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Parenting With Compassion: On the Days It's Really Hard

In those moments when I want to react, give up or shut down, I have to remind myself to not only be compassionate towards them, but to show compassion for myself. Because compassionate isn't a virtue we are born with, it's a choice.
07/16/2015 12:13pm ET | Updated July 16, 2016
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Close up of daughter hugging mother

My mother once told me that you know who your real friends are because they are the ones who stick around when things get hard. A lover I once had told me that you know a relationship is solid not when things are going great, but when the sh** hits the fan and that person is still standing beside you. Similarly in families, you know your bonds are strong when your life falls apart and they are the first ones at your door, asking for ways to make things hurt less even if the reason you are hurting is mostly your fault.

This theme comes up for me daily in parenting. Sometimes there are days where everything runs smoothly like a well-oiled machine and I feel I've got this parenting thing mastered. It's easy to parent your children when they are being absolutely adorable, playing harmoniously together, going to bed on time and listening to everything you ask them to do. Yes... this is not the norm but when it happens, it's glorious and never to be taken for granted!

Then there are the days when things are so broken, I wonder how I was actually awarded the honor of being a parent... when both my kids are cranky from a long day, when one of them is screaming bloody murder for no reason, while the other is not listening to a word I say. When they are pulling toys from each other, refusing to share and just plain old melting down. It's the days when nothing seems to flow no matter how hard you are trying, no matter how much you are following the normal "routine" that always seems to work. The tools in your parenting tool box are failing and you start thinking, "Is it me? Am I a horrible parent or is everyone just off today?"

I can easily go to the place that I'm a horrible parent. That everyone else seems to have this parenting thing mastered and I'm struggling. But then I talk to other parents who are also struggling and everyone has different ways of dealing with it. What we all talk about is what we remember most about our own parents and how they handled us during difficult times. Mine were always strict but loving. Even though they yelled, gave us a few good wacks with a wooden spoon or grounded us, my parents always said, "No matter what we always love you."

It can be hard to love your kids when they are being difficult. Just as it's difficult to love your spouse or significant other when they're cranky and picking fights with you or you're going through a difficult time together. But isn't that when it counts the most? Being able to love and have compassion when it's hard... when you're not getting anything back from them? Loving them without expectation?

In those moments when I want to react, give up or shut down, I have to remind myself to not only be compassionate towards them, but to show compassion for myself. Because compassionate isn't a virtue we are born with, it's a choice.

I have days when I'm off -- financial worries, work stress, relationship conflicts weigh heavily on me. I have days when I'm over-tired and my patience is paper thin. Then I realize my kids are the same. They can't be happy and content 365 days a year. They have days they wake up tired. Or I ask them to do things they just don't want to do. Or they don't get their way. Hell, I can throw a good temper tantrum when I don't get MY way, so isn't my 2-year-old or 5-year-old entitled to at least that?

I think all parents are doing the best they can in the moment. We can't compare ourselves to what everyone else is doing. We can't measure our parenting worth by our child's behavior and how it stacks up against someone else's. Every child will have their own perception as an adult of what their childhood was like growing up. I think what they remember most is, were we present with them? Did we listen to them even in the moments they were being unreasonable and angry? Did we show them compassion and empathy when they were being "difficult"? I know my parents did and that's what I remember the most.

It's not easy. But if we aren't compassionate with ourselves, how will our children learn to be compassionate towards others and themselves? How will they learn to treat themselves with kindness as they get older and occasionally screw up? I've never seen a human being happy or move forward in life by constantly beating themselves up or not forgiving themselves for their mistakes.

So for today, I'm practicing compassion. For my imperfections and sometimes messy attempt at parenting. I most love what Brene Brown said in one of her lectures, "Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together." I hope that sharing my own imperfect, messy, experimenting-along-the-way-to-see-what works parenting moments makes others feel they aren't alone and we are truly all in this together.