How To Stop Thinking You're a Shitty Parent
The antidote is self-compassion. Here's how to nurture it.
Hi everyone! Today’s Q&A is one I really benefited from — one I deeply needed — and that I bet many of you will appreciate, too. How often do you feel like a terrible parent? How many times a week do you judge yourself based on your kids’ behavior or because of something you did that you think you shouldn’t have — given your kids too much screen time, perhaps, or yelled at them when you should have taken a few deep breaths instead?
I judge myself all the time, which is why I’m thrilled to be running an interview today with clinical social worker and parenting author Carla Naumburg, whose fantastic new book You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break comes out today. Carla is chock full of wisdom, and she’s funny as hell and swears a lot, so of course I had to interview her. In all seriousness, though, I hope you read this interview in its entirety, because Carla shares essential tips for understanding and rising above negative self-talk — and explains why doing so is very important (and helpful) for us and our kids. Then, I highly recommend that you order a copy her book You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent, because there are lots more insights in the book.
My first question for you, Carla, is pretty fundamental. Why are we as parents always second-guessing ourselves? I am constantly having to try to shush the voice in my head that’s telling me I’m screwing up. Why is there an epidemic of what you call in your book “Shitty Parent Syndrome?”
This is a topic I think about a lot, and I also struggle with. I would say I'm in partial remission from Shitty Parent Syndrome.
I tend to think of the answer as having to do with both the very distant past and the very real present. And when I talk about the distant past, I'm thinking about the way the human brain evolved to focus on the negative as a means of survival. Our brains were designed to keep a constant awareness — a looking out for anything that could be going wrong. Anything that could be a threat. Our brains, fundamentally, are there to keep us alive, and they don't really care, at the end of the day, whether or not the way we're thinking about things feels good, or is accurate, or is helpful. The anxious brain really is about: What am I doing wrong? And what can I do better to keep myself and my kid alive?
The other thing that I think many people don't realize is evolutionarily baked into our brain is the tendency to compare ourselves to other parents. And the reason that exists is because being a part of the tribe, the community, the village, is a really important survival mechanism — because when you're out alone in the tundra, you’re going to get eaten by a woolly mammoth. And so we evolved to constantly be aware of our community, so that we could notice: Am I doing anything drastically differently from the people in my tribe that may get me kicked out? And if I am, I need to change it.
Now jump ahead thousands and thousands and thousands of years, and we are no longer comparing ourselves to the people who live on our blocks, in our neighborhood— the people who may be dealing with the same environmental, communal, financial, social, religious contexts that we're dealing with. We're comparing ourselves to everyone on the planet, including parents who have vastly different challenges and resources than we do.
I remember years ago when my daughters were toddlers. I found out about Goop and I learned that Gwyneth Paltrow was having a fishmonger deliver fish to her house every day. And I was like, “Oh my God, I am a terrible mother for not having fish delivered to my house every day.” Literally, my brain went to this crazy place. And my kids didn’t even eat fish! I don't even know if there is a local fishmonger! I don’t cook! Like, this is bonkers. Not to mention, I'm not a billionaire, right? I might as well be comparing myself to like, a gazelle, because I don't have any similarities with her. And yet, somehow, I felt like the worst parent because I wasn't doing what one of the wealthy, most influential people on the planet is doing. And that's bonkers.
There's also third factor that I think about a lot, which is what I call “the professionalization of parenthood.” A lot of women are delaying having babies much later than we used to, and having successful careers, too. And in these careers, what women learn is that, if there is something you don't know how to do, you work hard. You find a mentor. You find a professional. You find somebody to teach you, and you get better at it. Then we have babies. And we try to transfer that professional thinking to parenthood, and it doesn't work. Because raising kids is not the same thing as being a professional. We can't solve every problem by going to the expert who's going to teach you how to do it. And nobody's giving you a gold star or performance review when you do well.
The problem is, women, especially, are judging themselves by their children's feelings and their children's behaviors. And our children’s behaviors are not an indication of how well we're parenting. But we don't have any other feedback. And so when your kid has a meltdown in the grocery store, instead of being like, “Oh, well, this is what happens with kids,” and getting curious about what's going on with the kid — maybe they're hungry, maybe they're tired, maybe they're overstimulated — we think, “I'm a crappy parent. And if I was a better parent, I'd be able to manage this meltdown.”
So with all of these things tied together — this evolutionary tendency towards judgment, towards looking out for the worst, tied with social media and the way we are comparing ourselves to everybody on the planet, tied with the professionalization of parenthood, tied with the explosion of parenting experts…. I think there is this sense from all these parenting experts that if you work hard, and you find the right information, parenting will be easy. And you can finally get it right. And that's just not true. There may be certain problems that we can solve with the right advice. But overall, parenting is hard. And there's no guarantee that if we do the right thing and follow the right advice, our kid is going to grow up and be a happy, healthy, successful, all the things. And that just sucks. That's scary and awful.
