When Parenting Gets Tough
Originally published on Mindful.org on August 13, 2015
That mean voice in your head that never stops its yammering can make parenting harder than need be.
In spite of my bookshelf from graduate school, much of what I’ve learned about parenting has come from my parents, and my own experience as a parent—as it has for us all. I’m a clinical psychologist who has spent the better part of 20 years specializing in the treatment of children, as well as in counselling parents. I’m trained, licensed, experienced, and even fairly well-read. And as a parent myself I can honestly answer “that” question from anxious parents coming to me for help–whether my understanding of what they’ve been through extends from professional to personal. So yes, I know quite a bit professionally and personally about parenting.
Parents need a new way to relate to the inevitable suffering and universal emotional pain of parenthood.
Across all of my work and home forays into the intricacies of parenting, one truth shines through: the emotional pains of modern parenting are universal. ALL parents come up against significant surges of strong negative feelings and, unfortunately, many get mired in needless suffering as a result what’s happening internally—how they’re reacting to these painful emotions. This truth has led me to the following conclusion: Parents need a new way to relate to the inevitable suffering and universal emotional pain of parenthood.
There’s an inner skill set called for here—an awareness of what is, what’s changing, and what matters going forward. That is elusive for many parents, and may account for much of the pain behind the dismal sociological research suggesting high rates of anxiety, stress, and depression among parents.
Either in sitting back in a moment of awareness at my desk at work, or in a moment on my bathroom floor as my one year-old son splashes about in the tub, I can survey the various parental pains, these tremors that shake us from diligent skillfulness, as well as dip us into far reaches of emotional upheaval. Common to all contemporary parents are pains such as:
Fears for them (that they will be hurt, unloved, or in some way miserably treated by fate and a friend who betrays).
Frustration and teeth-clenching angst (when things go awry or everything we wanted for ourselves on any given day or decade slips away on waves of unanticipated displacement).
Overwhelm (when the demands of the child, young or much older, exceed the skills we’ve brought to bear in the past, or the resources we’ve marshaled in a particular moment).
Loss (when we witness the moments of sweetness giving way to the inevitability of change, development, and a universe of needs other than our own, and when we are saddened by the setbacks, failures, and splintered expectations for our children).
Guilt (over the seemingly never-ending examples of bars set and our performance lacking, of our falling short in doing what we intend as parents, and perhaps doing things, consciously and otherwise, causing pain to our children).
Confusion (when the situation stumps us in the use of all our available parenting tools, when all our guidebooks and rule-of-thumb road maps leave us stranded and exposed).
Fear for ourselves (when needs go unmet, careers are stunted or in some way threatened, relationships whither, addictions rage, and we become resigned to futures foreshortened by the unending press of the next generation).
These are the universal domains of parental pain, the inner pressures we struggle with and against, the seismic challenge that children present to our psyches—our daily sanity. And some aspect of all of these is absolutely inevitable. These are the pains of parenthood creating my motivation for writing and working with parents.
What parents need is help walking with, instead of struggling against, their pain, confusion, and doubt. Leave the rationales to sociological, political and even religious debates, because here we’re focusing on the nitty-gritty of making parenting not just a tolerable ordeal, but an opening, a doorway to the widest possible array of experience—the grandeur and the gore.
What parents need is help walking with, instead of struggling against, their pain, confusion, and doubt.
What I’m talking about here is less about the ins and outs of managing relationships with our children—many books, entire aisles at chain bookstores of tipsters’ advice, speak to the seven steps of effective parenting, to the parental giant within if we are willing to apply the advice consistently. These are perhaps valuable, all well and good. And yet we still have to stand in place and face ourselves internally as parents. What I’m referencing is our relationship with ourselves, with the pain we so readily magnify through unskillful means into unnecessary suffering.
I’m not aware of any tool or strategy for ending the inevitable pain of parenting. I’m assuming there is none. The vivid momentum of sweet moments such as when our kids first learn to pump their legs on the swing will eventually go still. When young, kids will walk out of our sight and we’ll surge with fear. When older, they will hurl dagger eyes and sledgehammer words at us across the years and even when they’re only three feet tall, we’ll never get our emotional buttons out of their reach. The whining will continue. Our sleep will indeed be interrupted, either through their crying in their childhoods or our worrying in their adulthoods. They may be disabled or in endless ways hampered from the easy happiness we wished for them. We will have no clue what to do in that crossroad moment as they hover in the doorway, their eyes expecting our parental reaction to save them. Every other life domain—our jobs, our relationships, our own extended families—will press at us just as they ask for one more thing. And they may lose more than their fair share in life.
In this article, and the others I’ll offer here at Mindful, I invite you to meet your parental Mind–not simply glance at yourself in a mirror, but really meet and greet your inner voice (in the harsher moments of parenting, it’s more often a judge, jury, and executioner) and take a long hard look at this inner relationship. “You aren’t good enough,” it says. “You can’t handle these kids . . .” “. . . Bad things will happen . . .” “. . . They are ungrateful, and you’ll never have a life of your own.” That voice in your head never stops its yammering, and it makes parenting harder than need be. Instead of the high marital divorce rate when parenting gets too tough, it might be worthwhile to consider divorcing that voice inside our heads instead.
I want you to stay with your pain, and regard Mind like a puppy being trained. With a dedicated mindfulness practice, you can learn to teach your angst-primed Mind to stay sitting and smarting on the carpet of your mental and emotional experience and bide time until the pain shifts and changes on its own. This blog is my personal and professional reminder and nudge to help train your parental brain to let the pain be as it is, and not chide and mishandle it into the beast that most of us have known in our lesser moments as parents. Pain, yes—suffering, no.
Pause & Practice
When pain, whether physical or emotional, shows up, it’s helpful to have built the capacity to mindfully notice it, allow it to just be there, and watch as it changes and typically eases on its own. It’s when you push and poke at it, trying to force pain to leave, that it often hangs around and grows into Mind’s best bad-tempered friend, suffering. So learning to “rest” in the experience of pain and not add to it with Mind’s angst and agendas, can be really helpful. The mindfulness term for this is “acceptance.” And by acceptance, I don’t mean resignation—the sense of giving up and being defeated by the pain of parenting. No, it’s an active, empowered choice to lie back and let pain move through you. What you need to do is to take a “N.A.P.P.” with the pain that shows up in your daily life as a parent. Here are the steps:
Notice and observe the painful sensations in your body and any accompanying thoughts as they show up.
Allow it all to be just as it is, without trying to change anything.
Prostrate yourself – “lie back” and “rest” into the moment until . . .the pain Passes through and away from you.
Give these steps of an acceptance practice a try in your next moment of difficulty with your children. I’d advise starting with more do-able situations – the “low hanging fruit” within easy reach of your skills for attention and spacious awareness. With practice, you’ll be able to take a “nap” even amid that louder, more intense or historically angst-ridden episodes. Be patient with yourself. Again, these “pains” of parenting are universal. No one is immune, and we’re all walking together this path toward more mindfulness in relating to our kids. That’s why it’s called “practice,” not perfection.