Many of us enter into parenthood with high expectations: peaceful snuggles with our newborn, idyllic stroller outings with baby, and a certain reliance on parental instincts to guide us on our parenting journey.
It can be a rude awakening when our reality looks nothing like what we imagined. We find ourselves struggling to function on a day-to-day basis, let alone thrive as parents.
Often the conclusion is, “I’m a failure at parenting” or “I’m not cut out to be a parent,” and we think that the problem lies within us, rather than in our expectations. The reality, however, is that it is our unrealistic expectations that are the problem, rather than our parenting prowess.
We can justifiably lay part of the blame on popular culture and social media, which depict parenting in a rosy portrait that is just not an accurate or complete picture of what parenthood is all about.
But there’s a deeper, more powerful reason for this disconnect between expectations and reality that is essential to understand: the concept of matrescence. It is the challenging transition to motherhood that you might think of as the parenting equivalent of adolescence.
It’s a time of hormone fluctuations, bodily changes, role and identity shifts, and a million other changes that accompany the transition to this new period of life.
Reproductive psychiatrist, Dr. Alexandra Sacks, describes matrescence as characterized by a “push and pull” action, where the mother feels pulled by the needs of her baby, but pushes back against giving herself entirely to her new role as she navigates her new identity and tries to preserve some of herself.
This understanding of what is happening is critical to your ability to cope with this important period of parenthood.
Once you do, you realize that your struggles are normal, and that every other parent encounters significant challenges too.
You are not alone.
Normalizing this tumultuous transition encourages us to go easy on ourselves and to recognize that we are not failing as parents — we are simply adjusting in our own way. And here is where we can incorporate a self-compassion practice into our parenting toolbox. Self-compassion infuses a sense of gentleness into your perception of yourself, and allows you to see yourself as human, rather than striving to be the perfect parent.
From Perfection to Self-Compassion
So, what exactly is self-compassion anyway?
Kristen Neff, PhD, a self-compassion researcher, teacher, and writer, describes self-compassion as learning to treat yourself with kindness, just as you would care for a good friend. It is connecting with your humanness and suffering in the present moment, and knowing that everyone suffers sometimes, just like you.
It is easing off on the self-criticism and adopting more realistic expectations for yourself. Mindful awareness encourages us to notice discomfort when it arises through connecting with the sensations in our body and observing thoughts and emotions without judgment. Applying this concept here, as you notice this discomfort, you can choose to infuse self-compassion into your responses and treat yourself with patience, reassurance, and understanding.
Parents are often unsure of how to give themselves self-compassion when we have developed the habit of being hard on ourselves.
Self-judgment in comparison to others becomes our go-to, and we forget that kindness exists within us, or maybe we feel undeserving of compassion.
If, instead, you remember to extend self-compassion, you can become more content in your parenting efforts and more understanding of your emotions when you are feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. In this state, you will see yourself as human, with basic human needs, rather than trying to live up to impossible expectations.
Parenting is hard, even on the best days, so we all deserve some compassion.
A Self-Compassion Tool
Still, it’s one thing to hear these words and another to put them into practice. To help, here is a self-compassion tool (inspired by Kristen Neff, PhD) that you can use in those tough parenting moments when you are feeling overwhelmed or down on yourself:
- Close your eyes gently (if this feels comfortable for you), and bring to mind a challenging parenting situation you encountered recently.
- Say to yourself, “I am feeling stressed” or “I am having a hard time right now” or something similar that resonates for you. Allow yourself to recognize your suffering.
- Say, “All parents have hard days” or “All parents have difficulties” or simply, “others feel this way too.” Acknowledge the shared humanity in your suffering.
- Place your hands over your heart (if this feels okay), and feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch on your chest. Say to yourself, “May I give myself the kindness and compassion I need right now.”
- Offer yourself a phrase like, “I am strong” or “I can get through this” or “Everyone makes mistakes, and I am still a great parent.” Make it something gentle and kind, and ask yourself what you need that will be comforting and nurturing: a warm cup of tea, a hug, a breath of fresh air, a snack, a shower. Then go ahead and give yourself that comfort.
Remember this practice when you need it…write it down, bookmark this page, make a note in your phone.
Incorporating a self-compassion practice like this into your parenting routine will help you to accept and navigate the intense emotions that arise in parenthood, and inspire feelings of confidence, kindness, and harmony in your family.