I totally agree. That’s why so much of the messaging I use when I write about parenting is along the lines of, “This behavior is normal. Your kid is not the asshole. This is what kids do. This is how they learn. Parenting is hard.”
100%. And I think that we also live in this world that glorifies happiness, and we're supposed to be happy. And if we're not happy, it's because we're not working hard enough. Then we look at our kids, and if they're not happy, we assume it's because we're doing something wrong. But the problem is happiness. Much as I hate to say it, happiness is not the default state of humanity. It's just a feeling that comes and goes, and how are you supposed to be happy when horrible things happen in life? You can't be happy all the time. And our kids can't be happy all the time. So we shouldn't be judging ourselves and our parenting by our children's feelings. And that's no parents’ fault. I don't want any parents to feel like I'm blaming or judging them if they're doing this. This is a thing that we all do, myself included, by virtue of living in the world we live in today.
That is so well said. Thank you. OK, let’s move onto the power of self-compassion. One thing I really loved in your book was the anecdote about the family hike — it was such a smart way to illustrate the power of self-compassion as well as the power of self-loathing. Would you mind briefly telling that story and defining what self-compassion is as well as what it isn’t?
I want you to imagine that you're taking your family on a hike, and it's supposed to be an an easy hike on a well-marked trail. No big deal. Somehow, halfway through the hike, you realize you're lost, and the family is kind of falling apart. One of your kids has to poop and one of your kids hurt their ankle and your partner is annoyed at you because they wanted to go miniature golfing, and nobody ever gets lost on the miniature golf course. And you're feeling like a terrible parent, because your plan to have this lovely little hike in the woods is totally going off the rails.
You are not really sure what to do and feeling pretty damned sorry for yourself when all of a sudden a park ranger comes along. And you're like, “Yeah! We're going to be saved. They're going to have a map for us.” And you talk to the ranger. The ranger says, “Yeah, I have this map,” and they hand you the map. And they walk off and you open up the map and there's no trails, there's no markers, there's no “you are here” sign. It just says something like, “You are a terrible parent. You got your family lost. Nobody ever gets lost on these trails. Somehow you managed to do it and you screwed this up. You're just a crap parent.”
So this map is totally useless, right? Not only does it not tell you how to get back to the car, but it actually makes you feel worse about everything. That particular map I call “the crap map.” It's an analogy for what we're doing to ourselves every time we think of ourselves as a shitty parent — it’s like pulling out that crap map.
So then I kind of rewrite the story. I say, let's imagine you're in the same situation. You've gone on this hike, you got lost, your family's falling apart, everybody's grumpy, everybody feels terrible, you're annoyed at yourself. The park ranger comes along again, and they hand you another map. This map also doesn't have any trails or markers or symbols or signs or arrows. What it says is, “It's okay. Lots of parents get lost on this trail. It happens all the time. You're going to find a way back to the car. Hang in there. You're a great parent.”
In reality, this map isn't actually any more helpful than the last map in terms of giving you specific directions for how to get off the mountain. And yet, there is something about the experience of being reminded that we're not alone in how hard parenting is, that lots of parents struggle and suffer, and that it's okay to be lost… You can imagine that if someone came along on that trail and said to you, “I don't have any idea how to get you back to your car. But I've been lost in these trails a million times. And I know you're going to get out and hang in there. Because you're doing an awesome job, Mama. You're a great parent.” What happens in those moments is, we feel a little lighter, we calm down, and we can think more creatively. So maybe in that moment, when we're not so busily obsessing about what a terrible parent we are, when our brain space opens up, we can think, “Oh, well, I've actually got a plastic bag and some tissues in my backpack. So I can handle the poop. And I just need to take a moment and reorient myself and remember where we came from.” And you might remember something, or come up with a creative idea, that's going to help you get back to your car.
That is what self-compassion is. It's not a solution to any of your problems. It’s not self-esteem. It's not self-pity. It is also not self-indulgence. It's not having a pity party, where we feel so bad, we're just going to buy whatever we want off off the internet, or go out and eat all the ice cream. Also, it's not letting yourself off the hook. A lot of people think that self-compassion is like, “Oh, yeah, you totally screwed up. It's not a big deal. Just go do whatever you want. You don't have to worry about it.” That's not what it is, either. What self-compassion is is noticing when we are suffering or struggling and having a hard time and just treating ourselves with kindness. It's about the way we speak to ourselves. And it's about the way we get curious with our experience and the way we stay connected as opposed to isolating. Self-compassion is about noticing when you're suffering or struggling and treating yourself with the same kindness that you would treat a best friend.
