Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mothering Without A Map: It Comes With The Territory

A friend was sharing her frustrations about not knowing what to do when her child’s behavior crossed the line. “I want to know what to say and do and really just want to know in my bones that I am handling it right, but I don’t. I totally doubt myself. And it’s all because I wasn’t parented the way I want to parent. There’s no model for me to follow.” My friend went on to say that she knew how NOT to parent based on her own upbringing. She was frustrated that she didn’t automatically know what to do.

Welcome to the club. I feel the same way. My young mom and dad (19 and 20 respectively) did the best they could, and at my age, I don’t begrudge them for being imperfect. Well, not any more, at least. There was a time when I felt gypped because there were so many parts of my childhood that I didn’t want to repeat with my own kids. First, there was the being a young mom of 19 thing (avoided that, since I had my first child at 34). Then there was the getting divorced thing (did that before I met my current husband and had children with him). Then there was the no spanking my kids thing (stuck to that one—sort of. Each of them has been spanked once).

Where I’m going with this is that most of us have areas of how we were parented that we want to carry forward with our own children. And then there are those other areas. The ones that are an example of what you don’t want to do. That’s okay too. It’s important to be aware of areas where you want to do the opposite of your parents so that you are consciously choosing your parenting behavior and not just reacting to doing the opposite of what your parents did.

For example, I had a client, Sara, that felt that her mom was very controlling and uptight as a mother. She had negative memories of her mom focusing on her every behavior and criticizing it. As a reaction to how she was parented, she went the opposite direction and didn’t set limits at all with her kids. She didn’t want to thwart their creativity, she said. Meanwhile, her kids were the ones you’d see at restaurants who’d empty the salt and pepper shakers on the table, run around chasing each other, and generally make other diners wish they’d chosen a different restaurant. Sara wasn’t consciously aware that she was parenting in reaction to how she was parenting. All she knew was that “…there is no way I will be controlling like my mom was with me.” When we really talked about it, Sara shared that she didn’t know “what to do,” only what NOT to do as a mom. I assured her that this is common. Because it really is.

It’s really up to us a moms to create our own “Mom Map” with this thing we call mothering. While no two maps will look the same, the process that moms can use is the same. Here’s what I coach the moms I work with to do to create their own maps for their mothering journeys:
  1. Write down what you appreciated about how you were parented. Yes, we’ll get into what you didn’t appreciate in a minute (gotta keep it real, right?!). For now, get very clear on what your parents did that you feel was healthy and that you’d want to model. Getting in touch with these feelings of appreciation will give you the necessary energy to move forward with the rest of the process.
  2. Write down what you absolutely do NOT want to carry over into your own parenting. Be as specific as possible: “not yell at my kids” or “no belittling my kids at all, especially in public.” Once you have your list, star the ones that are hot buttons for you. For example, for me, there were many times as a kid that I didn’t feel listened to. So if I were writing this list, I’d star the item that said, “Not dismissing what my children tell me and changing the subject.” That would be a red flag for me because I would be in danger of reactively doing the opposite. When you purposely do the opposite of something, it’s easy to go overboard and overcompensate.
  3. Write down what values and character qualities you want your kids to have. Start with the ones your parents helped to instill in you, and then add other ones that you feel are important. For me, it’s key to raise kids that care about others, have integrity, a strong work ethic, etc.
  4. Imagine your child at 30, healthy and happy, and inspiring such pride in you that you could burst. What other qualities in your child came to light that were different than the ones in #3? If they were the same, that’s even more confirmation that those are deeply important to you.
  5. If you’re not sure how, learn to set and enforce limits in a healthy way. This is key because limit-setting is where many parents try to do the opposite of their parents, in so doing, accidentally become reactionary parents (first-hand experience here!). So many of us moms didn’t like how our parents yelled or threatened or spanked, so we vow to do the opposite. Or maybe our parents were more passive and less involved than we would’ve liked or needed, so we vow to be super involved. This may sound easier said than done, I realize, so know that there are lots of resources (coaches, books, websites) to support you in healthy boundary-setting.
  6. Instead of going from one opposite to another, instead set your intention to parent in a way that brings out the best in your children AND you. This can look lots of different ways based on your and your child’s temperament. “I’ll never yell the way my father did” can inspire guilt when, down the road, you lose your temper and indeed yell. Instead, if you focus your intentions of setting healthy limits rather than not doing what your father did, you’ll automatically bypass the yelling. As far as I know, yelling isn’t a part of healthy limit-setting (though most of us have succumbed, since we’re human!).
  7. Allow for your personal mothering style to shine through. Just because your best friend uses flowery, lovey-dovey language with her kids doesn’t mean you aren’t a loving mom if your style is more straightforward. There are many ways to tap into your style. You can take a personality test like the Myers-Briggs or the DISC, or you can simply recall times when you were at your best, at the “top of your game” in your life. Take this peak experience and really imagine it clearly in your mind. Then, write down the inner qualities you were using (courage? perseverance? Sense of humor?) as well as the outer resources that supported you. Embedded in that vision are keys to your best self—keys that can help you remember what supports YOU (not your best friend or mother in law—theirs will be different) be the best mom you can be. \
We’ve all felt, at one time or another, that we were doing this mothering thing without a map, so know you’re not alone. You can create your own map, one that is based on solid parenting principles, your strengths and temperament, your child’s strengths and temperament, and your hopes and dreams of what kind of adult you hope to help your child become.

May you enjoy the journey.

Karen Bierdeman is a parenting coach/consultant who specializes in working with moms who feel guilty. She comes by this specialty honestly and admits that without a sense of humor she never would have created her own mom map because she would’ve been stuck in the quicksand of her mom guilt. She also is an expert in helping moms parent challenging, intense kids without feeling guilty, yelling, or giving in. You can find her at, or reach her at

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