The Shame of Parenthood

I heard myself say “I’m a bad parent” this morning on the phone. It’s a refrain I have, kind of tongue in cheek, kind of not. I say it when I find myself in that strange gray area where the rules of parenting are unclear, or when I’ve broken my own “out-of-nowhere” rock solid rule.

The latest episode has to do with getting Olivia a car. I have said all along that I wanted her to “earn” her own car, that I would match her savings, dollar for dollar. I think having true “buy-in” in a first car will lead to more responsible driving. I give her an allowance once a month that is meant to cover clothing, entertainment, food, etc. It’s not a lot, but enough. And probably not enough to actually be able to save a little of it to go towards a car. Yet, that was my expectation. I figured that she would babysit to augment it. But of course a kid who plays soccer, lacrosse, rides horses, plays piano and guitar and is very social doesn’t have a whole lot of time left over for babysitting. Needless to say she hasn’t been able to save a nickle.

And it began to dawn on me that as a single mother, I NEED her to drive. I didn’t see this initially. Before she drove, I couldn’t imagine her actually driving and what that would mean to my own lifestyle. Olivia driving? It seemed impossible. But now its real. She’s a great driver and I can see the possibilities.

But for her to get a car using her own money seemed impossible. And so I figured out a compromise whereby she will be borrowing money from her own trust, money that is meant to be used for college, and will (with money she makes from a summer job) be paying it back slowly over time. It seems like a good compromise, but I am judging myself. The money has come too easily, I think. She has not really “earned” it. These are my self-imposed rules. Rules set up in an effort to teach her the value of money, but I also realize, rules set up to assuage my own strange relationship with money. To me, it seems, the only money that has any real value is the kind you earn yourself. I live on money that I have not earned. This is my own judgment against myself, my own shame. I know what you’re thinking. Shame seems like a rather harsh world to apply in this case.

I know I keep babbling on about this shame stuff, but I have been finding it all so interesting. It’s a strange word, shame. When I hear the word and try to apply it to myself, it doesn’t seem to quite fit. I can’t think of anything particularly shameful that I have done, like sell my children, or arrive to work in my underwear. Funny how when we think of shame, we think in terms of the big stuff, and yet its the tiny traumas that happen every day, that we often don’t realize are, in fact, shame, the same shame that I am teaching my class about. It’s the little slights like “Gee, your kid watches a lot of TV!” or “I only allow my kid 1/2 an hour of screen time a day. Don’t you set limits?” OK, so my shame issues are clearly around parenting and money, But there are oodles of categories. Body image, money, mental health, sex, aging, religion, speaking out, being stereotyped, to name a few. I think I could find an issue within every single category.

The real question around shame comes down to how we want the world to perceive us. We all have ideal identities. When it comes to parenting, I want to be perceived as strong, competent, consistent. The identities I don’t want include being inconsistent, ungrateful, indulgent. Shame rears its head when we are shown to be lacking in the ways that we want to be perceived. When someone shows us that we are not meeting our ideal perceptions or that we are being perceived through one of our unwanted perceptions, then we feel shame. For me, the car thing is bringing up for me the idea that I might be “indulgent” with my children. It’s a perception I don’t want people to have of me.

The real question is, where do these perceptions come from? According to Brené Brown, whose research this is, much of it comes from our childhood, from the people around us, from people we respect. And shame is different for everyone. What might seem like an innocuous statement may be perceived to be shameful, because it has touched a nerve – it has named an unwanted perception or has discounted a desired one.

I keep wondering how I wound up with this weird shame around parenting. It seems to be a common theme among us parents out there. I often hear among my friends, “I’m a bad mom, because…” Did our parents ever beat themselves up with regards to their parenting? I can think of many instances during my childhood where I know my parents were not thinking about the quality of their parenting. I wonder who it was that imposed these new strict rules upon us? The Boomers? Who is the silent “they” that seems to judge us so harshly that it leads to us judge ourselves too harshly?

I am now learning to recognize being “in shame” by noticing how it makes me feel – that gooey feeling in the pit of the stomach, the redness of anger that can rise so quickly and explode out, the full body blush. I am learning to have empathy for myself and let go a little because I know that like everyone, I am just doing the best job I can do.