It’s such a beautiful concept, and thank you for that explanation. But, okay, why should we treat ourselves with compassion? I mean, it makes us feel better, and you mentioned that it can make us more creative. What are its other benefits?
There's been a lot of research about self-compassion. This isn't just some like hippie-dippie thing that feels nice. It's actually been researched a fair amount. The two folks that I always like to acknowledge for their really groundbreaking work in this area are Kristin Neff, who's in Texas, and Christopher Germer, who's in Massachusetts. What we know is that higher levels of self-compassion have been linked with decreased anxiety and depression, increased happiness and resilience, stronger relationships, and healthier behavior.
When I think about the benefits of self-compassion specifically for parenting, I have boiled it down to what I call the four C’s. You are calmer when you are not struggling with some little evil gremlin inside your own brain constantly berating you. Imagine if you were going into a job every day where your boss just followed you around and pointed out every single thing you were doing wrong. You would be a freaking mess at that job, right? And yet, so many of us think we should be able to parent well under the same circumstances when we're doing that to ourselves all day. And it's just not possible.
We can also see things with a lot more clarity. Here's a great example that I use in the book. When my daughters were little, I took them to the town fair. We spent the day going on the big jumpy slides and rides. And then around one o'clock, my daughter started absolutely melting down. She's just losing her shit. She's crying, she's whining. And I just flip out internally. I am like, “What the hell? We have given this kid everything she wanted. She's such a spoiled brat. I'm totally screwing up parenting. I'm just overindulging her.” I very quickly turned this into a referendum on my shitty parenting.
And then, for some reason, and I don't really remember how or why this happened, but my thinking switched to curiosity, which is one of the core practices of self-compassion. Somehow I started going: “Okay, hang on. What's going on with this kid? What is happening?” And suddenly I realized that in the midst of all the fun we were having, I forgot to give her lunch. And she was still so young, maybe four years old. She didn't really have the awareness of when she was hungry. And the meltdown was just because she was hungry. And once we got her food, she perked up and came back to her normal self. Self-compassion helps you think more clearly about situations because instead of getting lost in this fog of self-deprecation, you can look at a scene, get curious about it and really think clearly about it.
So we have calmness, clarity — and next, creative thinking. You hear stories of parents who come up with these really cool creative solutions to everyday parenting problems. I remember one time, [my partner] Josh got our daughters into eating veggie burgers, which was the food we wanted them to eat, by having a taste-testing dinner where he bought a bunch of different kinds. He made these little scorecards and had the girls test them and rank them and got them into it. And it was super creative and fun for the whole family. But it's hard to think creatively when you're treating yourself like shit. It’s a thing that's more likely to happen when you are present in the moment and open to what's going on, which self-compassion helps you do.
And then the last thing: Confidence. So many parents feel anxious and confused and scared about parenting. When we treat ourselves with compassion, it actually helps us feel more confident. Which is really powerful. I will tell you that for years, I never thought I was a good mother. I mean, really deeply. I thought it was a bad mother. And after years of self-compassion, of really shifting my way of thinking, I can now say to you, “I'm actually a really good mother.” It doesn't mean I'm a perfect mother. Do my kids get screen time more than I'd like? Yeah, they do. Do I sometimes lose my shit with them? Yeah, yeah, I do. But I keep showing up. I keep working on this. I keep connecting my kids in different ways. I keep doing whatever it is that makes a person a good mother. And I can tell you, I'm a good mother. For me to be able to say that took like years of practice. And self-compassion was a huge part of it.
I love that there are so many direct, far-reaching benefits. I mean I never realized that self-compassion could do so many amazing things. So I guess my final question is — how do we actually do this? How do we get better at self-compassion?
I would say the four steps to practicing self-compassion are noticing, connection, curiosity, and kindness. And I'll say a word about each.
The first really important step is just to notice when we're treating ourselves like crap. So many of us move through the world with this horrible narrative constantly scrolling across our minds, like ticker tape, about all the ways that we are screwing up. A friend of mine, whose child is in in the same class as my child, texted me last year and was like, “Oh my gosh, all of my kid’s math papers are crumpled and torn in the bottom of his backpack. I'm such a shitty parent.” Literally, that's what she wrote. Now, my daughter's backpack also looks like a bomb hit it. Her math papers are also crumpled and torn beyond recognition. If I pinned my friend down and was like, “Do you really think your fourth grader’s inability to manage their papers makes you a shitty parent?” She would be like, “Oh, no, haha, I was just kidding.” And I think she would mean that. But I think it's also telling how often we think these things and don't even realize it — this connection between our kid not behaving in the way we wish they would and our sense that we are shitty parents. So I want parents to just start noticing when they're having these thoughts. That's a huge part of it. Just notice it.
