Ever since I first tried gentle parenting on my children, I have been trying my best to move closer to that type of parenting all the time. While I don’t always succeed, the extra effort to empathize with my children to help them overcome their problems has been well worth it. Getting rid of the mindset that a certain behavior is “bad” and responding with punishment has freed us from so much unnecessary struggle in our household. It did such wonders for my children that I wondered if I could try gentle parenting on myself.
I felt like this approach of partnering with my kids and walking them through their emotions had helped me feel more connected to them. Perhaps I could take those same techniques and get to a deeper understanding of myself, my own triggers, and behavioral pitfalls. Even though gentle parenting takes away discipline (which, admittedly, is not really an issue for me because I am a full-grown adult who does not get put on timeout), it also focuses heavily on also taking away reprimands and negative talk, which I have plenty of when I am feeling less than my best.
I decided to apply the techniques of gentle parenting on myself for a week to see if it'd result in some of the same revelatory moments I had experienced with my children. I would try to avoid negative self-talk, give a “playful” approach for the things I had to do, walk myself through my own emotions, and trust my instinctual needs. My hope was that a week of “gently parenting” myself would give me a better understanding of my own behavioral patterns, and better ways to deal with them — just like it had with my own kids.
The first day of my experiment came while my husband was out of town, and I was all alone with my kids for a week. Generally speaking, I do not do great when I am parenting solo. I usually have a killer first day where I rock momming alone, then everything quickly devolves into madness by day three (if I’m lucky to get to day three).
I soon realized that getting through the morning was a real struggle for me, especially when it came to getting the kids ready for school. I got up and checked email, not wanting to move from the warmth of my laptop on the couch because I was cold. I started breakfast too late. I had to rush to get everyone dressed. My eyes were red and itching and hurting from the lack of sleep. It felt like a near-impossible task to go out into the snow and start the car, then get everyone out the door for school. Since gentle parenting isn’t big on rewards and gold stars, I didn’t even get to praise the hell out of myself for doing the hard task of getting the kids to school in near white-out conditions. I wasn’t feeling very understanding or enlightened.
Instead of trying to do it all, I went the gentle parenting route and gave myself choices.
I was exhausted by the time I got back to the house with the baby, and it was only 9:30 a.m. I was also frustrated because I hadn’t really done anything. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I'd left the house a mess. There was laundry piling up all over the place. Neither my hair nor my teeth had seen any sort of brush this morning. I realized my morning problem was not simply that I “wasn’t a morning person” (though I still maintain that I am NOT a morning person) but also that I wasn’t taking care of any of my most basic needs. How badly do my kids feel and act when they get hangry? They’re monsters. So how was I supposed to get through these days alone if I wasn’t eating or maintaining personal hygiene? I decided that feeding myself needed to be my number one priority if I was going to get myself under control this week.
On the second day of my experiment, I was still feeling really tired, but I knew that my routine probably needed some major revamping. I decided to ditch checking email after 7 a.m. and do some simple tasks (including eating) to start the day off right. Normally when I try to change my morning habits, I get burnt out pretty easily because I make a list that's way too rigorous to follow through on. Instead of trying to do it all, I went the gentle parenting route and gave myself choices. If it were my kids, I'd give them the option of making their bed before or after getting dressed. For me, I decided to give myself the option of making a good breakfast and doing the dishes or sorting and starting a load of laundry before school. I decided to go with making some pancakes, and while they were cooking, I made my bed and got dressed in real clothes.
By doing so, I realized that even though I don’t need much to get me going, I’m very much a prime example of an object at rest that likes to stay at rest. When I get up slowly and move to the couch to check email, I have a hard time picking up steam for my day. Doing a few small tasks in the morning helped me feel productive and giving myself the choice of what chores I should tackle first gave me a feeling of control I don’t normally have over my day. I’m usually so “all or nothing” in my approach to my habits, and maybe that wasn’t the best way for me to increase my productivity.
On day three, I was still struggling to keep on top of all the things I had to do while alone. Even though I was making sure my basic needs were met — showering while the baby napped and eating in spite of everyone’s constant requests — I was having a hard time shaking off a funk. I kept looking at my phone and checking Instagram and Facebook because I was bored ... but was that really it? I know my compulsive behavior with my phone is problematic and always made me feel bad, but I still couldn’t figure out why I was doing it. So I took some time to walk myself through my emotions when I went to pick up my phone to check email for the 10 time in a day.
It wasn’t really that I was bored. There is literally no time to be bored with three kids. I always had a long list of things I could and should be doing. I realized I was doing it when I felt tired or overwhelmed. I didn’t want to deal with the next thing I should be doing, so I'd distract myself instead. I didn’t want to sink into my exhaustion, because I was afraid I would never recover. However, mindlessly poking around on my phone wasn’t helping me relieve stress or curb exhaustion. It was making it worse. I realized when I had the urge to pick up my phone, what I really needed was a break. I started sitting outside whenever the compulsion to grab my phone hit. I would just sit, get the kids outside, and not worry about the next thing. I let myself feel tired. And honestly, I felt better once I let myself feel tired and relax, rather than trying to mask it by staring at my phone.
