Of Coconut Oil and Maternal Shame

“It’s not your job to like me, it’s mine.” ~ Byron Katie

I planned to write this post on Thursday and I was going to open my imaginary post with: today has been one of those days. I didn’t manage to post, so I was going to post on Friday and say, yesterday was one of those days. Well, guess what, Friday turned on to be one of those days too and now it is two o’clock in the morning on Saturday…and no post yet! I’ve been hitting some parenting roadblocks lately and having some unpleasant moments with my kids. Moments that I’m not proud of and that feature me crying on the floor in the pile of broken glass (and broken dreams?!) as well as saying harsh things I later regret. Alaina isn’t sleeping well at night and I’m at that point in toddler nursing where I spend more time feeling assaulted than I do feeling warmly bonded. On Thursday, she kept me up until 4:00 a.m. and I felt trapped in a “hell dimension.” However, as is often true of mothering, sweet moments alternate with hell dimensions. That morning as I was trying to finally sneak away from her, she flopped toward me and mumbled in her sleep: babies love em mamas. Yep, they sure do! Earlier this month, she charmed my heart by commenting: “Me love mine daddy Mark.” Taking a couple of steps back shows me that being literally exhausted does not contribute to my parenting reserves and does not, actually, mean I’m a bad parent after all. I’ve been known to tell students in my Child Welfare class that worrying about being a “bad mother” usually means you aren’t one. I need to take my own advice.

So, I identified with this article about the whole notion of “mommy guilt” and how the phrase may actually be a cover for a more insidious and culturally-induced mommy shame:

Just one problem: “mommy guilt” isn’t really guilt at all, but rather shame. And shame, unlike guilt which is a useful and sometimes appropriate emotion, shame is just harmful. Guilt is “I made a bad choice”, while shame is “I am bad”. Guilt is something that helps us to notice when we’ve made an error that we need to correct. Shame makes us feel as though there is nothing we can do to make it better other than change who we are. Of course, changing behaviors is one thing; changing who you are as a person is another (impossible) thing entirely.

via “Mommy Guilt” is a Misnomer – Mothering Community.

I think a lot depends on personality. I know a lot of mothers who do not seem to take things that happen with their kids as personally as I do. Just yesterday, we had an incident during which my boys experienced a catastrophic brain failure and had a mayonnaise fight on the porch front of the house while I was trying to get ready for company. I ended up crying and ranting to myself about my pathetic talents as a parent (because I said something pretty mean to them about their lack of brain-powers). Another friend commented, “let me get this straight: your kids throw mayonnaise around and you’re the one who cries and thinks you did something wrong?” Um, yes, that’s me. I also explain to my students that it is really painful to know better and to watch yourself do it anyway. It stinks. Knowing a lot about the right way to do something, for me, gives me a lot more options of things to feel guilty or bad about! Isn’t that FUN?! As I previously wrote:

Being a mindful mama can be painful.

I am acutely aware of how often I fail, mess up, and let myself down in this work of conscious mothering. When I decide to go through a drive-through after a long day in town, I am very aware of each preservative laden, saturated fat heavy, factory-farmed, non-fair trade bite that crosses our lips. When I’m tired and have low energy for responsive parenting and I say “yes” my boys can watch a DVD, I know I am using it as a “babysitter” and as a “plug-in drug.” I cringe to hear myself say at times, “you guys are driving me crazy!” It is painful to know better and to watch myself do it anyway.

Instead of an inner guide, I too often listen to my inner critic. My judge. The perfect mama that sits on my shoulder and lets me know how often I screw it all up. I laugh sometimes as I reference the invisible panel of “good parents” that sits in my head judging me and finding me lacking.

For me, being a mindful mama is bound up in complicated ways with being a perfect mama; a “good mother.” In this way, it is NOT true mindfulness—I respond to my children based on how I think I should respond, how a “good mindful mama” would respond, not necessarily based on what is actually happening. Too often, I respond as I believe Dr. Sears, Jon Kabat-Zinn, or Marie Winn (The Plug in Drug) thinks I should respond, not based on reality or how we feel in the moment. This is the antithesis of true mindfulness. Mindfulness means an awareness of what is, it does not mean a constant monitoring of how I have failed. If I cannot be flexible and compassionate with myself, how do I expect to be a flexible and compassionate mother?

via Mindful Mama: Presence and Perfectionism in Parenting | Talk Birth.

Though I wrote this essay something like four years ago, I’ve not yet corrected this tendency and my desire to be able to do so, guess what, gives me something else to beat myself up over! I call this, “berating self for self-beratement” and then I berate self for berating self for self-beratement. Repeat. I am an introvert and I do enjoy my own company very much, but sometimes it is mean and mind-twisting company that I keep.

