Megan Stonelake, a therapeutic parent coach, and I bumped into each other somewhere on social media and quickly found that both we and the work we do complement each other. I’m honored to share this post she wrote. -Ashley
“I know how I want to parent, but I just can’t quite seem to get there.” Amy is a mother of two small children. She’s tired, stressed, and frustrated. Despite her best efforts, her current style of parenting doesn’t match the picture in her head of the mother she wants to be. She’s stuck, and she came to my office looking for a new perspective.
As a therapeutic parent coach, I often meet with parents just like Amy. Through this work, I’ve identified five common barriers women face in their efforts to be the best version of themselves.
1. Issues from the past
This is often the crux of my work. Parents who have deep wounds from the way they were raised often know they want to do better with their own children but are unsure how. Embarking on the difficult process of forging a new path can be intimidating and vulnerable.
It’s easy for these moms to remain patient when everyone is calm. However, when their three year old is in the throes of a meltdown, it may feel very different. In these cases, a parent may be triggered by an implicit memory from the past. Implicit memories are those that we don’t consciously recall, and there’s data to suggest they continue to inform our decision-making long after an event has passed.
For example, a mother may have consistently been punished for crying when she was very young, and she now experiences discomfort when her own daughter expresses strong emotions. This mom might not have any awareness that her own early childhood is impacting her parenting in those moments, and her body could be reacting to a memory that she doesn’t even realize she has. She may only know that she loses her temper with her daughter, yells at her, and then feels badly afterward. Meanwhile her heart is racing, her brain is telling her to fight or flee, and she’s reacting without thinking.
Addressing this common barrier doesn’t have to involve delving into the past. With education, parents can learn simple mindfulness and emotion regulation techniques. These small practices can enact powerful change.
Suggested reading: Parenting from the Inside Out
2. Negative self-talk
I recently spoke with a mom who began a story by saying, “I was such an awful mother yesterday.” She proceeded to tell me a story about an interaction with her son which she felt she didn’t manage well. We problem solved and created a plan for how she can handle similar situations differently in the future. Yet I’d argue that her behavior wasn’t actually the problem; we all have moments with our children we wish we’d handled differently. Her belief that a single moment of yelling at her son made her an awful mother was far more problematic.
These types of automatic thoughts can flit through our brains without our even being aware of them. They can also be incredibly harmful. The more space we give negative thoughts in our mind, the more we believe them to be true. When I witness negative self-talk in parents, I challenge them to examine the thought to determine whether it’s helpful and true. If it doesn’t meet both criteria, we begin the work of reframing the faulty belief.
Our thoughts inform our feelings which inform our behaviors. Taking the time to challenge faulty beliefs can lead to powerful outcomes. This isn’t the same as taping an affirmation to your bathroom mirror. Changing our self-talk creates new pathways in the brain, ones in which we reinforce messages that are productive, useful, and based in reality.
Suggested reading: Negative Self-Talk: 9 Ways To Silence Your Inner Critic
A lack of boundaries can leave us feeling like we have little control. We might have difficulty standing up to family members who criticize our parenting practices, or we may find that we’re always agreeing to help a friend even when it’s a burden on our own family.
I’m a people pleasure, and boundaries have always been a struggle for me. It has taken many years, therapy, and several great books to learn that I don’t have to say yes to everything people ask of me. And here’s the really astonishing part: I don’t have to explain my “no.” It’s only recently that I’ve realized I can just say no. No excuse required! This was truly a revelation, one I’m perpetually relearning.
Most recently I was reminded of the importance of boundaries while reading Brene’ Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she points out that being ourselves wholly and joyfully requires boundaries, “Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.”
When we don’t have much practice setting boundaries in relationships, we may find it uncomfortable to do so with our children. In this way, and myriad others, our children can be our teachers. Let’s say your two year old wants a cookie right before bed, but you know it will be disastrous if you give in. Your toddler is teaching you how to say no, and the more you practice the better you are and doing it.
Suggested reading: The Gifts of Imperfection
4. Asking for help
In The Gifts of Imperfection, author Brene’ Brown explains to her daughter, “ ‘I think asking for what you need is one of the bravest things that you’ll ever do.’” I think this is true. Women are often socialized to appear self-contained and independent while being careful not to inconvenience anyone else. We’re supposed to have it all and do it all without asking for help. When we internalize these expectations, which many of us have, we are often left feeling unsupported and unfulfilled.
Here’s the truth: as a species we’re innately dependent on one another for survival. Our health and happiness are contingent on our interconnectedness. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, and the alternative is often resentment and rage. When we ask for help, we are able to devote ourselves more fully to the things that matter most to us. In contrast, when we try to do it all we run the risk of stretching ourselves too thin while we do more things less effectively.
Suggested reading: How to Ask For Help
I’m not sure there’s a parent of young children alive who doesn’t struggle with this daily. Children need so much from us, and they don’t tend to limit these needs to normal working hours. If we aren’t intentional about taking care of ourselves, we can go hours without a snack or a bathroom break. Needless to say, meeting our basic needs can be a battle.
More than making sure we’re fed and rested, though these are certainly crucial to our health and sense of balance, I see self-care as the engagement in that which makes us come alive. What replenishes your depleted cup? What makes your eyes light up? What energizes you? That thing, whatever it is, deserves to be acknowledged. You owe it to yourself to cultivate that passion before it withers away. It might be something small like making time for a regular tennis game, or it could be big and scary like a new career path. Whatever feeds your soul also makes you a better parent. As Rob Bell reminds us, “The greatest gift you can give your kid is to be fully alive yourself.”
Suggested reading: How to Be Mindfully Self-ish – and Why It’s SO Important
Change requires awareness, intention, and vulnerability. Sometimes it’s painful, and it’s seldom a linear process. The evolution of becoming the best version of yourself can feel messy, but it’s also beautiful. And entirely worth it.
Megan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, and mama to a sweet four year old. She has written for Scary Mommy, Huffpost Blog, Hey Sigmund, and Parent.Co. Her fascinations include child development, empathy, and all things parenting. Head over to her blog, Empathic Parenting, where you can sign up for her newsletter to receive tips and musings on peaceful parenting. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.