I need to keep in perspective that these minor parenting blunders are not indicative of a fatal character flaw. I’m doing the best I can, and I need to be OK with that, even when I’m not doing as well as I’d like to.
On the fourth day of my experiment, I really leaned into the whole “let yourself feel tired” thing I had going from the day before. Instead of doing it outside, however, I let myself fall asleep with the baby during my daughter's naptime. When I woke up, I realized we'd totally missed out on going to the discovery museum with friends like we had planned. I was groggy and upset that we'd missed our scheduled playdate and couldn’t seem to pull myself together. My daughter was crying because she didn’t get to go, and I automatically went to chide myself for not keeping track of time.
However, I took a step back and tried to cut myself some slack rather than attacking myself for a mistake. Honestly, if I was so tired I couldn’t help myself from falling asleep, I clearly needed the rest. There would be other opportunities to play with friends. There are way worse things I could do as a mother. Sometimes I need to keep in perspective that these minor parenting blunders are not indicative of a fatal character flaw. I’m doing the best I can, and I need to be OK with that, even when I’m not doing as well as I’d like to.
On the fifth day of my experiment, I decided to give “playfulness” a try when it came to going through my to-do list for the day. Gentle parenting often includes making a game out of things your kids might otherwise protest (like putting on pajamas, which I time with a stopwatch now as a contest). I decided to make a similar game of doing the house cleaning. I set 15-minute timers every so often throughout the day and tried to do as much as I could in those 15 minutes. I even got my kids involved, letting them help with different jobs, and getting my own excitement level up so they wouldn’t feel inclined to question why they were dusting furniture.
I decided to level with my kids after apologizing to them. I told them when their dad was gone it was hard to take care of them all sometimes. I felt so vulnerable, and wondered if I was even doing the right thing by being so open with them.
Not only did it actually make cleaning a little more fun (I mean, it’s still cleaning toilets, but you know…), it made me realize I don’t need that much time to get everything done. I always feel like I can’t find balance between the housework and playtime (plus the constant requests of three kids 5 and under), but I realized that it’s often because I procrastinate on housework and make it seem like a larger job than it really is. If I simply get it done quickly, I’m left with less stress, and more time to try enjoying motherhood.
On day six, I was in a terrible mood after the baby had stayed up screaming most of the night. It was my last day alone with the kids and my husband’s flight was getting in late that evening. Despite the fact that I'd spent most of the week really involved in my experiment, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel sort of made me lose it. I was ready to be done solo parenting. I was ready to have some help. The kids were whining and the baby was on a totally messed up nap schedule. Then, of course, the older two started fighting and woke the baby up 15 minutes into his nap, and I snapped. I yelled at them and put them in their rooms and even felt frustrated as I held the baby because he just would not stop crying.
When I finally got control of my emotions, I felt terrible. I decided to level with my kids after apologizing to them. I told them when their dad was gone it was hard to take care of them all sometimes. I felt so vulnerable, and wondered if I was even doing the right thing by being so open with them. It didn’t make my outburst OK, but they were able to empathize with how big emotions can get when you’re missing Dad. Having that understanding between us, as difficult as it was to admit the root of my behavior, made it easier for us to get through the rest of our last day alone together.
You can make a pact not to say the words out loud, but it’s so much harder to stop the internal dialogue that says you aren’t enough.
Since my husband was home on the final day of my experiment, I thought it would be much easier. I was wrong. My daughter was sick and so I had to take her to the doctor, which resulted in having to drop-off and pick-up antibiotics. I dropped off the prescription, but when I got home, time got away from me. I realized entirely too late that the pharmacy would be closing in 15 minutes, and we lived 10 minutes away. I snapped at my husband, wanting to blame him for my lack of time management. I was mad, and while I drove I tried to let myself feel the anger and run through my emotions naturally rather than bottle it up. I arrived just in time to see them lock the doors, and I wanted to scream. I was simmering with rage the whole drive back home, and I could not stop berating myself in my mind. You can make a pact not to say the words out loud, but it’s so much harder to stop the internal dialogue that says you aren’t enough.
I was still mad when I got home, but I had managed to talk myself down from the immediate urge to yell at everyone for everything. I told my husband I needed a hug and to work through feeling mad at myself. It was a vulnerable moment to admit so openly how I was feeling, even with my husband. But acknowledging my needs made my emotions level out far faster than they would have if I tried to bottle it up.
Did A Gentler Approach Work For Me?
Trying to use the techniques of gentle parenting on myself was an interesting experiment, but it was more of a starting point than a solution for my own behavioral problems. It helped me see my own patterns more clearly, but it wasn’t quite as easy as I thought to reset those deep-set habits of negative self-talk and unproductive routines. It did, however, give me more room to feel rather than stick a bandaid on an open emotional wound.
Using gentle parenting on myself illuminated how often I try to stuff down my emotions. It made sense of those emotional outbursts of yelling at my kids, which weren't simply me reaching the end of my patience, but the result of not feeling any of the uncomfortable emotions leading up to that moment. I need to be able to feel angry when I’m angry, or feel overwhelmed without diving into Facebook to escape the discomfort. And after a week of gentle parenting, I'm learning that it's OK to feel what I'm feeling and to give myself time to talk and feel it out.