by Holly Keich
image: Grace Lightner Photography
When’s the last time you told yourself, I’ll be worthy when ___________________. Whatever it may be that you choose to fill in the blank, whether it’s I’ll be worthy when I lose 15 pounds, when I get the promotion, when I can keep the laundry done or the house clean, when my kids tell me they love me, when I meet the perfect partner, when I become the perfect parent. We dismiss ourselves by lining up a long laundry list of pre-requisites to worthiness. We forget that just by the value of our very existence, we are enough. We are good enough. We are worthy.
Instead, we often seek sources outside of ourselves to tell us that we are worthy. We seek to be better, more, perfect, not only in our own eyes, but through our reflection in others. Author, shame researcher and public speaker, Brené Brown feels that shame is how we see ourselves through other people’s eyes. “If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule.” We say to ourselves, if I’m worthy enough, I won’t feel shame.
But, lets take a closer look at what shame is and what it isn’t. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Parenting is one of the areas in which we, women especially, feel shame.
Parenting values debates, often termed “The Mommy Wars”, are shaming in nature. When you become a parent, you don’t have to look very far to see these debates in action. I remember as a newly expectant mother being blind-sided by vigorous and harsh debates in what used to be a very friendly and supportive online group. Soon I came to discover there are a multitude of controversial and divisive topics surrounding parenting – labor, circumcision, vaccinations, co-sleeping, feeding, etc. And regardless of which side you are on, what you hear is shame. Mothers engaging in shaming behaviors that we try to protect our own children from as they grow – name-calling, put-downs and bullying.
So it was no surprise to find out what Brené Brown found in her research. “There are 3 topics that consistently elicit painfully harsh judgments: addiction, parenting and affairs.” Alright, well, maybe a slight surprise, parenting ranks up there with addiction and affairs? Why is that?
In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brene clarifies so beautifully why parenting breeds judgment. “Our need for certainty in an endeavor as uncertain as raising children makes explicit “how-to-parent strategies both seductive and dangerous. I say dangerous because certainty often breeds absolutes, intolerance, and judgment. That’s why parents are so critical of one another – we latch on to a method or approach and very quickly our way becomes the way. When we obsess over our parenting choices to the extent that most of us do, and then see someone else making different choices, we often perceive that difference as direct criticism of how we are parenting.”
The uncertainty and doubt that comes with parenting is often frightening, frustrating and terrifying, and sometimes all three of those at the same time. Even though we’re all just doing the best we can with what we have and know in this moment, that self-doubt that lurks beneath the choices we make can spring our self-righteous critic into action. And when that happens, we react from a place of fear and hurt, fear of not being good enough, not being the perfect parent. A difference in opinion becomes judgment in our ears (or maybe was even slung with that intention) and our inner critical voice says, I’m not worthy. From this place of hurt, we may even judge others as a way of making ourselves feel better.
Brené Brown makes another excellent point in her book I Thought It Was Just Me: (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”, “We are also more willing to use shame, fear and judgment with people who threaten our pursuit of perfection. We can feel threatened when people challenge or criticize us, or we can feel threatened simply because someone is making different choices then we would make.”
“When we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, when we find self-worth despite our imperfections, when we build connection networks that affirm and value us as imperfect beings, we are much more capable of change.”
Change begins in us. You can not shame or belittle people (including yourself) into change. Change begins with realizing that we all have different paths in our parenting journey. There is no one right path. There are a million ways to be an engaged parent. So the parent who chooses a different path than yours isn’t wrong. They’ve chosen that path based on their values and life experiences and just because their path diverges from yours doesn’t make it any less correct or worthy.
It’s not about who is right or wrong. According to Brené Brown, “the question of parenting values is about engagement. Are we paying attention? Thinking through our choices? Open to learning and being wrong? Curious and willing to ask questions?”
“Our job is to make choices that are aligned with our values and support other parents who are doing the same. Our job is also to tend to our own worthiness. When we feel good about the choices we’re making and when we’re engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than scarcity, we feel no need to judge and attack.” (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly)
In order to move away from judgment we must be mindful of our own thoughts, feelings and words. To show empathy for ourselves as well as others we must be aware. We must know and understand ourselves before we can know and understand someone else. The more grounded we become, the less we feel compelled to defend our decisions and protect ourselves. The more grounded we are the less likely we are to perpetuate the cycle of judgment to make ourselves feel better, to make ourselves feel worthy.
In the end what we really want to know and to feel is that it’s okay. That we’re okay. Although the path may be unlit, we can approach this journey with a spirit of adventure, and openness to learning along with our children and other parents. Knowing that we will stumble and struggle, because we all do. It’s inherent in the process. And it’s not only okay, it’s to be expected. It will happen. It might be you today, or your neighbor or your friend or the parent across town who’s the perfect appearing PTO mom. We’re all in this parenting journey together and we need support; we need to give support.
Ultimately it’s not about who is the perfect parent, it’s about raising healthy, loving, wholehearted children. When we shame other parents for their choices, we are inadvertently passing that shame to the next generation, to their children and our own as well. When we are providing support and understanding, even if it’s just that ‘I’ve been there’ look to the parent whose child is melting down in aisle 4 at the grocery store, we are supporting and understanding that child also. We’re teaching our child what compassion looks like so when they grow up they can teach their children.
We all become better parents, better people, when we have a base of support, of understanding and belonging. We can reach and achieve and yes, even make mistakes, within a family or community that supports and believes in our inherent worthiness.
Holly Keich is a Licensed Social Worker, Owner of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in Camp Hill, PA and has a recent obsession with and grand appreciation for the work of Brené Brown.