I had always wanted a family. I thought I would be an amazing mum and I was sure that I would instinctively and intuitively know how and what to do.
I imagined as well that, having been successful in whatever I put my mind to, I would have no problem happily balancing my high-octane career with small children.
Wow - was I in for a shock. I had three children in four years. You may be thinking ‘therein lies the problem!’ but for me it wasn’t the quantity of children; rather, it was my expectations of what motherhood would feel like that hit me for six.
Until I had children, my success had come from grit and sheer hard work. Parenting doesn’t work that way.
Not only did I find being a mum physically exhausting, but it was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt feelings that I had never experienced before. On down days, it could be despair, resentment, humiliation and guilt; and on up days it was pure love, elation and pride.
The down days prevailed, and I felt I wasn’t getting anything right. I made the choice after my third baby to leave my full-time, full-on career. I had asked for a part-time role but that wasn’t forthcoming, so I quit.
But the end of my 20-year, full-time career didn’t mean the end of the emotional rollercoaster. I had left my successful job where on most days I felt smart, accomplished and intellectually engaged to be at home with three small sometimes challenging children and feeling often completely and utterly exhausted and overwhelmed.
Thankfully for my family, because let’s face it until I was thriving neither would they, I attended a parenting talk at my children’s school. That evening I realised that I wasn’t alone. The challenges being described were mine. The emotions and frustrations were mine, too. That evening’s revelation was that I could learn a new approach; try new strategies and take a long hard look at the thoughts I had about parenting. I saw that I had the potential to change my parenting story.
It has taken hard work, training and lots of mistakes to uncover the parent in me that feels comfortable, calm, genuine and true.
Here are four things I’ve learned along the way...
1) We need to get curious about our expectations
What is it that often drives our reactive response to our children’s behaviour? Unrealistic expectations.
Perhaps it’s our childhood or the story we tell ourselves about the parent we’ll be that leads us to expect that our child ‘should’ be, do or respond in a certain way. When they fall short of these expectations, our response is driven by our emotions.
Instead, stop, breathe and ask yourself whether your expectation is realistic. For example, is it reasonable to expect my intense, persistent, sensitive son to move easily through his day, transitioning between endless activities without pushing back, holding his ground or his exhaustion coming out in his behaviour? Probably not.
Because I have spent time tuning into how my unique children experience the world, thought about their stage of development and checked my expectations, I can calmly take the time to set things up so that my son is more likely to feel seen, soothed and successful.
2) We need to examine our feelings of guilt
One of the words used most by parents to describe their experience is guilt. In Brené Brown’s book, Atlas Of The Heart, she describes guilt as "the discomfort we feel (so it’s an emotion) when we evaluate what we’ve done or failed to do against our values. It can drive positive change and behaviour."
Rather than being a negative feeling to be smothered, guilt can drive positive change.
Once we recognise and acknowledge the guilt, we can examine which of our values is unmet and decide how we’re going to make a change.
Changes are about making progress and should be small. My guilt is about not spending enough quality time with my kids. Parental presence is a value for me. Research reinforces that just five minutes of frequent one-on-one time with each child has the power to reinforce our connection and improve their behaviour. Sounds like a good place to start.
3) We should evaluate our perfectionist tendencies
I am a recovering perfectionist and found the juggle of parenthood at times almost crippling. I was caught up in rigid thinking and a barrage of ‘I should...’ self-talk. “I should be able to manage my kids, behaviour.’ ‘I should be able to make homemade meals and three Book Day costumes, etc.’
I now work on two things:
I check my internal soundtrack. My inner voice is there to protect me, but it can also overreact and make me jump to conclusions, set unrealistic standards, blow things out of proportion and get in the way of being capable, brave and compassionate.
I have made our home a shame-free zone. I try to model how I deal with my own mistakes by showing compassion, vulnerability, understanding and by focusing on the learning.
Kids don’t want perfection. Kids want us - our presence, our time and our connection.
4) We need to practice self-compassion
Parenting is hard. Yes, it’s physically exhausting but it’s emotionally and mentally challenging too. Perhaps for the first time in our lives we are wholly responsible for the upbringing of another human being. That’s huge. We usually take on this vital role with little training, qualifications or education, yet we feel guilty, frustrated or humiliated when we don’t instinctively know how to manage the tantrums, the misbehaviours and the overwhelm.
We also wonder how this little human can elicit such huge emotional responses. Once we recognise that this little part of us is bringing up our own childhood and things about ourselves that we might be working on or have pushed to one side, we can start to learn and grow and offer ourselves some compassion.
Self-compassion is about acknowledging the scope and scale of the challenge that is parenting. Again, check your self-talk. Are you being kind to yourself or critical and judgemental? Share your thoughts, feelings and challenges with trusted family and friends. Take a moment every day to breathe and acknowledge the hard work, the progress and growth and the learning that goes into being a parent. Self-compassion is about embracing good enough and that is all our children need.
Finding that parent we want to be is about progress and potential – one step at a time.
Contact Heather Rutherford on firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her partner coach profile page.