I haven’t seen my center since last Tuesday, if I’m being honest.
One of the questions I’m asked most often is how to maintain one’s center and calm in the midst of parenting.
My answer is: I’m not entirely sure we’re meant to.
(Which may or may not be a cop-out on my part. I’m always open to that reality.)
But here’s what I do know: in the quest for peace and centeredness, it is far too tempting to create an end goal of eternal Zen – a state we are meant to achieve where nothing, not anything, can throw us off our game.
Which is sort of the opposite of why we are here as human beings, really.
The fastest way to see how spectacularly we fail at this ideal is to leave a yoga class with this feeling of Zen and step right into a situation where little ones are screaming in our faces, throwing food at us, demanding ridiculous things like a new toy, some more candy, dinner.
In these daily moments, we see how little we are actually in control of our centeredness.
Which may seem like a bad thing at first glance.
I mean, aren’t we the adults? Shouldn’t we have the upper hand?
Well, yes and no.
I think one of the most central challenges to modern parenting is what I label as my generation’s “in-between-ness”: we are certain that a new, more democratic way of parenting makes sense – these kids today almost demand it and such a way of parenting feels good down to our core.
And yet, our wiring from the past is anything but democratic. Most of us were raised in the “kids are seen but not heard” and “spare the rod, spoil the child” era – or at least by parents who grew up with such ideals.
We were brought up by parents who ruled with the “what I say goes” philosophy.
If we did wrong, we were punished.
Questions about feelings and reasons for engaging in said behavior were beside the point.
As a result, many of us ended up in therapy to connect with our feelings and discomfort with having had parents who were unable to really see us or engage with our emotions. If we haven’t been to therapy, at the very least we have been part of a culture exploration about how our childhoods have affected our way of being in the world.
This self-exploration has largely been a good thing: we have emerged understanding ourselves and the world better, with more knowledge about why we behave in ways that cause us pain and are no longer self-serving.
And we began questioning how we want to parent similarly – and differently – than our parents.
We decided that we wanted to listen to our children more. To make space for them to say, “I’m frustrated” or “I’m tired” or “I really, really need this thing.” And to make these feelings ok.
We decided to admit when we were wrong. Or at least to try to. To see parenting as more of a collective venture: we are ultimately responsible for running the ship and setting boundaries, but everyone on board gets a bit more of a say. Or at least we try to.
With us on this journey are our children, who help us along with their almost uncanny ability to call us on the crap that isn’t working. (I mean seriously, have you noticed?)
It’s been fascinating to engage in my own journey of parenting on this front and to watch my peers do the same.
I’m constantly impressed by our ability to live more in the gray zone than our parents did – to openly admit we don’t have all the answers and to struggle with the hard things. To not think we always know better than our children do. And to raise little ones who feel like they have a right to their feelings, as messy as that can get sometimes.
But I’m also seeing a huge challenge: while we have one foot in this new parenting framework, the other foot is planted firmly in the past.
As evidenced by the voices in our heads.
We say “yes” more to the small things in order to avoid power struggles, which we know are a waste of time anyway. We say “yes” to these things when the wisest part of us knows that it is just fine to do so. No harm, no foul regarding an extra cookie at dinner or an extra 30 minutes of screen time, or the fact that a little one just screamed at us but we sense he or she is really just tired. So we let these things go.
Which feels lovely and right and peaceful.
Until that old voice in our head, the one so firmly rooted in our own childhoods, screams at us: “What are you DOING? You’re going to let him have his way? How is he ever going to understand the word NO??!! You’ll raise a spoiled child, and it will be all your fault when really bad things happen as a result.”
We hear this endless internal nagging as the voices of our own parents (sometimes reinforced in real time, but not always) and a culture that is afraid of what a new – still largely undefined –way of parenting will look like.
This fear leads us to focus on the results of helicopter parenting and doing too much for children and overindulging them. On the horror stories about how we are failing miserably as parents. About how parents today are simply the worst.
Most of us can agree that setting too few boundaries and over-indulging our children doesn’t create great outcomes.
But where is the cultural dialogue about how critical it is to listen to our children and allow them to have their emotions? About how much this matters in a world full of violence toward self and others too often perpetuated in the name of loneliness and disconnection? And about how well so many of us are doing on this front?
Why are we not celebrating this in ourselves and in each other?
We get dragged down by these internal voices and live in a constant state of self-judgment about our parenting. Worrying that we are recreating the loneliness and shame so many of us felt as children, when in fact we are doing anything but.
So back to the question of whether we can always maintain our center as we parent.
Well, no, of course not.
For one thing, parenting involves sharing your space with other people who are, for a large part of their residency, incredibly needy, often unable to control their emotions, unhelpful, and generally destructive. These facts alone would probably make Gandhi a bit cranky at times.
But perhaps more importantly, like any relationship, the child-parent connection is meant to help us grow. Growth is never pretty and peaceful – it always involves chaos. Without even realizing it, we make the beautiful choice to engage in chaos with our children in the name of growth.
As we do, we teach our kids something far more valuable than staying in our center like some Buddha-like statue made of stone. We teach them how to participate in the inevitable process of change: how to honor it and how to manage our emotions and ourselves in the middle of it.
We teach them that life is not about constantly staying in our center, but about remembering to return on a daily basis, no matter what is happening.
This process is valuable for parents, but of course really applies to all humans everywhere.
Today, I’m wishing you a bit of chaos, the ability to see your growth in it, and a return to center as you are able. We’ve got this.
To sign up for a free phone consultation and receive personal advice on how to find your center in the uncentered-ness of it all, visit www.gailcowan.com/schedule.