On punishing myself as a parent

“You should never leave someone alone if they don’t want to be alone!” my six year old appealed to me. Laurence had been gone for a couple of days. The twenty month old was doing early mornings with the change of seasons and I was running on a deficit of sleep.

After a particularly tiring day where every transition had been a struggle for my four year old, I just felt done.

Now she wasn’t ready to get out of the bath and all I wanted to do was put the baby to sleep so I could sleep. So, feeling at the end of all my patience and creativity, I shouted at her and left the room for longer than I should.

Actually, I knew what I needed to do. I could see even in the moment that I needed to find a way to reconnect with her to help her regulate her upset, climb out of her primal brain and listen to my reasoning.

But I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be responsible, to do the work of remaining calm and reflecting instead of reacting. I just wanted her to listen to me right now so everyone could go to sleep and I could clean the kitchen, watch Netflix and go to sleep myself. So I effectively threw a tantrum and removed the only grown up from the interaction. Then physically stormed out of the room.

Talitha sat beside the bath, comforting Ophelia, quite upset herself when I returned. Somehow, we managed to get everyone to bed, with Ophelia sleeping in with Delilah and me. And I’d love to say that all’s well that ends well, except that the stress I’d generated in that experience carried on playing out long after they’d all gone to sleep.

By the time Laurence got home late that night, I was in full on defeatist mode. I’d moved from feeling upset about our evening together to picking apart all of my relationships. He reminded me that when he’d checked in with me earlier in the evening I’d said we’d had a really good day. But I was too tired to detach from how we’d ended it. How I’d ended it.

Another restless night, another early start but I woke up feeling a lot calmer, with perspective somewhat restored. I realised I had a couple of options. I could say, “I messed up. I’m going to keep messing up. What’s the point?” And I could extend this to imagining myself an imposter, walking around with this epic disparity between what I know and what I do.

Alternatively, I could treat myself kindly and speak to myself as I would a friend who’d lived through the battering of the night before. I could empathise with myself that it was a hard situation, that I was tired, on my own and that I’m only human.

The first approach would effectively involve me beating myself up. I might even justify by subconsciously reinforcing that if I made myself feel badly enough about my behaviour, I wouldn’t repeat it. I’d been trying to modify my behaviour by punishing myself, without even realising that that’s what I was doing. But punishment is ineffective.

It’s just not possible for me to maintain my calm if I don’t feel good about myself. I will inevitably register normal, everyday experiences with my family as emergencies if my inner world is characterised by scarcity because I’ll have nothing left to give. How can things change if I’m constantly telling myself that I am wretched and that things will never change?

On the other hand, if I can connect with myself, through empathy, remembering all the beautiful things I do, I can see that I have a huge capacity to give and receive love. I can see that I am always capable of learning new things, of growing and evolving.

For me this involves prayer, putting my hand in the hand of an eternal Parent. I also have to put myself in situations where I can open up to safe people to share and listen deeply so that I can experience and practise empathy. I read and listen to people who promote kindness and respect. I apologise to my children and make myself accountable to them.

And I choose to forgive myself. I keep forgiving myself because a bad moment, a bad evening, week or even season doesn’t define me.