“Please,” I urged him through gritted teeth, “Just stand under the tree for one second.”
He trotted away with a gleeful smile, strands of his tamped-down hair taking life thanks to both bouncing and speed. As he made eye contact and smiled at me, the gap between him and the tree grew, along with my irritation.
On the first day of school, we are bombarded with social media photos of children, a chalkboard presented alongside our pristinely pressed child, announcing the subject’s grade, hobbies, and other humanizing particulars.
We find these adorable.
I wanted to be “that mom.”
Instead, as my kindergartener booted away from me as though we were playing tag, my body flushed with irritation. Heat rose from my chest, the flush of failure rising to my jaw.
As I willed my teeth to un-grit, I seethed a repetition of the instruction in pretend sing-song to hide my defeat and failure. A cloak of shame settled over my head—the darkness in my body not matching the lightness in my voice.
I sighed, feeling like a failure.
F*ck the chalkboard.
I couldn’t even get my kid to stand still.
Parenting can crack us open, allowing the parts of us that don’t feel good enough, the parts we most closely try to contain, to spill out of us like blood. Pain and disappointment escape from our body faster than we can contain it (try as we may).
The voices of judgement inside my head, megaphone-loud, screamed, “You are a failure” for the schoolyard to hear.
We believe these feelings belong inside, where nobody else can witness them. We try to outrun them by creating perfect exteriors, absorbing cultural expectations of what it means to be a “good” parent, and mirroring it back with our best behavior.
Women call this “mom guilt” when it has nothing to do with guilt at all.
We perceive that this pressure comes from the outside, but it seeps in and embeds itself so deeply that it lives within us. The root cause is a combination of our parentage and what we feel we must do to be a culturally accepted and acceptable parent, as we become part of an invisible and unwinnable competition.
We may have been taught in our childhood that what matters is what we do, not who we are. We internalize achievement ahead of existence: we feel we must make neither errors nor omissions, lest our inner feelings of not-enough-ness surface.
The voices of shame, once the words uttered by adult voices in our youth, now become the ones we say to ourselves as we parent. In adulthood, we try to suffocate them under our accomplishments, perhaps believing that external markers of success could dampen our internal admonishments until there is nothing left but silence.
A classic Type A achiever who is driven to excel, I required myself to become a walking Pinterest mom-board. My vision of myself was that of an elegant swan who effortlessly produced a well-mannered, well-behaved, and well-dressed son while myself maintaining impeccable outer appearances in my home, my body, and my career.
I sought a salve for my feelings. I tried to diffuse the chalkboard failure, my tendencies directing me to a rational solution from the self-help or yoga world, both of which I am a professional part.
Brené Brown wrote that shame dissipates in the light and that we might eviscerate its darkness by speaking the truth.
So I called a friend, hoping the weight of my perceived failures might melt under the sound of my own voice. My friend held my words with compassion and tried to convince me to “let it go.” I heard her speaking words that I intellectually already knew, but my body did not. I could not release my physical binding to shame, even as I tried to push it to “go.”
Instead: an amplification. I had now failed her, and her suggestions were added to the list of tasks that I could not accomplish.
These cracks, shatterings, are often small and meaningless moments that would hold no weight for someone else. Yet our bodies compress, tighten, and bind against this pressure, and our sense of failure becomes a very part of our skin and bones.
Have we done enough? Have we been enough? Are we enough?
I didn’t know how to let go of something that was so deep inside me that it felt like the essence of who I was. I could not “let it go,” or I would fail myself. And if I failed to “let it go,” I failed both my friend and my profession.
As we whip ourselves, we are aware that our children are the reason for the exposure of our flaws and also the cause of our perceived necessity to cover them up.
Perfectionism is a front, but also a matter of practicality. We cannot fall to the ground and “let it go” for fear that we will fall apart and leave our children even worse off. We believe it’s the only thing holding us up.
Years have passed. And with them, I have tried to get comfortable with not being perfect: undone items on the to-do list, messy hair, missed deadlines—micro-imperfections that I could forgive.
A glance at my home might suggest I have achieved the skill of shame-free living-in-the-moments, evidenced by dishes on the counter and books gathering in the hallway.
But the accumulation of messiness does not bring us an embrace of the emotions attached to messiness. Letting go means we wish for their absence.
Yet it may not be a matter of drowning shame out or inviting it to disappear; it may be about inviting it to arise and to stay.
We might consider instead: letting it be.
As we feel it in our body, burning, and we notice it, we hold it and embrace our pain in ways that we ourselves were never held or embraced in our earlier lives.
We feel the sensations in our bodies and simply let them be as they arise.
My latest therapy session focused on my perceived inability to be attuned to my child. My mind focused on the to-do list for work or the messy kitchen instead, causing me to fail at being a “nurturing enough” parent. Whatever that is.
I could hear my cadence increase as my throat compressed, a wellspring of tears now in my eyes, as a tightness seeped over the left side of my chest.
We sat. And we let it be.
The physical pain, at first stabbing and throbbing, passed through me as I allowed and embraced it.
I invited it closer.
And the invisible chalkboard started to dissipate.