Have you discovered Brene Brown yet? Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Internet-connected world had already watched her TED talks. When we realized we were both reading her book Daring Greatly, we decided to blog about how it related to women who start having children later in life. Brown herself is a fortysomething mom who is a lot like us: well-educated, socially engaged, and rather prone to perfectionism and trying to do too much.
When I was pregnant, I read lots of parenting books. I felt like big exam was coming up, and I wanted to be prepared. After the baby was born, I remembering nothing that I had read. So I re-read several of them (with a newborn attached to my breast, obviously.) But most of them proved useless. They tended to be rigid and made me feel like a failure if I could not follow their suggestions to the letter. If I could do it again, I would spend that time reading Brene Brown’s work, because the way to be a better parent is to be a more kind and self-aware person. Also, her work reminds me not to be so hard on myself.
Years ago, an older friend told me that having children forces you to figure out your values. I was in my young twenties then, more desperate to stay un-pregnant than procreate, so it mainly went over my head. Thinking about that statement now, though, I can’t think of a more perfect parenting guide. However, judging by the sheer number of parenting books and “experts” out there, I’m somewhat alone in this stance.
Dr. Brown researches shame, and Daring Greatly is her manifesto to help us understand the extent to which shame drives us and then to counteract it by living in a way she has termed wholeheartedly. Shame is the “I’m not good enough” (or strong enough, pretty enough, smart enough, you-fill- in-the-blank enough) broken record that plays both sub consciously and consciously in our brain. That sound track drives us to do things that do not always gel with our authentic self. It is also why we feel unsatisfied even when we have the car, house, partner, baby, degree, and career.
In fact, sometimes we feel more shame the more we have, because we are unable to attend to any one of these things with the same focus and determination when our lives were less full. This shame also prevents us from connecting with one another fully and honestly. We are afraid of being seen as the fallible creatures that we are. We are so insecure in our value that we can’t risk others seeing under our armor. In contrast, wholehearted living involves acceptance of who we are and a willingness to show up warts and all. It means offering what we can while staying true to what we need. It involves a level of vulnerability. It is the opposite of perfectionism, criticism, and bullying. What it looks like: being ok with the fact that you are and will always be ten pounds overweight. Or that your house is always messy. Or that you will never be partner in your firm because you simply don’t want to work 80 hours per week. Or that you don’t sit through your kid’s soccer practice, because it is the only chance you have to work out yourself. Or you don’t buy organic. When we interact with others, it means not judging someone for any of the above. Dr. Brown is careful to say this is not the same as “letting it all hang out”. Nor does it not mean striving for excellence and being ambitious. It simply means aligning your actions with your core beliefs and defining yourself by who you are not what you accomplish, how much you own, or how you appear to others.
It is a simple concept but it is so easy to lose sight of this. It’s not a onetime choice. It’s a series of tiny choices about how to respond. As parents, we can expect to fail at this again and again, since most influences in our society push against this constantly.
I also learned a lot from Chapter 3, in which she talks about men’s perspectives on shame and vulnerability in a way that is so valuable. On man quoted in the book says that women claim we want men to open up and be vulnerable but we really want them to act strong all the time. In the same chapter, there’s a discussion about “back fat” and sex that will be reassuring for anyone facing postpartum sex.
Brown writes: “Ironically parenting is a shame and judgment minefield precisely because most of us are wading through uncertainty and self-doubt when it comes to raising our children. After all, we rarely engage in self-righteous judgment when we feel confident about our decisions.” There’s some merit in understanding child development. But I think there’s more value in just continuing to work on ourselves, trying to progress toward more wholehearted living, as Brown calls it. The best parenting books I’ve read encourage self-reflection; for example, Raising Your Spirited Child includes personality tests for the parents so that they can understand how their personality interacts with their child’s personality.
So why are we so hard on ourselves and endlessly striving to be good enough? These feelings stem from our family of origin, in which we first learned that we were not worthy enough. Now wait a minute you might be saying, my family loved me unconditionally. This may be true for a small minority of folks, but most of us grew up being critiqued and compared to others. (Look how thin Sarah is, she’s not eating that candy bar! John aced chemistry; you could at least get a B!). Often this stemmed from our parents’ good intentions of wanting us to make the best impression, or fit in with the cool crowd, or get into the best college. They wanted us to have the greatest life possible and felt that by constantly reminding us of our imperfections they could make us perfect. This does not mean that you should blame Mom and Dad for your current psychological state. All parents do what they believe is best at the time. My parents didn’t use a car seat because, like many people in 1976, it seemed much safer to hold me. It does mean raising self-awareness about how we think about ourselves and how we are with our children.
If we are driven by our faults and our misperception that we are not 100% loveable and worthy just the way we are, what are we giving to our children? What example does it set when nothing we do is good enough? The classic example is the mother criticizing herself in the mirror as the daughter watches. The parent who does not feel whole cannot possibly see their child as whole. More importantly, the child who bears witness to the ever self-criticizing parent cannot possibly grow up wholeheartedly. Which brings me to my point about parenting books and experts: there is no amount of research in the world that can prove the best way to parent; there is no magic wand. Whether you co-sleep, wear your baby, stay at home, work like a maniac, buy organic or feed them Doritos, it does not matter. What is important is showing up wholeheartedly.
Dr. Brown writes: “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting…..The question isn’t so much ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is: ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’”
Too rushed to read a book? At least check out this wonderful cartoon about the power of empathy.
Which thought leaders are keeping you sane nowadays? Let us know in the comments. Follow us on twitter if you want to find out about new posts.
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