Trusting Yourself as a Parent
A kind inner dialogue, being gentle on yourself and accepting things as they are help when things feel out of control
One of the greatest lessons I have learned from my children is that I am OK the way I am. It’s a message I raised them with, and one that they now reflect back to me. As parents, we often feel the need for a script, a philosophy, a book, a guru. We fear that we can’t just go our own way. But we must. As dance legend Martha Graham says,
There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.
Keeping our channel open in this era of overstimulation is no easy task for us as parents. With so much information coming at us from so many sources, we have to figure out how to discriminate and how to recognize reliable sources. We can trust ourselves to do this if we ground our parenting in our own personal beliefs and values rather than in some prescription or changing fashion.
Let the child lead
One thing that doesn’t change is the basic integrity, perfectibility, and goodness of the child. If we recognize that our child is basically good, trustworthy, and authentic, we can follow our child’s lead as parents rather than molding him or her to our own wishes.
There is a danger in over-intellectualizing the parenting experience. Each “expert” promises the secret to perfect parenting, attempting to encapsulate the human experience in a single book, tape, or video. Sorting through all of this information becomes overwhelming unless you come back time and time again to your child.
Ideas are only ideas; opinions are culturally dictated. Your child, however, is one of a kind, new and unspoiled and without any of the learned trappings of modern civilization or the dichotomies of intellectual reasoning. Your child operates on an instinctive level, and if you stay quiet and listen, you will find that the answers to your parenting questions lie within you, that your instincts are alive and well too.
What kind of support and information do we need to trust our instincts? How do we take care of ourselves as we grow in parenting?
Being nice to ourselves
I used to think that taking care of myself meant exercising, but now I realize that it has more to do with developing a kind inner dialogue. When I think better of myself, I think better of my children.
Because society expects so much of us as parents — and we expect so much of ourselves — we can easily be overly critical of ourselves. After all, parenting is something we can only learn by experience, and it takes many years to feel confident as a parent. It makes it easier if we are nice to ourselves.
Sometimes being nice to ourselves means replacing a limiting and critical inner dialogue with a gentle and encouraging one. When things are tough with our children, it doesn’t help to be tough on ourselves. It doesn’t help if we underestimate ourselves. It is the circumstances of family life that expand our capacity, that develop in us reserves of character we never thought possible.
One way to nurture the health of our family is to develop new communication skills, but it also helps to develop coping mechanisms for tough times. Look at how athletes, performers, political leaders and others, who put themselves on the line every day, handle pressure. They don’t turn against themselves in tough times. Realize that our own unique lives as parents is our teaching ground.
As we learn new communication skills and coping mechanisms, and learn how to grow a healthy family, it’s essential to go easy on ourselves. Change takes time. The best coping mechanism of all is the ability to start over again. That is what we do every day with our children. That is what it means to be gentle on ourselves.
Being gentle on yourself
It sounds simple to advocate that we be gentle on ourselves while we change and grow as parents, but what does that mean, and how important can it really be? If the authority for making intuitive, authentic decisions about our child’s well being rests in us, then it’s essential that we support and strengthen ourselves.
Being gentle on ourselves means appreciating signs of overload in ourselves not as signs of weakness, but as cries for help. When we are tired all the time, or easily angry, on the verge of tears, or afraid of everything, we need to rest. We cannot expect ourselves to make important decisions regarding our children when we are not at our best. Sometimes we don’t realize that the simple solutions of getting enough sleep (take a nap with the baby), eating good food, and creating some unstructured time for relaxation can make most problems disappear.
Being gentle on ourselves also means allowing ourselves to catch our breath. Although it is almost impossible to find time alone when you have children, setting aside ten minutes to meditate, have a cup of tea, stare out the window or dance around the living room is a worthwhile goal. A walk outside with baby in a backpack can be a a way to find mental space. Breastfeeding is sometimes an opportunity for contemplation, though we usually think about cleaning the house.
Accepting things as they are
It is easy to feel used up by parenting; tired and overwhelmed much of the time. It can seem impossible to take care of ourselves when we can barely take care of others. One of the biggest challenges in living our personal values is the simple overload of daily life. Many days with children are simply out of control.
When inconvenient, challenging, or downright bad things happen, that is where the gentle inner dialogue comes in. We can compound the bad situation by harshly judging ourselves or our loved ones, or we can “Roll with the punches” as my aunt used to say, “Flow with it” as the hippies used to say, or “Go downstream” with “No worries” as the new generation says. Just surrendering to things as they are does much to improve any day. In addition to accepting things as they are, these things can also help in tough times.
- Let go of the past
- Schedule only a manageable number of activities
- Leave room for the unexpected
- Allow plenty of unstructured time for relaxation
- Do not stay in extreme positions or states of mind
- Be flexible
- Allow fun and pleasure in your life regardless of what you face emotionally
- Communicate directly
- Trust your first impressions, inner experience and intuition
- Give immediate attention to what has you most worried or anxious
- Do things step by step
- Have faith in your child and yourself
Regrets, self-trust and transformation
Often when we look back, we have regrets. We would have done things differently if we knew what we know now. But, the fact is, we didn’t. Trusting ourselves means that we have to trust our mistakes as well. We never intentionally make a mistake. Mistakes can be opportunities to learn to forgive ourselves.
We heal and develop our capacity for self-trust as we allow our children to grow in an atmosphere of trust. The reasons we distrust ourselves are usually negative mental habits we learned from our own childhood or simply the lack of the right mental attitudes for tough times. Or just the inevitable overload. Life with children is inherently out of control.
Children are agents of change; their freshness and newness invigorate the culture. As parents, we have the opportunity to make the world a better place. We don’t have to perfect, however. We just have to be authentic.
Job description of a parent
Whether or not you are smart, pretty, witty, or have any idea what you’re doing, you are the one in charge. And you have all the right qualifications.
Wanted. Men and women for a job in which no experience is required, no predictability or control is possible. This job demands long hours and offers no pay, no training, and little praise. Society will hold incredibly high standards for this job, but will give little support for it. Everyone else in society will think they know how to do the job better than you do, yet you will be the only one blamed if something goes wrong.
This job offers the potential to develop the thinking and emotional capacity of another unique individual. The potential to inexorably affect the quality of life on the planet.
This job is totally unlike any other, and yet will prepare you for anything. It has been known to be a religious experience.
The job is priceless, so payment is made in self-esteem, intimacy, epiphanies, and personal transformation.
This is a totally improvisational position.
Individuals are handpicked for the position.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Sign up for my free newsletter with my latest posts on parenting, social justice, and healthy living.