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 BrenÃ© 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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.