed to be doing, but somehow just couldn't be the parents they wanted to be! 

Once again, a happy mom.
And maybe, like me, those parents were beating themselves up and calling themselves failures when really, it could be that on some level, it was something impossible to control.

Brené Brown is right, motherhood and parenting are shame minefields. Everyone feels that they are an expert and won't hesitate to make you feel bad for your choices. Especially if they are insecure about their own. 

Our children deserve parents who know that there is no shame in admitting they need help. And there is no shame in sharing that the help has made life so much better for everyone involved.
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