The Shame Closet
Maybe it's because we're in Pride month, June, but I have on my mind the phrase "coming out of the closet" which we know is closely associated with the LGBTQ communities. I have looked up the origin of the term but didn't find anything definitive. It just kind of evolved, as these things do. Remember when gay just meant happy?
I've been thinking about who else among us is in the closet? The Shame Closet.
One definition I found of shame is "a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute". Ouch.
I usually get some feedback on my blog posts. But, my last one, Mommy Monster, was followed by a deafening silence; you could hear crickets. At first, I was curious by the lack of response but then, my shame set in. Hard and fast. Did I just out myself in a way that no one could relate to? Was I the only mother who ever yelled at her kids and behaved in less than stellar ways? I sunk into a bit of a funk recalling the old anger and the impact it had on my children - I went to my "bad mother" place and stayed there for several days.
Once I emerged from the dark, though, it got me thinking about the ways in which we shame each other as individuals and groups. Parenting is high on the list of shaming. Working moms vs stay-at-home moms. Breastfeeding vs formula. Vaginal birth vs Caesarean. Ad nauseam, literally. (Will we call it equality when parent shaming focusses on dads?) When we shame others, we project and release some of our own shame. It's like a mosquito bite itch that needs to be scratched - it's satisfying in the moment but the itch always returns and so the cycle continues.
Have I yelled at my kids? Sure. Did I forget to pack a lunch on occasion? Yup. Have I made mistakes? You betcha. You know why? Because I'm human. A messy, complicated, haven't-got-a-clue, human being.
I don't have all the answers and I don't particularly want them. At the top of my list of true pleasures being a parent is the struggle. The big and little frustrations that come with raising children. It's how we bond. It's how we know we belong to each other. It's how we learn that we are worth fighting for. The conflicts speak to a certain kind of love that is crucial to healthy growth and attachment - unconditional. The "I love you no matter what" school of being human.
I want to take parenting out of the shame closet. No more tsk-tsking and finger wagging when we see a kid having a meltdown in the grocery store and mom or dad hasn't got a clue what to do about; they just look defeated. Could we step in, instead, and offer them a word of compassion and support? Even just an understanding smile? When we see a mother feeding her baby a bottle and not her breast, we can choose to honour her wisdom. We don't know her story but we can trust that she is making the best choice for her family.
Keeping parenting in the shame closet, where how we behave with our children is shuttered away in dark silence, breeds deep uncertainty and can lead to abuse. Shame goes hand in hand with secrets - we need only look to the #MeToo and LGBTQ movements (just to name a couple) to understand the spirit-killing shame of secret-keeping.
When blanket admonishments about parenting that so often contain the black or white words "never" and "always", are thrown around like judgment darts, they can cause parents to go into hiding instead of reaching out for support.
We all struggle and have dire moments, not just as parents, but in life. The more we can bring those times into the light of compassionate sharing, the less we feel alone and desperate. The understanding of another can give us the strength and awareness to do better next time, to learn from our mistakes, and to be gentler with ourselves, our children, and all the other messy human beings out there.
I did, eventually, hear from one reader. A mother I know and respect who is raising three young children with her partner. My blog opened a dialogue between us. We shared stories of the times our frustrations got the better of us. We were able to laugh and commiserate. After our conversation, I felt so much lighter (enlightened) about myself and about the things I regret as a parent. I felt gratitude for her compassion and for her willingness to step out of her own closet and join me in the light.
**Please note that my posts about parenting in no way condone the abuse of children. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse is never acceptable nor justifiable. If you are unsure of the difference between healthy-range parenting frustrations and abuse, please speak to a trusted friend, or professional.