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Turning Shame into a Sense of Worth

Sticking Up for Yourself with Others
The mother of a bouncy two-year-old told Rick this story: We were houseguests with my husband's best friend, his wife, and their three children. Their home is very nice, with lots of expensive bric-a-brac. I was a nervous wreck, keeping Lily out of trouble. The wife kept making little comments, always with this sweet smile, about how she got her own children to behave well. By the end of the weekend, I was ready to wring her neck.

For some reason, all sorts of people - perfect strangers, nonparents, your mother-in-law, etc. - feel entitled to comment freely about how a woman could do a better job as a mother, yet they wouldn't dream of giving the same level of advice to a shopkeeper, plumber, architect - or father. There's a place for gentle suggestions if they're welcome, but unwanted advice contains the implicit message that whatever you are doing is wrong. That message comes through in other ways as well: nasty looks, criticisms from relatives, comparisons to other parents, and so on. Besides being embarrassing, these comments can prey on your mind, breeding self-doubt and a sense of inadequacy. Here are some useful strategies for dealing with them:

  • Anticipate situations that are likely to generate judgments about you or your children. For instance, maybe it's wiser to leave the kids home with a sitter when you go out to dinner with your husband's parents.
  • Brush off a comment with one of your own, such as Yes, there are lots of ways to be a good parent.
  • Take pressure off yourself by postponing judgment about what was said. Later on, within your own mind or by talking with a friend, you can see if there is any wheat amidst the chaff.
  • Ask your partner to stick up for you.
  • Confront the comment directly. You can address the values that underlie it by asserting your own, as in, Actually, John and I think it's more important for a child to feel loved than to have good manners. You can back up your views with scientific research, such as No, many studies have shown that going to babies when they cry helps make them more secure and confident when they're older. If you have to, you can go right to the heart of the matter: Mom, you did the best you could, and I love you a ton. But, in some ways, I've decided to raise Sandy differently.
  • Tell the person commenting that you would rather not hear any feedback or advice unless you specifically ask for it.
  • Remind yourself of several specific ways you are clearly a good mother.

Treating Yourself Well
We know many mothers who dote on their children and are loving with their partner, but have a really hard time doing anything nice for themselves. For instance, Sasha, a mother of two, had worked nearly full-time throughout her kids' early years for a number of catering companies on an as-needed basis. When her youngest was still in preschool, the economy had a downturn and catering work dried up. She and her husband decided that she should not look for work for six months and be a full-time homemaker instead. She told Rick: Even though I'm home, I still always have to be doing something. I make lists and check things off: Fold the laundry, call the dentist, get some milk. I feel totally guilty if I'm just sitting, even for a few minutes. I can't relax and read a magazine or call a friend. If I did, I'd feel like a goof-off. Jenny laughed at herself in Jan's office while telling a similar story: I love a sale, and I always get the kids stuff they don't really need. But I cannot bring myself to buy a new pair of loafers to replace the funky ones I've had for five years.

Do you find it hard to do nice things for yourself? If so, we suggest you experiment with deliberately going against the grain; doing so will make a strong statement in your mind about your worth. For example, buy a bottle of luxury shampoo instead of your usual, more sensible brand. Tell the kids that it's your turn to listen to something besides Raffi. At lunch, occasionally splurge on some exotic appetizer. Try taking a longer but prettier way home from work, even if that means dinner will be fifteen minutes later. You don't have to eat with a video on every night simply because that's how your toddler likes it. Or get your partner to watch the kids Saturday morning while you take a long bath.

Key Ways to Turn Shame into Self-Worth

  • Understand the psychological factors within you that make you prone to feeling inadequate; try to get some distance from them, and even let them go.
  • Stick up for yourself to yourself (e.g., talk back to shame).
  • Actively forgive yourself for being human and imperfect, and for not changing overnight.
  • Carry a picture of yourself as a child.
  • Notice all the things you get done each day.
  • Reflect on how well your children are doing and take some credit for that.
  • Try hard to take in positive feedback.
  • Stick up for yourself with others.
  • Do nice things for yourself; if you act like you have worth, you'll start to believe it.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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