Healing into Compassionate Parenting

Show of Hands: Who is a Stellar Parent during this time of a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice, and increasingly toxic and violent political fissure in the United States? What exactly IS stellar during this time? And who sets the standard? As parents, we constantly strive to meet an invisible threshold that only moves further away the closer we get to it. How utterly exhausting and demoralizing this is! 

The blog’s author, Rachel, and her two sons enjoying one of their favorite shared activities, hammocking.
Allow me to propose one standard of parenting success. You smiled at your child today. Your child smiled at you today. You fed yourself and your child. Your child is healthy, safe, and feels like they belong. You and your child feel loved. That’s it.

Those are my daily parenting standards for myself, and I have unfailingly met those for the past six months. For this, I believe I have been a stellar parent. It has required strong doses of self-compassion to accept these standards as enough! If I were to raise my standards for myself, or if I were trying to meet someone else’s standards, then I would not be meeting ANY of them. 

Setting realistic and attainable intentions everyday leaves space for you to be more present with your child, to be more creative with your time together, to be more loving and compassionate, to be more satisfied. How do you get to this point where your standards are based on what you can handle rather than on white cultural norms of perfection, competition, and individualism? In short, by healing. 

In the United States, whiteness is the standard. As defined by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, whiteness refers to “the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups are compared.”

When our identity as a parent is predicated on white dominant culture, and we have not worked to examine and dismantle this, it means we strive to be the unruffled, got-it-all-together parent who stuffs her insecurities and bruised ego deep inside.

We hoard resources for fear that our child is going to miss out on an opportunity and will fall behind (without giving thought to all the children we push behind in so doing). We often care give alone or with little help, regardless of whether there is a global pandemic forcing us into isolation. Our interactions with our children are more controlled and less compassionate. We tend to overprotect and exert excessive power over our children leaving them with little room to make their own decisions, mistakes, and solutions.

I think what has hurt the most for me as a white woman who has acted out these white cultural norms with my own children as well as other people’s children, is that it has meant I have withheld compassion when they needed it. Instead, I stuck them in timeout to cry it out, or I taught others how to do it (which is just one of many examples). I regret the ways I have engaged with children and taught others to engage with children that leave out the heart. Behavior management techniques, such as timeout, have their value in helping children to self-regulate, but void of mindfulness and compassion for self and child, they are simply tools to ensure the adult’s power and control.

My work is to heal from a lifetime of internalization and perpetuation of harmful white cultural norms in my relationships with children and the adults who work with children. I began examining my own whiteness and white racial identity in my late teens/early 20’s. Until then, I grew up in a rural, farming community where all but one of my 54 K-12 grade-level classmates was white. I was utterly clueless about my whiteness and white dominant culture. For the next 15 years, I studied, examined, and processed race and racism in the United States, participated in social activism, rallied around racial justice. Yet, I was still unconsciously teaching strategies to educators and parents and raising my own children with practices that perpetuate white cultural norms of harm rather than practices that heal, and it did not feel right. 

This changed for me in the spring of 2018. I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at Duke Integrative Medicine as preparation for a new job I was to begin later that year. Mindfulness led me to my heart. What I found there was that it was deeply hurt by shame, guilt, injustice, and denial. It needed to heal. So, I went deeper with my practice, yet my heart was not ready to open. I developed deeper awareness of what triggered my reactions, which were seeded in white dominant cultural norms like perfectionism, competition, and individualism, and the space between the trigger and my response did increase. Still, I wasn’t responding in the compassionate, heartful way I wanted to be responding.

When my third child, Genevieve, passed through my life, it set me on a different Path. I suffered greatly after a late-term miscarriage, and my heart broke open. When it did, my soul received all I had been placing on my heart through my practice; it was a reserve of resilience I had no idea was there. 

This was an opening on my Path, and the natural direction pointed toward Mindful Self-Compassion. With MSC, I am healing. I am finding peace with my own white identity, loss, shame, guilt, and vulnerability. Being more present-moment oriented reduces the frequency and intensity of the “I should” storms that arise in my head, usually in response to hearing about or seeing the children of ordinary parents accomplishing ordinary feats. Self-compassion empowers me to give myself grace and kindness when the “I should” storms arise. In my professional life, I am growing courage and capacity to lead educators and caregivers to engage in more inclusive, compassionate, and collaborative interactions with children and youth. And perhaps most importantly, my practice gives me the strength to raise my own children intentionally, with compassion and grace, and the courage to say to you that I AM a stellar parent because today my children smiled at me. Today, I smiled at my children. Today, my children and I are fed. Today, my children are healthy, safe, and feel belonging. Today, my children and I feel loved.

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