I saw this young woman while running errands recently and this awful feeling of dread and sickness came over me. At first, I couldn’t place her, but then I remembered: she provided childcare at the gym I went to when my younger two were little. But where did that feeling come from? She was nice enough, I thought.
Then it hit me. I was feeling shame. When I used to pick up my boys after a workout, she would make sure I knew how badly behaved they were, without actually having the guts to talk to me about it. While saying goodbye to one of my sons, she’d say “you’re not going to spit apples out on the floor next time, right?” I’d always apologize and leave the gym with my tail between my legs. With all of their wild ideas, this would happen all the time.
But here’s the part that matters: for the next while, that shame would poison everything else. Shame that they were different. Shame that I couldn’t control them. Shame that I thought I could leave the house, just like everyone else. One small infraction on the part of my boys, and I’d yell like a lunatic (in the car or at home, of course, because being “that crazy mom” in public would be even MORE shameful, right?).
Now, I don’t blame this long-ago babysitter from the gym. She didn’t know that both of my boys would require interventions along the way, and that one of them would end up suffering from epilepsy, which, at times, influences his behavior with very little we can do other than love him through it. And I’m sure she wasn’t given much in the way of training for special-needs children, anyway.
But, little did she know, she played a role in a sad and regrettable chain reaction that led to two little boys, and at times, their two very innocent older sisters, getting yelled at. Screamed at. Over nothing. My husband was on the receiving end as well, poor guy.
It happened at the gym, or in my neighborhood, or the playground, or family gatherings. Any time someone made it clear that they thought my boys were out of control (and they were), I’d sink into that terrifying place. The better I knew the source of disapproval, the more devastating the feeling, which makes sense. So when a stranger glared, it would sting a little. An acquaintance would be worse. And relatives? Well then, I must really be the inept mom they appeared to see. And the only way I knew how to claw myself out of that cesspool was by asserting my false power over the little loves of my life.
But there were angels along the way. People who reminded me that, despite the embarrassment, I was doing my best. Thankfully, my mother led the charge, reminding me that she saw me get up every day and try, even when there was no chance that things would go well. And because I was so possessed by shame, at the time, I didn’t believe her.
It wasn’t until reading the work of shame researcher Brené Brown that I even began to understand how toxic shame can be. If you haven’t picked up one of her books — any of them — then prepare for a lot of lightbulbs to turn on in your head. If you’re like me, you’ll do anything to avoid that feeling. (And she’s such a fantastic writer you will absolutely forget that you’re reading science)!
But the upside that Brown presents, and I’ve lived it so I know that it’s true, is that shining a light on shame is where the magic lies.
What does that mean? If you’re in the trenches like I have been, please know that other special-needs mamas out there see you, and know how hard you’re working and know that, while you never signed up for it to be so difficult, that you are making a positive difference in your children’s lives. And that you are forgiven for those days when you put your shame ahead of their immediate needs. You, of all people, have nothing to be ashamed of. And in those moments, remember: it's just a feeling.
And if you’re not in the trenches. Wait… before I tell you that, here’s a quick guide: If you’re worried sick that your child’s math teacher isn’t challenging him/her enough, or if your child didn’t make it into the honors level for next year and you just can’t sleep at night about it, or if they have So. Many. Friends… That you can’t invite them all to this awesome party you’re planning and what do you do? I’m going to go out on a limb and say you have it better than you think.
So back to my point. If you’re not in the trenches, you have a very important job. You don’t have to be one of those saints who invites the wild kid over and lies that my child “is just so lovable.” (Although, there are a few of you out there and I will never forget your kindness.) But if you could just try not to look horrified at our worst public meltdowns, that would be amazing. Bonus points for a smile. Because, when I’m driving home from an event that went awry, I remember the facial expressions I encountered. And the looks of shock and disgust hit that shame button like you wouldn’t believe.
I know that it can be tempting or reflexive to create some distance from that mom of the out-of-control kid, who doesn’t even look like she’s trying. I understand that we’ll never top some people’s lists of possible new friends.
I was guilty of that myself, back when I had two little girls who listened. I think I rationalized that if I seemed okay with bad behavior, I’d be condoning anarchy. But now I know I have the power to hold another mom up. A mom who may be close to the edge that day.
I cringe at the memory of turning away from vulnerable moms and pretending I didn’t see them. I cringe at all the yelling I did to avoid feeling shame. No apology to my children can undo that.
So when it comes to being a little more open to what you’re seeing, remember that if you’re not doing it for the mom, then do it for the child. And if not for the child, do it for yourself and your kids, because I guarantee that practicing that will help you recover the next time you’re overcome by the unavoidable grip of shame.
Heather McBride is a partner in The Pickup Line newsletter, a daily newsletter for moms delivered while they have a few free moments on line at school and sports pickup. Check it out at www.thepickupline.net.