The next step I think of as connection — this idea of connecting to common humanity, which is just reminding yourself that you are not alone. No matter what you're struggling with, no matter what the unique brand of your family’s chaos and confusion and mayhem is, somebody else on this planet is struggling with it. And even if the details aren't the same, the feelings and the stress and the worry and the confusion — it's all there. We've all been there. The one joy of social media is every once in a while I'll hit this meme that talks about some parent, usually in a joking way, struggling with something, and I'm like, “Oh, I'm not alone. I'm not the only one whose kid does X.”
Oh, yeah. I love those memes. They are so validating.
I love them too. Not in a sadistic way, but in a like really grateful way. I don't want my kids or my friends’ kids to struggle. I don't want my friends to struggle. But I am so grateful for the reminder that all of our kids have meltdowns. All of our kids are having a hard time in different ways. All of us parents are confused and lost and making this up as we go along. The ability to remind yourself of your common humanity — that you are not alone, you are not a weirdo, you are not the only one — just saying to yourself, “parenting is hard for all of us,” is a super compassionate thing to say.
The next one — I've talked about this a little bit — is curiosity. All I'll say about this is it is the antidote to judgment. And I give a lot of practices in the book about how and why to get curious about a situation as opposed to immediately jumping to conclusions, and why that's so important.
The last one is really treating ourselves with kindness. And there are many ways we can do it. But the one that has really been, honestly, a complete game-changer for me, is self-talk. Shifting from, “I'm such a shitty parent” to "It's okay. Parenting is hard for all of us. And just because it's hard doesn't mean I'm doing it wrong.” Finding those words, whatever they are, that you can say to yourself in these really hard moments — that is a powerful act of compassion.
If you and your kids are into podcasts (and I don’t know about you, but podcasts are one of the only ways to keep my kids from bickering in the car), don’t miss the new science-themed Radiolab podcast for kids, Terrestrials, hosted by Lulu Miller. The first episode — which is all about octopuses — aired this week and it’s fascinating and adorable. I’ve been collaborating with WNYC on the launch, and I highly recommend a listen.
This Thursday, September 29 at 8pm ET, I’ll be interviewing journalist Lisa L. Lewis, author of The Sleep Deprived Teen, as part of a FREE virtual event hosted by the Family Action Network. (Some of you may remember that I interviewed Lisa for this newsletter when her book first came out.) Among other things, we’ll be talking about the impacts of sleep deprivation on teens and how to help teens get more sleep. Also! Attendees who purchase a copy of her book from The Book Stall are invited to attend an exclusive AFTER-HOURS event hosted by Lisa and me that will start immediately after the talk.
With cooler temps and shorter days upon us, I wrote about how to stay safe while exercising in the dark and the cold for last week’s New York Times Well newsletter.
Really enjoyed reading this thank you! I think another reason for “Shitty Parent Syndrom” is that we’re trying to do an impossible task which is parent in almost isolation, so many of us don’t have that village around us for support, and often we are trying to work alongside raising kids. I think a focus on self-compassion is so important (and lowering standards where possible!).
This was timely for me. I read it, then went to pick my kids up from school and went on a little hike with two other families. About half a mile in, my 2yo melted because she couldn't have all of her brother's snacks in addition to hers. Then while she was still upset in my arms, my 5yo melted because it was time to go (he had been prepped for our predetermined time to leave so we could get to soccer). And he proceeded to have the biggest meltdown in a while. At least publicly. After half an hour of trying to get him to not run away into the poison ivy while holding the 2yo, one of the other moms came to my rescue and began walking with us to the car. Her 4yo held my 2yo's hand, and I carried the 5yo the entire way back while he intermittenly hit me and yelled at me. Once we made it to the car, he ate the snack I'd been trying to get him to eat the whole time and promptly fell asleep. Later I texted the other two moms to apologize for being a drag and thanking them for the help. Each mom responded that their kids had epic meltdowns recently (change of season maybe?). I thanked them for sharing that and said it helped because I feel like a shitty mom when I can't get things under control. Usually I can, but I was lost in the woods on this one. And one mom replied, "You are an amazing mom!" And that's when I realized it. This is the exact analogy Carla used. Like, almost literally. And even though I'd just read your interview, I *still* felt shitty. I couldn't sleep last night for agonizing over what I could have done better. These internal dialogues run deep and are tough to combat. I guess noticing is the first step. Buying her book today. I read her first one and it was helpful, so I planned on reading this one and now it's bumped up in the priority.
Long-winded way to say thank you for this. It comes at a crucial time for me.