Parenting as self-development
Parenting is all-consuming and it changes your life in every possible way. So much so that you often forget — or simply don’t have time — to figure out how you are changing too. By reconnecting with the joy of parenting and acknowledging how being a parent has changed you, this time can be your best opportunity for self-awareness, growth and joy.
Everyone knows that becoming a parent will change your life. You’re prepared — as much as you can be — for the onslaught of sleeplessness, illness, tantrums and demands. You are even prepared (to some extent) for the financial changes, the career changes, and the changes to your own relationships. But all too often you don’t realise what becoming a parent will change about you. How will it affect your life’s path and purpose? How will it influence your belief in yourself and the lessons you will learn? How will it help you become the person you are meant to be?
I like to say that I was born through the birth of my first daughter. Until she came into this world I didn’t truly appreciate who I was, how strong I was and what I really wanted from life. In fact, through her birth I became who I was always meant to be, who I have always been somewhere deep inside. Through the struggles of her birth, and then the first few months of her life, I found myself questioning everything I knew and discovering things about myself I had never contemplated before. It was the best life lesson I have ever had and it hasn’t stopped.
The power of parenting
Jodie Benveniste is an author, affiliate lecturer in psychology at the University of Adelaide, and the director of Parent Wellbeing website (parentwellbeing.com). She agrees the parenting path can be a time of great challenges — and great lessons.
“Our children turn us from people into parents, and parenting is one of life’s most challenging activities. The more you practise parenting, however, the more you learn and become confident and the more you discover new personal strengths. We learn through our mistakes as much as through what we do well — about ourselves as well as our children”.
That’s not to say that every day of raising your child is the prime time for a little self-discovery. Most of us are lucky to find even a moment to discuss the way we are raising our children with our partners, let alone meditate about who we are evolving into and what the challenge of parenting is really teaching us.
In fact, with so much emphasis on getting parenting “right” at the moment, it’s overwhelming to focus on anyone other than our kids. With literally thousands of blogs, books and commentators encouraging their particular “style” of parenting, you can be forgiven for spending the entire 18 years of your child’s early life focusing on nothing but them. We simply react to the day-to-day, rather than look further ahead.
However, if you allow yourself a little space, ask yourself some key questions and focus on who you are growing into. Use this journey as a catalyst for self-discovery. You will begin to see that the lessons your child brings you every day are in fact the best you can have — opportunities for you to stop, think about how you want to react, see the bigger picture and your own strength, and be the person you have always wanted to be.
Too often you see or hear about women who spent so many years focusing on their children that they have lost connection with themselves. They don’t know who they are away from their children — and they often don’t know their partners either. While this might mean they have done an amazing job at guiding their children into adulthood, it also means they are now left with the enormous task of figuring themselves out. What happened to their dreams? Who are they now that their children are gone? This is what we want to avoid.
Jodie Benveniste confides she has had two “major meltdowns” since becoming a parent — both difficult but incredible learning experiences. “The first meltdown happened in Sydney when my daughter was nine months old. I realised that I’d been coping as a new parent — just. I hadn’t really come to terms with being a parent and who I was now, and I found the journey from person to parent incredibly difficult. But out of that experience came my book Little Bundle — a book that talks about the emotional highs and lows of having a baby.
“The second meltdown happened in mid-2010, when I suddenly became very de-motivated and found it difficult to get fired up about anything. This meltdown was a sign I’d gone off course. I’d veered away from my proper path and I wasn’t being the kind of person or parent I wanted to be.”
That’s the thing about parenting — children do not let you have a day or a week off to get your life back together. They just keep going and going. Everything — including the bad bits — is amplified. The lessons come thick and fast and often can seem overwhelming at the time. It’s often only when those life lessons scream loudly enough at you that you begin to listen. That is why parenting is such a fertile time for self-discovery.
“Getting over that meltdown involved me reassessing my work, its purpose and its place in my life,” says Jodie. “It led me to write The Parent Manifesto and create the 12-week online program. To turn my meltdown into a valuable learning experience, I needed to assess my values and beliefs.”
The challenges, health scares, meltdowns and madness of parenting can be some of the toughest experiences you’ll go through. And it’s very easy to just keep rolling with the punches, doing the best you can. But without pausing to reflect on what you’ve been through and how strong you are, as well as re-evaluating your life, you are missing a golden opportunity to grow as a person.
Who are you now?
Assessing who you are as a person now that you’re a parent is perhaps the most important step to empowering yourself — and helping you become a better parent as well. As Jodie outlined, if you simply “cope” with parenting and the enormous demands it makes on your life, you’re at a very real risk of a meltdown somewhere down the track. However, if you embrace the challenges and use them as occasions to change, you can learn your true strengths.
So who are you now you’re a parent? Being a great mum or dad might not have been your dream when you were a kid. Many of my generation grew up with dreams of becoming corporate CEOs, actors or magazine editors — not a mum or dad with three kids. Sure, the children would be there somewhere in “the plan”, but having a family was not at the core of who we were or who we aspired to be. It was not tied to our self-worth.
However, as so many of us discovered after spending years chasing those dreams, there was more to life than promotions and breaking through the glass ceiling. We discovered there were more satisfying things in this world than just a career and we began focusing on families and creating one of our own. We put our jobs and our former lives on hold and — if we were fortunate enough — we became parents. And whether we are still stay-at-home parents, part-time workers or full-time, the truth is our former selves — and the goals we had — have changed. We are no longer just about the money or the promotion. We want more from life now.
