Parents regularly experience shame around parenting.
I see it all the time…
“I love nursing her to sleep. I know I shouldn’t do that.”
“I love tucking him into bed with us and snuggling up with him. It’s just so sweet. But I know I shouldn’t do that.”
“I know some people think I shouldn’t get him a necklace because he’s a boy but he just likes shiny things”
“I’m sorry. It’s her nap time.”
“I know I shouldn’t have given in, but I’m just too tired to argue with him.”
All of these parents were experiencing a uniquely human, and extremely painful feeling:
Sometimes… (see if any of these sound familiar)
It’s because of choices we’ve made that may go against current parenting trends.
It’s because we had a lousy, medicated birth or nursing isn’t going well.
It’s because we, ourselves, lost control and acted towards our children in ways we know we “shouldn’t” in front of others.
It’s because of our children’s “negative” behaviour in public.
It’s because our 3-year-old can’t stand the feel of seams in his clothes and had a fit when he tried on a shirt he was given as a present in front of the gift giver.
It’s because our children are “different”.
Sometimes it’s because….
our babies wake up all night, or our five-year-olds hide behind us when they see someone they know, or our four-year-old won’t sit quietly at Library Storytime, or our seven year old can’t yet read, or our 9-year-old hates sports or your child’s teacher said your child doesn’t really “fit in”, or your child called your mother in law “stupid”…
I could write a many many paged book of all the things that parents feel shame about.
What is shame and why are parents feeling it so much?
Shame is a very particular feeling.
Brené Brown, a wonderful writer and speaker, has researched and written extensively about shame. In one of her books “I Thought it was Just Me”, she gives an excellent definition of shame:
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
When we feel shame, we feel that there is something wrong with us and we don’t want others to know. If others find out, they will judge us and find us lacking and not good enough.
It’s a lonely feeling and, when parents experience it in combination with the sense of isolation so many parents already feel, it can be devastating.
When we are challenged by something in our parenting, and others observe it, or hear about it, or we “confess it”… the parenting challenge is greatly compounded by our experience of shame around it.
It’s a double whammy.
Rather than just seeing the challenge as a challenge, we also see it as a sign that we are not “good enough”, we are flawed, we deserve to be condemned and rejected by others.
Is this rational? No. But it’s very real.
Because we are so emotionally connected and identified with our children, when they are less than perfect (even if their behaviour or temperament or personality is perfectly “normal”), it just magnifies our own sense of imperfection.
And so many of us hold ourselves to a completely unattainable goal of perfection and are terribly terribly hard on ourselves. We are ASHAMED of ourselves.
In one of the quotes in Brené Brown’s book on shame, a woman she interviews says,
“Shame is the feeling that comes over you like a hot wave and the minute it comes over you , you think to yourself ‘Oh, my God, where can I hide? How can I disappear?’“
Parent shame is deep and very painful.
Depending on who we are, what our life circumstances are, what our own childhoods were like, what kind of support systems we have, etc, our experience of shame can be either quick and fleeting, or sustained and crippling.
Let’s look at these different “shame influencers”
Who we are
If we generally feel good about ourselves, have a positive self-concept, have a reasonable level of self-confidence, usually trust ourselves and others, believe in our capacity to learn and grow, that underlying strength helps us to bounce back from shame more quickly.
If, on the other hand, we are generally insecure, have a negative self-concept, lack confidence in ourselves, don’t trust ourselves or others, and feel “stuck” in our lives, shame can grab on more strongly and stay with us longer.
What our life circumstances are
If we are in a happy family situation, we are reasonably financially secure, we have no major crises that we are dealing with, we have decent housing, good health etc, those things help us to get through shame more easily.
On the other hand, if we are in an unhappy family situation, under financial stress, beset with life crises, have poor or insecure housing, health challenges etc, not only does that make it harder to bounce back from shame, it also can cause shame.
If we were raised in a secure, loving household with parents or caregivers who actively tried to have us feel good about ourselves and encouraged, supported and believed in us, it’s easier to rebound from shame.
On the other hand, if we grew up in a household where we were constantly shamed, told we were “no good”, or stupid or worthless, physically, sexually or emotionally abused, not only is it harder to bounce back from shame, it can cause us to have an ongoing, deep-seated sense of shame about who we are.
Our support systems
Having people around us who love and care about us, whom we can turn to for help and/or emotional support, who believe in us and encourage us, who support our parenting and lifestyle choices, whom we can openly talk with about our doubts and fears and challenges, is a great help in getting through shame.
On the other hand, feeling that you are on your own, that there is no one you can really turn to for help, support or encouragement, not having anyone who supports your parenting or lifestyle choices, is a very very lonely place to be. The more alone you feel, the harder it is to bounce back from shame. It can also be a source of shame.
Some of us have all positives in these four areas some of us have all negatives, and probably most of us are somewhere in between.
So if parental shame is so common, so complicated and so painful, how can we deal with it?
Brené Brown talks about developing “Shame Resilience” and the power of empathy.
She identifies four aspects of it:
Recognize your shame. When you are in a situation and you begin to feel that sinking feeling and you feel yourself turning red, or your stomach tightens, or however your body responds to shame, take a step back and say “Oh yeah, there it is. That’s shame. What’s going on inside me? What am I saying to myself? What was the trigger?” Self-awareness about our shame is the start to getting a handle on it.
Apply critical awareness. When you or your child do something or you”confess” something about you or your child, get a reality check. Ask yourself “What expectations or societal judgments am I coming up against? Am I or are my children the only ones who do this? Am I pushing myself to be perfect? Haven’t I observed other parents/children, going through the same things? Aren’t I just experiencing the ups and downs of parenting?
Reach out. Talk openly about what happened with others. Find those connections with people who can talk openly about their parenting experiences. Seek help if you are floundering. And on a larger scale, advocate for better services and supports for children and families.
Speak shame. Connect with others and talk openly about shame, be it parenting shame, body image shame, life history shame etc. Listen to others experiences of shame with empathy, not judgment. This can help loosen the grip that shame has on us.
We do live in a society that is quick to judge and shame others, especially parents, and especially mothers. One of the ways to change this is to practice those four steps, choose not to use shame as a child rearing technique (a whole other topic) and refrain from shaming other parents (or anyone).
Remember that shame and shaming are debilitating and can be paralyzing because they go to the core of a person’s being.
If we want a better, happier life and world, let’s be kind to ourselves, our children, other parents and everyone we meet.
Some great Brené Brown videos: