Being a sensitive, attentive parent takes a lot of work. When I focus so intently on my kids, other important things can fade into the background and other not so nice things come up as a side effect. Since I became a mom I have been through phases of experiencing each of these difficulties, sometimes all at once. I have avoided admitting these struggles to myself and certainly to others. Since I have been reading Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame resilience, I feel more than ever that it is incredibly important to share our struggles and how they make us feel. Through conversations with other moms, a therapist, and my husband, I have learned to be on the look out for these 5 ways sensitive parenting can go wrong.
1. Not taking care of myself My friend and labor coach Judy said that one baby can take up the energy of an entire room full of people. I have absolutely found this to be true. Caring for my family is a never ending cycle of repetitive action and generosity, so if I wait for the work to be “finished” before I take care of myself, I never will. When I’m so busy physically, mentally, and emotionally taking care of my children’s needs and our home, I often forget to consider what I might need. The funny thing is that when I don’t acknowledge my own needs, I’m much less able to take care of others. My friend and midwife Leigh says, “When a woman takes care of herself, everything else gets taken care of.” I am still trying to understand that this is really true, and how to integrate it into my life.
2. Not giving attention to my marriage Did you notice in that last part how I said, “taking care of my children and our home”? I didn’t mention my marriage. When Mo and I are engaged in what I like to call sensitive, attentive parenting, we are on call around the clock. Days melt into nights and with a baby in the bed it is difficult to get any decent sleep, let alone intimate quiet time. When Ben was a baby I remember wishing for some advice or support about how to deal with the burnout, exhaustion, and lack of intimacy that came along with the sweetness of breastfeeding and co-sleeping.
I have found that takes a totally separate effort to extricate ourselves from the pressures of day to day life and give full attention to each other. If we don’t make sure to do this it can feel like we are coworkers more than partners. The good news is that paying attention to our relationship happens in small moments interspersed with the rest of life. A simple hug and kiss every time one of us leaves or comes home, trading shoulder massages or back scratches while we watch a show, and actually facing each other and looking in each others’ eyes while we talk (when I pay attention I am surprised how little this happens!). I also try to give Mo alone time at moments when it means the most to him, not necessarily when it is easiest for me, and vice-versa. These are some of my favorite ways to connect and show each other that our relationship is a priority. When we are connected we feel like we are on the same team and that helps us weather the inevitable storms of parenthood and life.
3. Feeling resentful When I am overwhelmed and I haven’t taken the time (I didn’t say found the time, because I will never find it, I have to take it!) to care for myself by 1. eating well (for me to feel my best I need to get a lot of protein and greens and not a lot of sugar), 2. sleeping as much as possible (so difficult) and 3. spending time doing and thinking about what I like, rather than what everyone else needs (also difficult), I start to feel resentful. Resentment is sneaky. I start to think, “Why are they so needy? Whey can’t they just go to sleep by themselves? Why do I have to make dinner every night? Why do I have to sweep the floor again?”….The list goes on. The thought that comes next is the worst part, “They don’t appreciate all I do for them.” This last part indicates that I am looking outside of myself for validation of the hard work that I do. Of course we all need to hear praise and encouragement to keep going when we are working hard! But when our tank is empty, no amount of appreciation will make us feel better.
The way I have found to stop resentment in its tracks is to reevaluate what I’m doing and change priorities for a little while. Sometimes Mo notices me going down the path of being overwhelmed and resentful and reminds me to remove anything that is stressing me out and isn’t absolutely necessary from my to-do list (no bread baking, no re-organizing, no deep cleaning, no errand running) and try to chill out a little. Even just taking the time to take a walk with a friend or sit down and eat a proper meal can be enough. No one can “do it all” and trying to is a recipe for resentment. Resentment is a fun sucker! When I take myself too seriously or start to feel bitter about how hard I’m working, how can I enjoy myself? I try to remind myself to tune in to the innate fun loving nature of kids and laugh more. When I’m laughing and being silly I’m too busy having fun to be resentful!
4. Feeling guilty For me, resentment often travels along with guilt. As soon as I run through the script of resentful thoughts, I feel awful for even thinking them. Here comes the guilt, “How could I be so selfish? They need me. I should just work harder.” As I mentioned above, this does nothing to help with resentment, because what I need to do in those moments is NOT work harder! I need to give myself a break, and remind myself that I am enough, It’s not about what I do, it’s about who I am. Trust me, I’m still working on this one!
The other way that guilt finds its way into sensitive parenting is a sense of all-or-nothing within a value system. If I value “attachment parenting” then I have to adhere to all of its tenets and every choice I make has to be selfless and giving and loving and ethical and ecological and…nope! Not possible. All I can do is consider my true values when I make decisions, and use common sense and self-kindness to decide what is actually possible in the moment.
Managing expectations also helps turn off the guilt. The work of motherhood does not follow a business model of input and output. I can work extremely hard, offering all my love, and my children will still push my buttons and my floors will still be covered in oatmeal (yup, they are right now). When my expectation is “If I work hard at this, my kids will be awesome and my house will be clean and I will have healthy homemade on the food ready all the time” I am setting myself up for disappointment. Then I feel guilty and tell myself if I could only work harder I would do “better.” This is not a true equation. No matter how they are acting, my kids ARE awesome, and I can find satisfaction in the five minutes when the floor is clean if that does it for me. I just have to look elsewhere for satisfaction for the other 1435 minutes of the day.
5. Feeling superior This is where “Mommy wars” come in. When I’m working so hard and doing my best for my kids, I have to think that what I’m doing IS the best for my kids. Otherwise why would I make such an effort? The problem comes when what is best for me and my kids becomes what is best for everyone and all kids. Sure, I think that some of the things I do should be universal standards of childcare. I have also met mothers with totally different parenting styles with beautiful, happy children, so what does that mean? It means we are all on our own trip with our own beliefs, baggage, and abilities. When I compare what I do to what anyone else does, I start sliding down a slippery slope of self-judgment, judgment of others, and feeling either bad about myself or superior, depending how things measure up. I choose to get off that ride, learn what I can from the people I meet, support those who want it, and focus on myself. I believe that is the way my work makes the most difference.
When I read this article “Why You’re Never Failing as a Mother” a while back I reacted quite strongly. Something about it didn’t sit well with me. I don’t disagree with anything she is saying, but I feel that the message is just not enough. I don’t want to feel better about my parenting because no one has done it like this before and I don’t have the support previous generations had. I want to feel better about my parenting because I feel better about myself. What I have explained above is part of my journey to feeling good in my life.
I’m learning to enjoy the ride.