So how does that fit in with your sense of worth? How can you feel valued and successful if your value and success have always been measured through your work? Remember, we are the generation of career counselling, not home economics classes, so when it comes time for you to feel valued as a parent it can be a big shift in how you see yourself. Quite simply, you have to reassess who you really are and begin to see that this life is the one you want. That includes re-evaluating your goals and setting new ones that fit in with your current situation.
Start by reflecting on what it was you used to want. What were your old dreams and goals? What has worked and what hasn’t? What you thought you wanted is allowed to evolve — it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. If you’ve abandoned your dream of being the CEO of a finance company because it doesn’t fit with who you are anymore, be gentle on yourself about that decision. No matter how much we know something is not right for us anymore, it can still take a long time to forgive ourselves for the change.
Writing in a journal about your dreams and how they’ve changed can be a wonderful way to work through the changes you are seeing in yourself as a parent and how you are evolving into a better person. Start a vision board. Collect images, photos and articles from magazines and newspapers that really talk to you about who you are now and what you want your life to look like. As Jodie Benveniste described after her “meltdown”, she needed to reassess her values, work and goals.
Perhaps most importantly, remember to dream big. You’re in the next phase of your life now, a new cycle. You have the chance to be whoever you want to be as a parent and create the world you want for your children. What does that world look like? Write it down. What do you want to do with that life? Imagine it. You are a parent now — you can do anything.
As parents, we are often our own harshest critics. We question everything we do, feel guilty about the choices we make and worry about the future we are creating. We also get angry at things that are out of our control. A stressed parent’s mind can be a minefield of negativity.
If you want to embrace the power of parenting and change your life, you have to tackle what you tell yourself about being a parent and change the voice in your head. The best way to do this is to become mindful of your inner dialogue while you go about your day.
When I first became aware of my thoughts while at home with my two young children, I couldn’t believe how negative they were. I was astonished (and a little ashamed) to realise that “I can’t do this anymore”, “I don’t want to do this today” and “I am so tired” was on high-rotation in my mind. It was almost a mantra! No wonder I was feeling constantly overwhelmed and trapped.
However, once I began reconnecting with the power of parenting and that original feeling of strength and empowerment I had when my first daughter was born, I started to notice what I was telling myself and I began to change it. I began consciously repeating to myself “I am a happy, capable and loving mum”, “I can do this” and “I am learning how to be a better person every day”. Sometimes, on bad days, “this too will pass” was the best I could muster — but it worked! Not only did I start feeling better and stronger, but my experience as a parent and the behaviour of my children improved. I was learning how to tap into my best self.
Changing your thoughts to positive ones can be hard. The negativity surrounding parenting is everywhere and it’s easy to get sucked into it. Watch out for mothers’ groups where women almost “compete” with each other on who is having the least amount of sleep, or the school parents’ group where members gather every morning to complain about how little “me-time” they get. Once you become aware of the parenting talk — both around you and inside your head — you’ll be amazed at how much is negative.
I now start my day in the shower with a positive affirmation and repeat it whenever I think of it throughout the day. I find that’s the easiest way to make sure I stay on track, even when I am tired and busy. Every time I catch myself focusing on the bad, I repeat the affirmation.
Love it all
The other powerful exercise that can help you connect with yourself while still being a great parent is being grateful. Love it all. Yes — all of it. Begin to see each day, and all it has to throw at you, with love. It doesn’t feel like it at times but you will miss it one day. Even the struggles.
Bless everything around you. Bless the washing, the nappies, the toys and the mess. If you are struggling to see how a morning cleaning breakfast cereal off the wall or rushing from school drop-off to work to the shops to soccer practice is something to be grateful for, simply acknowledge how amazing you are to do it all. You are doing the most important job in the world — and you are doing it to the very best of your ability. Just for a second consider everything you have done in the past 24 hours — it’s a marathon you’ve run! You are amazing.
“Self-awareness is so important as a parent,” says Jodie Benveniste. “There are many opportunities for learning and personal growth when raising our children but we can miss them. It helps to stop, reflect and be self-aware rather than bustling through life at a frenetic pace.”
Spend time with your children — real time. Too often we are distracted by phones, emails, TV, cleaning, cooking and everything else that needs doing. I often find myself sending a text message while playing in the park and checking my emails while the girls are in the bath. Give yourself permission to be a child for a while and get down on the floor with your kids. Draw, go to the park and swing on the swings, laugh at kids’ jokes. Not only will you feel closer to your children, you will allow yourself space to see what this journey is really teaching you.
The greatest lesson of them all
We all want to be great parents — that’s what we’re here for. In the pursuit of that goal, we have to realise it isn’t just about our children’s growth, it’s also about our own. This is your greatest time to reflect on who you really are and who you really want to be.
When talking recently to a psychologist about my writing and the message of connecting with one’s true self through parenthood, I was reminded how important this message was in her line of work. As a psychologist, her office is constantly filled with people whose childhood is still affecting their lives: broken marriages, misguided parenting and unhappy parents. I am not saying that by connecting with your true self and embracing the power of being a parent your children will never need a psychologist (including my own, I’m sure!), but I truly believe in the saying “happy parent, happy child”. We all know that children learn by example. You can talk to your kids about living a good and balanced life, but you have to do it too.
“Kids force us to become better people,” says Jodie. “To raise them well you need to grow as a person, and because one of the main ways kids learn is by watching us, we’ve got to role model good behaviour ourselves.”
Use this as your time to grow. When you ask how you would like your child to be in this world, ask yourself the same thing. Use the power of parenting to connect with your true self.
Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is author of an e-book, 21 Days to Master Reconnection with Yourself (While Still Being a Great Mum!). You can find her book and writing at amytaylorkabbaz.com and follow her on twitter @amytaylorkabbaz.