Self-Compassion for Parents

Can mindfulness and compassion help us parent?

Posted Jul 30, 2019

I was recently helping some cousins with preparations at a family wedding in the countryside. One of them was a mom who had three young kids, including a newborn. We began to talk about parenting.

“So how am I doing?” Emma asked me point blank, looking anxious. “I’m the last person to judge,” I reassured her. As one child pulled on her leg, demanding attention, I paraphrased a line from one of my favorite short stories by the writer Tilly Olson and shared it: “To be a mother is to be constantly interruptible.”

She laughed and said, “And, to be constantly correctible. And constantly criticized. I never feel like I’m doing it right. Sometimes when my kids are rambunctious, people stare at me like I’m raising juvenile delinquents. I refuse to put them in straight jackets with muzzles or keep them on a tight leash like a trained dog. When I was a kid I felt free to run and climb and yell and be wild. Now it seems that it’s not OK for kids to make noise and have fun. It’s like they should be constantly quiet and contained,” she confided. “Raising children can feel impossible.”

Emma’s words stayed with me and troubled me. She articulated something I hear from almost all the parents I know. Parenting is hard for everyone. We never feel good enough. Things rarely go the way we imagine they will. And when they don’t, we blame ourselves, criticize our kids, push harder, and try to exert more control. We become anxious and depressed. Our kids become anxious and depressed. We look over our shoulder, comparing ourselves with our friends, families, neighbors. We lose sleep. What are we doing wrong? Is there some way off this interminable and joyless merry-go-round?

Stop. Breathe. Listen. Stop beating yourself up. Cut yourself some slack. Stop fighting with your kid, yourself, your partner. Freud was on to something, as was Emma—parenting can feel like an impossible profession. And trying to dominate or muzzle our kids is a losing battle. The experts tell us that ultimately very little can be predicted or controlled.

We are all exhausted, anxious, and worried. And we are not alone. One historian of American culture noted that “[I]n no other country has there been so pervasive a cultural anxiety about the rearing of children.” We wonder if someone else does it better. Do French parents have the magic recipe? Do “tiger mothers” get a better return on their investment? Anthropologists tell us that Japanese babies sleep and Mexican siblings don’t fight—should we relocate?

Make a “U” Turn

No. Start where you are. Decades of research on mindfulness and compassion can offer a radical shift in perspective. The seeds for happier and less combative parenting are within us, not on another continent. We don’t have to feel angry or helpless and drive our children and ourselves to exhaustion. There is another way. Instead of the constant struggle to fix or change your kids, try a “U” turn. Extend some kindness and compassion to yourself. Begin to nurture yourself so your kids can thrive. Huh? You shake your head. You roll your eyes. You are busy, you don’t have time for this. It sounds too selfish and silly. Most parents tell me this.

As a Harvard-trained psychologist, with two grown children, and over 30 years of clinical experience, I’ve worked with a lot of parents and children. And I’ve read a lot of books on how to parent. The predominant focus is often on how to fix our kids, how to make them behave, how to get them to sleep, how to get them into a good college and guarantee success. In short, how to make them into what we want them to be. But rarely do we achieve the results we want.

What happened to joy? Happiness? Exuberance? We don’t need to be so hard on them or ourselves. The current research says that we can motivate more with compassion than criticism. Really. We can shift the focus from constant doing to simply being. We can stop running, turning ourselves into frantic, raging parents racing to get the kids to soccer, little league, and ballet in rush hour traffic while they are biting and punching each other in the car. No judgment here; I’ve been there. I was the frantic mother in the car, spread too thin, running on empty, trying to do way too much—and losing it. It was not sustainable for anyone. I tried to find a way back to balance and sanity.

After three decades of parenting, clinical work, and meditation I have created a new paradigm, based on the pioneering work of my colleagues Drs. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, who developed the transformative Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course, which I have been teaching since its inception in 2010.   Things don’t have to be so hard, and we don’t have to suffer so much. Nor do our children.

If you're having a hard day, and feel like you’ve lost perspective, take a moment and try this short reflection.

Reflection: Finding Yourself

Do you feel like you lost yourself when you became a parent? Take a moment and ask yourself the question “Who am I?” Ask it again. And again. Did parent come up in one of the first answers? That's wonderful, but who ELSE are you besides a parent? We can’t lose this essence of who we are as we become overwhelmed with parenting.

 Sometimes, just taking a few moments to include yourself in the circle of care can change your day. It doesn’t need to be dramatic. “Small moments, many times,” the Zen masters suggest.

But the most important thing to remember, as one of my mindfulness teachers told me years ago, is that there is no way to do this wrong. “Come on, really?” you say. Yup, really. I’d spent a lifetime castigating myself for the most minor mistakes. “No way to fail,” she would tell us. Was this teacher an alien from another universe? What substance was she on? (And would she share it?)  Basking in the presence of her compassion, humor, and wisdom, I thought of that unforgettable line from When Harry Met Sally-- I decided that I wanted to “have what she was having.”

The good news is that mindfulness and compassion are available to all of us—and we can share them with those around us. These are skills you can develop. The practices aren’t for already serene people who have everything together. You don’t have to be good at sitting still. You don’t have to be vegan, sugar-free, and decaffeinated. You can be as you are—overworked, anxious, neurotic, sleep-deprived, and barely keeping it together. It’s fine to be a mess. I certainly was. If you can breathe (and don’t look now--you’re already doing it), you can do this.

Adapted from Pollak, S. (2019). Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself. New York: Guilford Press.