This post initially began because after the previously referenced night trapped in a non-sleeping hell dimension, an entire brand-new jar of organic coconut oil got smashed all over the kitchen floor by Alaina, because I foolishly dared to dash quickly to the bathroom while cooking. While cleaning it up, my other children did not grasp that asking me to tie their bathing suits at the moment was NOT A GOOD IDEA. Enter the mother-crying-on-the-floor-in-pile-of-broken-glass-coconut-oil-and-broken-dreams scenario previously alluded to. The whole experience stemmed from not listening to my own need to go to the freaking bathroom before fixing lunch. Duh. How basic. I just wrote about that this same week. I ran through the shoulding, the scolding, the self-beratement, the catastrophizing, a touch of martyrdom (everything I do is about trying to help my kids and now look!), a touch of guilt-tripping and blame (couldn’t you have noticed and stopped her?!), some yelling, some I can’t believe its, some semi-screaming about how is going to the BATHROOM REALLY SO MUCH TO ASK, some ranting about how coconut oil costs $9 a jar and why don’t I just throw dollars all over the floor and then sweep them into the trash, and then culminating in a hysterical diatribe about “what am I teaching my kids about handling simple little no-big-deal mistake by acting like it is the end of the world? THIS is how you’re going to grow up and think you should handle things.” SOB!!!!!!!!!!!

I read this on Facebook and said oh yeah:

One zen student said, “My teacher is the best. He can go days without eating.”
The second said, “My teacher has so much self-control, he can go days without sleep.”
The third said, “My teacher is so wise that he eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired.”

And, I read this too:

If you ever see me out and about with my kids, you might be surprised at some of the interactions you might witness. For example, If you and I were in the same store today, you might have overheard my comment to my son that went something like this: “NO! You can’t!”

It didn’t exactly come out of nowhere; there was context. But that was about the extent of it. There was no empathy, no connection, no acknowledgement of what he wished he could do, no communication of understanding, no “I can tell that you reeeaallly wish you could take that toy home; We’re not getting it, and it’s OK to be sad about that.” Just a snappy, rude no.

If you saw me then and didn’t know me, it might surprise you to learn that I write and teach classes on positive parent-child relations. And if you do know me and saw that little outburst, it might surprise you to see me communicate to my child in this manner. And no matter what you might think of me based on this interaction you may have witnessed today, I won’t be offended. Because…

I know my son.
I know myself.
I know positive parenting.

I know that was not an example of positive parenting.

I know positive parenting is not based on one interaction.
I know my son will be OK.
I know we’ve had plenty of awesome parent-child moments before this one.
I know there will be plenty more.

I know our relationship will be OK.

I know other moms have moments just like this everyday.
I know they’re good moms.
I know I’m a good mom.

I know that in every situation, context matters, judgement never helps, and those moments are just small parts of a larger whole. Fortunately, parenting looks different for everyone and perfect for no one.

Kelly Bartlett

I was heard to lament on Friday afternoon that I worry that I’m a better writer than I am a person. I get complimented on my “lovely words” and “beautiful poems” and I think, how come I can write lovely words and then still yell at my kids? I’m horrible! (The maternal shame card is strong with this one.) And, I reminded myself of something I already wrote:

Womenergy moved humanity across continents, birthed civilization, invented agriculture, conceived of art and writing, pottery, sculpture, and drumming, painted cave walls, raised sacred stones and built Goddess temples. It rises anew during ritual, sacred song, and drumming together. It says She Is Here. I Am Here. You Are Here and We Can Do This. It speaks through women’s hands, bodies, and heartsongs. Felt in hope, in tears, in blood, and in triumph.

via Womenergy (Womanergy) | Talk Birth.

I also came upon a very old partial essay that I wrote when my second son was about two in which I tried to convey the every day, sometimes simultaneous and paradoxical dualism of parenting:

Every day I succeed. Every day I fail.
Every day I listen. And I say, “I can’t listen to you right now” or “PLEASE stop talking.”
Every day I am patient and impatient.
Every day I savor and cherish. And every day I am resentful and frustrated.
Every day I am focused and attentive and also distracted.
Every day I play and every day I say, “I can’t play right now.”
Every day I say yes. And no. Every day I say, “sure, why not?” and also, “now is NOT the time.”
Every day I hug and snuggle. Every day I say, “please stop hanging on me.”
Every day I please and disappoint.
Every day I center and pause appreciatively in the moment. And, every day I rush and hurry.
Every day I watch and notice and every day I say, “not now, I’m busy.”
Every day I am responsive and every day I am frazzled and DONE.
Every day I rise and fall.
Every day I hope and despair.
Every day I am captivated and captive.
Every day I offer guidance and a bad example.
Every day I am consistent and inconsistent.
Every day I make myself proud and I let myself down.
Every day I embrace and pull away.
Every day I am clear and confused.
Every day I am decisive and indecisive.
Every day I am empathetic and “I don’t have time for this!”
Every day I am encouraging and discouraging.
Every day I feel bonded and bound.
Every day I support myself and make myself crazy!
Every day I give and every day I feel completely done giving.
Every day I permit and deny.
Every day I feel a sense of promise and a sense of being denied.
Every day I am calm and exasperated.
Every day I am gentle and harsh.

