Dear Maxine,

My mum says she feels like she can’t talk to me about parenting because I take it as criticism and she’s not wrong, I do feel criticised when we speak about what I’m doing with my baby. This upsets my mum because she says she’s been looking forward to discussing parenting for years and she can’t do this because I get ‘defensive’. As a result, I end up feeling bad.

To give you an example, I co-sleep with my baby. This wasn’t what I had intended and it’s happened out of necessity – it’s the only way to get him to sleep well. I’m happy enough with this arrangement but am also aware that it’s not what everyone else does and it wasn’t what I’d envisioned. When I speak about co-sleeping with my mum, she says that she had all of her children sleeping in their own rooms at 6 weeks. This leaves me feeling bad because I feel it implies that I am lacking in some way. I can’t understand why else she would say it.

Thanks for your time.

Dear follower,

Thank you for getting in touch. From experience, I can tell you that this is not an unusual problem. Parenting is a minefield and everyone seems to have an opinion. It sounds like it feels pretty exhausting for you to be on constant ‘high alert’ to criticism, added to the fact that your baby is not a ‘sleeper’. That’s going to take its toll.

There’s a few areas for us to think about here:

  1. How do you feel about your parenting?
  2. What do you think your mum’s intention is?
  3. How could you respond in situations where these feelings arise?

1. How do you feel about your parenting?

Generally, defensiveness is a natural response to a perceived attack. When something is trying to hurt us or violate our boundaries, we have to ‘defend’ ourselves against it. While it’s sometimes accurate that we’re being attacked, at other times, this is more to do with our perception and what’s going on inside ourselves. This is why different people have different reactions to the same thing.

Have you ever noticed that the more we criticise ourselves, the more we feel like everyone else is criticising us? So, what is it that you think you’re doing ‘wrong’ as a parent? If you lay all the things you do out, what are the things that you feel uncertain about? That you’re not so proud of? This is a really challenging thing to ask you to do. It requires being really honest and really kind to yourself. We can’t be honest about our perceived shortcomings if we think we’re going to be criticised, even if that criticism is coming from within.

I’m really thinking about that part of you that had a picture of what being a parent was going to look like. Where did that picture come from? What informed it? Try to avoid the tendency to say ‘of course, I knew it wasn’t actually going to be like that’, and just be open with yourself. What were you expecting? What did you think a ‘good’ parent did? How about how children of ‘good’ parents behaved? What about of a ‘bad’ parent? Of course, we want to stay away from judgment, but I imagine that judgment is already going on within you so let’s bring it out in the open.

Was it something like, ‘if I’m a ‘good’ parent, that will be reflected in my child’s behaviour and, therefore, my child will sleep, eat and play in ways that are convenient and pleasing to everyone’? I think that’s a fairly ubiquitous belief. Until you have children, it’s easy to believe that ‘good’ children come from ‘good’ parents and ‘bad’ children from ‘bad’ parents.

So, what is it that your baby is doing that means that you are a ‘bad’ parent? If that feels too critical of your baby, how about this: what would your baby do that would reassure you that you are a brilliant parent?

Why do you think that is? Where do those beliefs come from? What is your understanding of a baby’s natural sleeping, eating, playing, development? Is there a chance that what your baby is doing is actually totally biologically normal and society has got it wrong in terms of what to expect from babies?

Is it that you know all of this on one level and on another level you still fear you’re doing something wrong?

Why do you think that is? What’s fuelling that fear? Is that a more general tendency that you have to second guess yourself? What would it be like to feel confident in yourself as a parent, regardless of what your baby does? What would it take for you to feel confident in yourself generally? Even proud of yourself? Proud to be you? How long are you going to make yourself live under the cloud of ‘never good enough’? What might give you permission to feel more than good enough?

2. What do you think is going on for your mum?

This can be tricky. It requires you take a step back, breathe and reflect on the positive interactions you’ve had with your mum (if there are any) as well as the negative.

What do you think she thinks about you as a parent? How do you think she feels about you becoming a parent? What do you think the effect of seeing you doing it so differently is on her? Is there a chance that she feels criticised by your actions? Could she be feeling uncertain about what she did, because you’re doing something so different?

What do you think she thinks about her own parenting choices? Are they the only way to do it in her mind? Or is she open to difference and learning?

Are you picking up on defensiveness about her own parenting on her part or is your own inner-critic being triggered? Or both? If this is criticism, why do you think it’s happening? Is it that it’s not a conscious intention but one that’s coming out because she’s feeling ‘bad’ about her own parenting? Is it that she is generally very critical and this is the only way she knows how to interact?

If her intention is not actually to criticise, what do you think it is? How has difference been modeled in your family in the past? Has it been tolerated? Celebrated? Or pushed away? If it’s anything other than celebrated, it’s not surprising that you’re finding comments of difference challenging.

3. How could you respond in situations where these feelings arise?

This is going to require you to take care of yourself, first. (As with all things, always!) Notice what’s happening in you.

Slow your breathing.

Breathe out more than you breathe in.

Have some things to say to yourself.

‘I’m being triggered now’

‘I need kindness and acceptance’

‘What I’m thinking is happening is not actually reality – my mum doesn’t actually think I’m a terrible mum, that’s my interpretation’

‘I need a minute to keep breathing out’

Check in with how you’re feeling. What’s coming up. I wonder whether there’s a lot of fear or sadness there. Is there some space to let that out?

Once you’ve soothed yourself, be curious.

‘What made you have us all sleeping in our own beds by 6 weeks?’

‘Were you happy about that?’

‘Is that what you wanted to do or did you want to do something different?’

‘What do you think about the advice we get now?’ (Be careful with this one, there’s the chance it might not be positive so remember, this is not a reflection of you as a parent)

If you really can’t work out what’s going on you can always ask, ‘what made you say that?’. Another one to be careful with, if you’re feeling angry, it’s not going to open up a reflective conversation. However, if you’re actually open to listening and feeling safe and curious, it might be quite beneficial.

How are you feeling now?

What are your thoughts?

I’d love to hear what you think and what other strategies you’ve developed, let me know in the comments below, on Facebook or Instagram.