On a tough day, raising children can feel like one of the most difficult, seemingly thankless roles a person can have. The stakes are high, and the hours are rough. There is no formal training, and it isn’t easy learning on the job — not to mention the fact that everyone else seems to be better at it than we are!
I remember leaving the hospital with my first son, and as the car pulled into traffic and sunlight streamed into the window, I was hit with the thought that “Everything has changed. Everything is much more full-on now. Even the sun feels different.” There was a sense of fear and wonder at what the world held for me now that I had this little being dependent on me.
I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Susan Pollak’s forthcoming book, Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself; and in hindsight, would have been just the thing to support and guide me through those daunting days. This wonderful book offers practical strategies and practices for the parenting journey, all based on a foundation of self-compassion and acceptance that we are enough, just as we are. Whether we’re new to parenting or seasoned veterans, Pollak’s guidance is a welcome relief.
Please enjoy this interview with Susan!
Mara: Most parents all over the world will agree that being a parent is not an easy task, but I wanted to ask you what brought you to writing this much needed book? Was there a specific event, or inspiration?
Susan: A client asked me to write about parenting. She was a single mom trying to manage two challenging teens who were fighting constantly, and feeling like a terrible, incompetent parent. Her focus was on trying to fix and control them and it wasn’t working. Nearly every interaction became a battle. We did some work on her own adolescence, tried a number of the self-compassion exercises, and the dynamic began to shift. Compassion was totally new for her and it changed her way of parenting. “None of the parenting books talk about this, Susan. Please write a book.”
The timing was also right for me. After over 30 years of parenting, mindfulness practice, clinical work, and the recent engagement and then marriage of my son, I had an appreciation of the arc of parenting and its developmental tasks. With this accumulated lived experience, I felt that I could understand things both as a parent and as a child.
Mara: How was being a parent yourself? Is there anything you wish you had known then that you have since discovered?
Susan: It was difficult. This book comes from my experience and struggles. I had a mindfulness practice, but mindfulness teachers generally don’t address parenting. Many of my meditation teachers didn’t have children and trained in a monastic tradition. I felt torn as I no longer had time for long, silent meditation, let alone retreats. I wish I’d known how to be kind to myself when I made mistakes, which I did constantly. I feared I was the only one who was doing it wrong.
The Zen masters joke that life is just one mistake after another. I now feel that parenting is one mistake after another. I didn’t realize that my kids were resilient and that we could repair the many lapses we all made. I took it all so seriously. I didn’t realize I could relax, enjoy them and have fun. Life seemed so stressful and competitive. It felt like we were all running an extreme marathon, with no time to stop and take a few breaths and just BE.
Mara: Would you mind sharing a couple of memories from your own parenting? What would be your most favourite memory from parenting? What about the worst?
Susan: My first thought was to share memories of when they were adorable babies on vacation, or the times when they were very ill in the emergency room, but then I remembered a meditation question that I have been working with—Can another moment be better than the moment I am in now? And I thought about the Dalai Lama’s response to the question, “What was your favorite moment in life?” He thought and then responded, “This moment.” So while I could go into a long dramatic story, I try to challenge myself to be in the moment that I’m in, because this is the only moment there is, and to appreciate where I am now as a parent, and where my kids are in their lives. For me, as for so many others, it is so easy to dwell in the past, or get caught up in worries about the future.
Mara: One of the main obstacles that parents face for self-care is time. What would you say to a parent that feels they don’t have time to learn self-compassion?
Susan: Yes, I understand that we are all so pressed for time. Most of the practices in the book are short, three to five minutes, and many can be done washing the wishes, changing diapers, even driving. There is also new research that informal practices, rather than formal sitting, is more effective than we originally thought. So it doesn’t need to be an obstacle—we don’t need to sit in silence for 45 minutes, and we don’t need to feel guilt about not practicing “properly.”