Every day I hold and tend and nurture and protect.

Every day I am a good mother and every day I am a “bad” mother.

There are no absolutes.

On that coconut oil bad day, I then packed up the kids and went to the river, where they walked adorably in the water together:

June 2013 011Caught crawdads:

June 2013 015

And helped each other in ways that warmed my weary and critical heart:

June 2013 018

June 2013 020


The forced perspective in this one makes me laugh as well as the fact that it kind of looks like she’s carrying two tiny brothers!

But, lest this be a too-tidy wrap-up of my post, while at the river, bugs crawled on our legs, the kids whined a lot, people sat on the cracker sandwiches I was making, the cheese I brought was actually rotten, and we forgot our crawdad catchers and I once again expressed non-positive-parenting sentiments about children’s brain-powers since I had reminded them to get the damn crawdad catchers like 8 billion times. The dualism again.

We got home and got ready for Lann’s tae kwon do class in the whirlwind and as I was about to leave, I saw THIS:

20130627-225411.jpgWhat’s this you say? Here is another look…

20130627-225405.jpgYes, that would be some kind of Ben 10 action figure stuck to my wall with playdoh. WTH?!?!?!?! This is the very same playdoh that I complained about earlier in the day when finding the container empty—“hey guys, where did the playdoh go? Hey guys, can you find that green playdoh, I don’t want it to get stepped on somewhere.” When I saw this, I could only laugh.

And, then we went to watch Lann take his test for a yellow belt. We were adorable as we watched:

20130627-225437.jpgLann did a good job overall…

20130627-225649.jpgWe went to get ice cream and I was charmed again by the adorableness of my offspring and their friend hanging out:

20130627-225448.jpgThere are no absolutes 

just life as it unfolds

and I watch

and tell about it.

8 thoughts on “Of Coconut Oil and Maternal Shame

  1. Don’t have much to say because OMG you write my thoughts 🙂 I love love love your blog. I think it’s really hard to find the balance between empathy/connection/patience with your child, and I am a person too and have boundaries and needs that you should respect. You get advice like, model taking care of yourself so your child will do the same for himself. Then you get the underlying sentiment which can be, drop everything, get down on your child’s level, and engage/connect, without regard for housework, etc. Some parts of housework can be put off and aren’t urgent, but I think some parts are, like eating (i.e. cooking meals, cleaning up afterwards). It’s such a balancing act. I love the poem you wrote when your son was 2. My son will be 3 in October, and oh man I feel ya.

  2. First of all, I love your distinction between mamma guilt and mamma shame. I think that’s an important distinction. I will say that I’ve had my fair share of melting down, saying mean things I wish I could take back moments. I have this great fear that the 98 bazillion times I said/did the right thing won’t be the thing they remember; that instead they’ll be lying on some therapists couch in 20 years remembering the handful of times I just couldn’t manage to hold it all together. But as my kids are getting older I’m having some great moments of clarity. When they see or hear of someone being impatient with their kids they seem shocked by it. They comment about being glad THEIR mom doesn’t treat them that way. And I realize in those moments that they have forgotten a lot of my harsh words. They aren’t harboring them to build a case against me to their future therapist or, worse yet, internalizing every harsh criticism I’ve ever doled out in anger. They don’t judge me as harshly as I judge myself.

    And I agree, it’s harder in some ways when you *know* better and still don’t *do* better. But I can say, as someone who had come full circle in parenting style, that not knowing isn’t peaceful either. I had a lot more moments to regret back then and even though I didn’t know it intellectually I certainly felt it in our day to lives and interactions with each other. Because peaceful parenting (even if it’s only most of the time) isn’t about the philosophy of it, it’s about how it builds your relationships up and your kids’ self worth up so that they can handle these inevitable moments of being less than perfect. Instead they’ll see you as a person who did awesome-but-not-perfect things and won’t hold it against you *or* themselves.

  3. Pingback: Collaborative Orisha Poem | Theapoetics

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