You know the scenario: someone says something critical about your child’s dreadlocked hair, or the fact that they’ve just hit another child, or that they can’t read fluently at age 9. Your child may, or may not be upset, but you’re devastated. Crushed. Hit by a ton of mum shame.
I felt the weight of that mum shame many, many times. It’s excruciating. What made things worse was what happened after that: I felt like shit and then I projected that onto my child. I passed the criticism on down the line by making some judgmental comment to my child like: “What you did was totally unacceptable. You’ve just caused a big problem.” or “I can’t bear to be around you when you look like that. It’s awful.” or “I wish you’d try harder to learn. You should be able to read that by now.”
If my child didn’t feel awful before, they do now. They’ve got the message, loud and clear, that they are not OK; that there’s something wrong with them.
When the mum shame is active there isn’t room for compassion, empathy or acceptance.
It’s so easy to pass the burden of judgement and shame on to the next generation, just like it was passed to us. We do it unconsciously, because it’s what we’re used to. We’ve been brought up on criticism and it’s become programmed into us. We’ve internalized all the criticism we’ve heard and it’s become a voice in our heads: the inner critic.
What’s really happening when I feel crushed by someone’s judgment of my child?
It’s not really the criticism of my child that hurts me; it’s my own inner critic.
When someone commented about my son “He really should be able to read by now. Are you sure there isn’t something wrong?” my inner critic went into overdrive. This nasty character appeared inside of my head and started attacking.
The inner critic would say “Your child’s education is your responsibility. You’ve failed.” or “If you were a better parent this wouldn’t be happening.”
All the shame, defensiveness and guilt that I felt in these moments came from believing the voice of the inner critic.
Then I started projecting that pain. I got angry at the person who judged my child because I was angry at myself. I turned around and judged my child because I had first judged myself.
When I believed the attack thoughts inside my head I ended up attacking others and perpetuating this vicious pattern of criticism. I became part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
What’s the solution to mum shame?
The conventional approach is to tell other people that they shouldn’t judge our child or us – we denounce the mum shamers. We call them out as rude, unfair or “out of line.”
Alternatively, we’re told that we should just “get over it”, grow a thicker skin or better yet, that we should fix the problem with our child so that there is nothing left to judge. (As if that’s possible).
I don’t think this conventional approach is helpful. It certainly never helped me to deal with my shame and defensiveness.
Here’s what did help me:
It takes a certain level of awareness to know that you have a critical inner voice in your head and to identify it clearly. My recovery depended on learning how to recognize and confront the self-attack-thoughts. It takes even more awareness to notice when the inner critic is active and not to get pulled in by it.
The fact is, most of us have spent most of our lives identified with that critical voice; we think “that’s just me”. We think this voice is an essential part of who we are.
It wasn’t until I started to read psychology and spiritual writers such as Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie and Pete Walker that I began to realise that I wasn’t that voice in my head. This voice that had once been useful in childhood had become a tyrant – and I’d mistaken it for my true self.
Learning how this conditioned thinking operates and observing it with awareness has been the key. Awareness is always there as an observer of that inner critic and is still present once the critical voice goes away. The realization that I am not my thoughts has brought such great peace to my life. The voice of the inner critic can still arise, but I’m not identified with it so it doesn’t run the show.
Growing in Presence.
The realization that “This inner critic is not really me” led to a great desire to explore and deepen my experience of Awareness or Presence.
Our inner critic has us fooled into thinking that without it we could not survive, but the reality is very different.
Who am I when I’m not thinking? Only you can know the answer to this question for yourself, but there are many people who have explored and described what they experience. Eckhart Tolle calls it Presence. I experience Presence as a clam, relaxed, alert awareness. It is a space of peace, stillness and also vibrant aliveness.
The further I deepen into Presence, the more the voice of the inner critic loses its power over me. I’m much less affected by what other people say about my children or about me. I don’t go into those emotional reactions of shame and defensiveness nearly so easily, and if I do, I come out the other side much faster.
Questioning my thinking.
I love having a practical tool that I can use to deal with the inner critic and the mum shame when it appears. When someone calls my child “violent” or suggests that they’ll end up on the streets if they don’t learn more maths and reading faster, I feel the shame and self-hate arising in my body. When that happens I’ve got a practice that I turn to. It’s called The Work and it’s a series of four questions that I use to question any stressful thought. It’s much more effective than an affirmation or an attempt to push my self-attack-thoughts away. It’s a process that allows me to investigate, understand and release the attack thoughts and bring me back to peace.
The process of The Work is a form of self-inquiry. It consists of asking yourself four questions about a thought like “I’m not a good enough mother.”
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you think that thought? How does it affect the way you relate to yourself and your child?
- Who would you be without that thought?
There are no right or wrong answers. It’s like a guided meditation; you sit with yourself and test your stressful thought against these four questions. Then you wait until your deepest truth emerges. You can find out more about The Work here.
There is a bit more you can add to this basic form of self-inquiry, but these four questions get to the heart of it. You can read an example of how I have used these questions in my parenting here or in my book Joyful Parenting.
Taken together, these three things (awareness, presence and self-inquiry) have dissolved most of my mum shame. The inner critic has mostly gone quiet. People still occasionally say something about one of my children, or about me that would have triggered me massively in the past. I still sometimes feel a twinge of the old feelings. But I’m not crushed and I don’t project my pain onto my children or the person making the comment. I feel that I’ve made a big step towards breaking a cycle of criticism and attack that has been passed down in my family for generations.
I hope that through finding my own inner peace I can spread it around wherever I go and do my small part to bring about a more peaceful, joyful world.