Mara: Parenting is a lot of learning on the job, especially if we are trying to be “better” parents than perhaps our own parents were. Sometimes we can feel like we just suck at what we do. We are not cut out for parenting overall. I know that is quite the loaded statement, but do you have a word of advice for parents that feel like they should just claim failure as the norm because of their own inadequacies?
Susan: I love this question. Rarely do we ever feel that we are good enough parents. I think most of us feel that we suck at times, especially if we had challenging parents who weren’t good models. There is a saying that I like which is, “I’m not perfect, but parts of me are excellent.”
I encourage parents to look at what they are doing that is effective, or loving, or kind. Just as parents are told to look at what their children are doing “right,” rather than always finding fault or criticizing, it helps to begin to appreciate ourselves.
So no, I don’t think we need to claim failure as the norm. We need to have compassion for the mistakes we all make, and to understand that we are all human and imperfect, and to try to learn from our mistakes. One of the great teachings of mindfulness is that we can always start again, no matter what we have said or done. I think the same is true for parenting. We can always begin again. The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it well, “Fail, fail again, fail better.”
Mara: On the other hand, sometimes, when I tell people about my MSC courses and how MSC can help us be with the inevitable suffering and struggle we encounter as human beings, they say, “I don’t suffer or struggle that much. I doubt this would make any difference to me.” What would you say to a parent that believes their “small struggles” are not worth thinking about?
Susan: I think the use of language is so important. Some people find that the word “suffering” is too dramatic. You might inquire about moments of frustration or irritation. Try dialing it down a little. Sometimes you speak to folks who claim that parenting has been easy and they haven’t experienced difficulties. The interviewer in me always wants to talk to their kids and get their perspective! Also, some people feel that it is indulgent or weak or soft to talk about “small struggles.” I often switch direction here and talk about the research, about the importance of resilience, and how important it is to be kind to yourself.
Everybody struggles. Often folks wrestle with self-criticism, performance anxiety, stress, etc. but find it difficult to talk about. However, once trust is established and they feel they can be open about their challenges, the story often changes. We are told not to complain, or not to whine about our struggles. For some of the people I’ve worked with, it is taboo to talk about these things. It is often a process to begin to feel that our “small struggles” are worth thinking about.
Mara: This book is a great collection of examples of the difficulties that can be faced when parenting, and there are so many wonderful practices on offer. I love how you pull everything together in the “Toolbox for parents” at the end of the book. I could go in and find the topic I am struggling with and see what parts of the book and practices are most relevant. In all of them do you have an overall favourite practice?
Susan: I’m very practical, so I tend to like the practices that work for people when they are suffering. On a personal level, I like to practice with the metta/lovingkindness phrases. The Tree of Compassionate Beings, taught to me by Lama Willa Miller, is a go-to practice when life gets challenging. It helps me tap into the sense of not feeling alone, and feeling an abundance of loving, connected presence.
- CHAPTER TITLES
- “Make It Stop—I Can’t Keep Up!”: Parenting Is Overwhelming
- “Why Is This So Hard?”: Using Self-Compassion as a Life Raft
- “Where Did That Come From?”: Dealing with the Baggage We Bring to Parenting
- “I’ll Never Be Good Enough”: Avoiding the Comparison Trap
- “What Should I Do?”: Working with the Inevitable Uncertainty of Parenting
- “Why Can’t Everyone Just Calm Down?”: Handling the Inevitable Hot Emotions
- “It’s All Too Much”: Tapping the Power of Compassion When Times Are Particularly Tough
- Roots and Wings: The Gifts We Give Our Children
- Self-Compassion for Parents Toolbox
Susan M. Pollak, MTS, EdD, is cofounder and senior teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, where she has supervised and taught since the mid-1990s. She is the president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A longtime student of meditation and yoga, Dr. Pollak teaches about mindfulness, compassion, and self-compassion in psychotherapy and has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s. She is author of Self-Compassion for Parents (for general readers) and coauthor of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy (for mental health professionals).