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  1. annie May 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    My first car cost my dad less than $400. He bought it very used off a neighbor who originally purchased it for his daughter (who ironically babysat me) when she was in college. The car was necessary for me to get to the school where I student taught (I was 22) and meant that he and Mom wouldn’t have to shuttle me back and forth from college anymore (not that I came home much at that point but I moved nearly every fall and it was a pain for them). I wasn’t expected to contribute at all b/c it was as much for their benefit as mine and I was already paying/borrowing my own way through school. I get that you want Olivia to feel a sense of responsibility but there are a lot of ways to teach it and with a car, she will be able to be useful to you in ways she isn’t now. That’s responsibility too. I had lots of friends in h/s who didn’t work and whose parents purchased them everything including cars and they are all sensible adults today. Anymore I don’t compare my parenting to other’s. My kid. My rules. Second guessing and doubt are time sucks.

    1. Abigail - Site Author May 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm

      Thanks Annie for your comment. Yes, it does suck to second guess, but typical, I suppose of single parent-dom. You don’t have that other voice telling you what a dope you’re being. For that I rely on my commenters!! Haha. Love you guys.

  2. Cary May 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    It remains to be seen whether the parenting of our generation will advance society or set it back. Being “guilty” of many of the same parenting decisions you make, I can say that what I have started doing, is just asking myself how it was done when I was a kid and whether that makes more sense than how I am contemplating doing it now. I do think there is something to be said for making kids work hard for things they want. My parents were poor so there was never any question of whether they were going to buy me a car, they weren’t. So along with school, basketball, church etc, I got two jobs. One for the week nights and one for the weekends. I made everything work and I bought my first car with money I earned. I paid for the insurance, I bought the gas and I made the repairs as needed. As such, I treated that car with absolute pride. But on the flip side, will helping your daughter get a car instead of making her get it on her own, do her a disservice? I doubt it. I think sometimes giving your kids things helps and sometimes it hurts. I think it depends on the child and that is a decision only you can make.
    I have seen kids that treat things they have been given with as much respect as if they alone had paid for it, and I have seen the opposite. Again, I think it depends on the child and only you can decide if you have made the right decision.
    I will say this, I think when kids want something, if you don’t give it to them, they will still find a way to get it if they really want it.

    1. Abigail - Site Author May 23, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      Yes, it will definitely depend on the kid. Hopefully Olivia will be the type to step up and take on the responsibility. And so true. When they want something, kids will most definitely find a way!

  3. diane May 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Expecting a teenage kid who doesn’t even have time for a part-time job to “buy” their own car is kind of unrealistic. Maybe you should have just bought a 2nd car that you allow her to drive, and eventually will she have to share that with her bother until she’s older and can buy her own. Also, to have her borrow against her own trust to have the car? really? I don’t know about that…but it does seem that if this is such an issue, she should definitely be looking for a real summer job this year instead of riding horses.
    But whatever happens, don’t feel shame about it though. good grief…live and learn and cut yourself some slack girl! None of this is written in stone for any of us.

    1. Abigail - Site Author May 23, 2011 at 4:31 pm

      i thought of going the second car route, but knew that Liv was the type of kid that would be less vested in the thing if she didn’t feel it was hers. This way, she can sell the car if there comes a time when she no longer needs it and I can go through this all over again with Carter. Hooray!

      And the summer job is a lock, so all is good there. As for horseback riding, that is something I do for her, because I know how much she loves it.

      Really I am cutting myself some slack, just curious to see what comes up for me despite trying to do so.
      Thanks for the comment Diane.

  4. Tom George May 23, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Self reliance is an admirable skill/trait to want to impart, but for some kids receiving the car is as likely to trigger a sense of responsibility as having to earn the money.

    Which is to say, the meaning of getting a car vs having to earn it will be entirely hers to learn/internalize.

    It’s admirable that you feel conflicted, but apart from reserving the right to lecture your children from here to eternity about making the most of their material advantages (I believe it is a parent’s holy duty to nag), at some point, your life and your convenience matter too.

    In short, cut yourself some slack ;-D

    1. Abigail - Site Author May 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

      Tom, I do hope Olivia is the type whose sense of responsibility is triggered by the car. I suspect she may be.

      And yes, its definitely a parent’s imperative to nag! haha. And that I do! But, holy crap I am excited and terrified all at once that there is a second driver in the family!

  5. Leslie May 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    You are a courageous strong woman Abby. Though we’ve never met, I have a pretty good hunch that you are doing the best job that you can. You probably don’t hear it enough so I thought I’d tell you. This money thing is a big deal too, I can empathize with the messy feelings about money/kids/ guilt and the weighty decisions we as survivors are faced with. It’s tricky stuff. Be kind to yourself, you’re doing a great job!

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