The trials of being a peaceful parent pioneer
By Genevieve Simperingham (first published in the Natural Parent Magazine)
Do you sometimes feel challenged in your attempts to be a more peaceful parent in a society that’s less than compassionate towards the differences and struggles of parents and children? Many parents are surprised about the tensions that arise amongst friends and family when they choose to parent in ways that differ from the norm. Have you sometimes felt harshly judged for your choice to be patient and supportive at a time when your child expressed their raw feelings? Did you often hide your exhaustion for fear of being judged to be your own worst enemy for not sleep training your baby? These are issues that many parents I talk to through my work have a huge need to discuss. Many parents I’ve helped as a counsellor have described the heartbreak of rejection they’ve experienced as a result of choosing to parent very differently.
There is strength in numbers and it’s dangerously easy to assume that the choices of the majority are the right choices. Such attitudes are felt acutely by just about anybody in one or more minority group. Yet the frontiers of change have always been forged by those who choose to walk a path less travelled, who bravely step into new territories and new ways.
A mother and foster mum shared: “It feels so vulnerable to have your child acting a certain way knowing that others may attribute that to your parenting style rather than the child being a child! I sometimes feel “It’s not fair”, because I see the same behaviour from kids that are mainstream parented who are approved of for “taking control” (by being punitive), even though what I’m doing in holding space for my child I think is actually the most effective thing I can do. I feel especially upset when I sense people are judging my 8y.o. foster child for his behaviour and me for my parenting because his behaviour is often very similar to a typical 3 year old child due to his trauma background.” Another mother shared: “This difference in parenting philosophy has created such a rift between my brother and myself that we haven’t seen each other in over a year, which is so sad.”
I also was unprepared for the challenges that my parenting choices attracted when I became a mother in 1997. What was harder than the judgments was the breakdown in connection and the many misunderstandings that resulted. Luckily my husband and I naturally seemed to agree on many choices such as to carry our child in a sling, to co-sleep, to feed on demand, which meant feeding in public (gasp!), which was akin to indecent exposure in Ireland less than two decades ago! My husband was so committed that he spent several weeks making a birthing pool as there were only four in the whole of Ireland back then. My heart really goes out to the parents who face judgments from family and friends, which can be stressful enough to deal with, but also feel they have to defend their choices with their own partner. It can be very painful for both parents struggling to come to terms with their partner’s views, enough to challenge the most solid relationship!
The parent who chooses to co-sleep and babywear or feed their baby past a year can hear accusations of spoiling their child, of thwarting their development of independence. This, of course, is contrary to what’s known about the important role that meeting the child’s dependency needs plays in developing their emotional strength, security and resilience. The parent who chooses to homeschool is often accused of depriving their child of a “proper education” or healthy socialisation. The parent who chooses to not punish can feel judged to be permissive and too soft to hold boundaries or limits. Many parents who have changed to a more peaceful non-punitive approach have shared their surprise at how much more criticism they now attract compared to back when they used time out, threats and liberally yelled at their child. I won’t take up time here speaking to why such judgments are misinformed and generally crossing the line into the very personal choices of another. And of course, every season of the Natural Parent Magazine brings a rich delivery of articles covering such topics and if these are some of your choices, you’ll be highly aware of the reasons why you choose what you choose.
Belonging and sharing values are such primal needs. If you find any of these differences or misunderstandings to be very stressful, you deserve to be truly compassionate towards yourself in honouring how hard this can be. An understanding I’ve gained from some of the attachment literature is that there’s something very primal in bonding through shared beliefs, shared values, shared traditions, through feeling a sense of likeness and sameness. It’s not logical, for instance, that granny seems so hurt and personally offended when the mum explains that little Tommy has a gluten allergy and can’t eat granny’s famous apple crumble. Neither the grandmother nor the mother can fully understand just how deeply reliant the grandmother is on both expressing her love and hence gaining her sense of value from providing tasty food. If grandmother can be adaptive and move through these feelings, she’ll likely find ways of cooking that continue to meet all the needs. Yet when a parent chooses to parent very differently from their own parents, it can truly test the bonds of those relationships.
Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.~ Thích Nhất Hạnh, How to Love
Parents, partners, grandparents, friends and relatives are faced with some complex challenges when differences arise that touch on very deeply rooted core beliefs, values and traditions. Feeling at peace with one’s differences generally needs to rest on the security of overall belonging and feeling accepted. For those who don’t have that solid secure sense of belonging and acceptance within their family of origin, tensions around differences can touch on old wounds, especially if differences in that family resulted in harsh criticisms, rejection or character judgments. To feel more secure and hold steady in ourselves in the face of differences and especially judgments often calls on a parent to do some soul searching and emotional growth.
Setting ourselves up for success. The more mindful and realistic about the challenges that differences provide, the more skilfully we can navigate those challenges.
Melissa shares what has helped her: “I have struggled with this issue of hanging out with other parents as my parenting style differs to anyone else I know (in person). I try to carefully manage the situations I put my son in. I especially manage his sleep and my expectations of him depending on his sleep or lack of. When I’ve felt judged and misunderstood, I find it hard to explain myself, so instead I’ve sent family links to articles on my style of parenting. Once after my sister read them, I sat down with her and discussed some differences as she uses time out or threats, so it’s been good to get it all out on the table and agree to differ. I still need to become stronger in all this but these days I am more and more confident in my parenting and don’t care about the looks or stares when I’m perceived to not be parenting properly. I have been known to sit down on the floor in the supermarket with or near my son who is having a big emotional release.”
In Part II, read about When children cry or tantrum around relatives or in public, quotes from parents about what works for them, the challenges of feeling judged and judging others, and whether or not to have those difficult conversations.