Guilt is a subject that comes up frequently in discussions about parenting, and it’s something that most of us have felt at one time or another. Most of us give a fair amount of thought to the kind of parents we would like to be and the kind of relationship we would like to have with our children. Being parents, we’re also acutely aware of the fact that life takes unexpected turns. Illnesses, teething, temper tantrums, boundary testing, and the everyday stressors of life as an adult can quickly throw us off course, creating a serious divide between our visions of the ideal parent and our assessment of ourselves. If you’re like me, you may look at this divide and jump immediately to guilt and blame. We know these things are not our children’s fault, so clearly the blame has to fall on us: Why can’t I be more patient? Why can’t I focus on my time with my child instead of stressing over my to-do list?! We parents can be so hard on ourselves.
There’s a concept in the book Nonviolent Communication, and it has transformed the way I parent and significantly reduced the amount of blame I place on myself. It’s called self-empathy. Here’s the thing: Our children have many needs, and it’s largely our job, especially when they’re very young, to make sure these needs are met. At the same time, we have some very real needs as well. Meeting their needs demands many things of us, but among the most useful is empathy. If we can put ourselves in our children’s shoes and work to understand what they are thinking and feeling, it’s much easier to respond to them with patience, and in a way that meets their needs. As the book explains, however, if we’re not getting enough empathy ourselves, it can be awfully hard for us to offer it to others. We have to fill our own cups, so to speak, before we can give others what they need.
Even on the very best days, parenting can be tough, but when life gets harder it becomes even more difficult to parent in the way we would like. This is okay. It’s okay to feel frustrated, impatient, irritated, touched out. Many of us are adept at noticing and accepting these feelings in our children, but we forget that it’s normal for us to feel them as well. Humans feel these things regardless of age, and often the best way to heal and move on is by receiving empathy. It’s wonderful when we can get this from a close friend, our spouse, a therapist, or another trusted person, but often we find ourselves needing to give to our children when we haven’t had a chance to process our own difficult feelings with another person. In these times, we can give empathy to ourselves.
I have a toddler, and she often becomes frustrated at things that seem small to an adult. She may launch into a bout of screaming because she’s having trouble taking her shoe off, and any attempt on my part to help only leads to more frustrated, ear-piercing screams. On my good days, I can calmly approach and really empathize with her, saying something along the lines of, “It looks like you’re feeling really frustrated. You’re having a hard time with your shoe. Would you like a hand?” I can sit with her and quietly offer support while she works through the difficult moment. On other days, I just don’t have it in me. I might stand a few feet away, feeling exasperated. It might take all I have to stop myself from walking over, hurriedly taking the shoe off, and admonishing her to calm down. Does my beautiful daughter deserve an always patient mama who never becomes exasperated? Sure, but what she got was a human one, and I think that’s okay.
In cases like this, self-empathy for me is a simple process of acknowledging my feelings and giving myself a little grace before I interact with my daughter. I might notice that, “Gosh, I’m really tired. We got fitful sleep last night, and woke up too early. I’ll have to try to nap with her today.” The thing is, it’s natural and normal to feel tired sometimes, and it makes sense that when you’re extra tired you won’t have quite as much patience as on your most well-rested days. I could beat myself up, or I could just accept and allow myself to feel these normal feelings, then move on and parent to the best of my ability from there. This doesn’t mean giving myself a pass to spend the day in a funk, it just means accepting my humanness and difficult feelings, just as I would do for my daughter.
When I have taken time to notice and accept what’s going on with me, I can usually respond to my daughter in the way I’d like, despite it all. Taking the little bit of time necessary to listen to and honor myself, wherever I am, makes it possible to love both my daughter, and myself, and to meet her needs as well as my own. There’s a tendency among parents to meet our children’s needs first, and that’s wonderful, but the problem arises when we get so busy that we forget to stop and tend to our own. We’re human, we have needs, and this is okay.