We often think of parenting as shaping our children, but in the end, parenting shapes us. The first three years of parenting my daughter have changed me as a person, in ways I wouldn’t have imagined before having her. I have come to believe that the experience of parenting can shape us profoundly as adults, and for the better, if we let it.
As Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan argues, we often change when we’re faced with experiences of “cognitive dissonance,” or when our beliefs and actions don’t match up with what’s expected of us. We think we need eight hours of sleep to function, and all of a sudden, we’re only getting four. We think we need a good dose of privacy, and then we’re followed into the bathroom at all hours.
These experiences can feel frustrating, but can actually change us as people, making us more aware of who we are and what we need. Some of the most major changes, in my experience, come in the stories we tell about ourselves. We’re always telling these stories, even if we’re not aware of them. Everything from “I’m a shy person” to “all work and no play for me” comes from a deep-set belief about who we are and what we think we need. These stories can be helpful or counter-productive, actually keeping us from the lives we want to lead.
Parenting, in all its joys and struggles, can be an opportunity to make these stories more conscious. We can recognize, for example, that we’ve made work too big a part of our identity once we start maternity leave. We can recognize that we’ve gotten too attached to doing everything right when our children refuse to behave.
When trying to identify these “stories,” and if needed change them, I’ve found the following questions to come in handy:
1. Why is this particular experience frustrating me? Does it threaten one of the stories I tell myself?
2. When I’m trying to teach a lesson to my child, what parallel lesson can I learn for myself?
3. What about my reaction would I want (and not want) to repeat next time, and why?
4. How can I act in a way that increases the connection between myself, my partner or support system, and my child?