Since becoming a mother, I cannot count the number of times people have said this to me. “Don’t be so hard on yourself” they say, when I say how I wish I could be more patient with my children, or whatever. Usually this is followed by, “You’re a great mother!” Well-intentioned people who love me see me feeling bad about one thing or another and they want to reassure and cheer me. I am hearing it less these days, and I wonder if it’s because most people can see that I am not all that hard on myself really. I mean, come and have a look at my house, the non-ironed state of my clothes, and the detritus in my garden and you will know that I’ve relaxed rather a lot….
I was tempted this week to say these words to a friend of mine who was beating herself up about an honest mistake. I refrained because I knew they wouldn’t help her. I must admit I have always felt uncomfortable with this phrase. Whenever someone said it to me it always seemed as though they were minimising my frustrations, not really listening to me. Instead of understanding how I felt it seemed that they felt uncomfortable with my feelings, and their way of dealing with it was to pat me on the head and tell me to stop being so hard on myself. Yes, they were trying to be nice. But sometimes when we’re being nice we’re not really listening (“It’s not as bad as all that!”) or connecting (“I’m sure you don’t mean that!”), and instead of communicating we are putting up barriers to communication.
I want to do my very best at everything I lay my hands to. I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with that… to a point. For example, when my first child was a baby and I mentioned to my health visitor that I was struggling to coax her into eating solid foods, she said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Most mothers would just mix up a bit of gravy and stir that into the pureed food and then their babies would eat it.” Well I certainly was not going to do that. I knew full well that gravy granules had much more salt than my baby needed… and why add a condiment to a food just to get a child to eat it? Nope, on that point I could not compromise. But if stressing about solid foods was ruining my enjoyment of my baby, then yes, I take the point: why not relax a bit?
It is easy to get wrapped up in what ifs and should-have-dones. Sometimes I open my mouth and out comes something I should have kept to myself…. Later, I might wonder why I said such a stupid thing, how could I have been so insensitive, etc. I would spend much of my mental energy rehearsing what I should have said or should have done. Whether it’s another mother in the playground or an interaction with my child, I would often say the wrong thing and wish that I could rub out the words in the speech bubble above my head.
Recently I have found that I have been holding on to thoughts less and less about what I should have done or said. No one seems to tell me not to be so hard on myself anymore. (Maybe they’ve stopped speaking to me because of that ignorant thing I said two weeks ago! Or maybe they’ve noticed how quickly I clam up when I hear this phrase!) I seem to be doing something miraculous: I am letting myself be human.
In order to tenderise and soften the most expensive beef in the world, farmers in Kobe, Japan, give their cattle a daily massage. I feel as though family life has given me a tenderising massage on a daily basis. Where I once had sinuous, stringy, tense muscles I now have a soft and tender heart. Where I once had high standards and the desire to ‘succeed’ I now have an “it doesn’t matter” attitude and am able to let upsetting things go. The first thing I have let go of is my irritation on hearing that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. People are just trying to be nice. Most people don’t realise that they are minimising another person’s struggles, fears and frustrations when they say these words; they think they are being kind and helpful. So Lisa, stop being so uptight about it. Does it really matter?
The single biggest thing that has helped me is a sense of perspective. I often wonder, “Will this matter this time next week/month/year?” Usually the answer is no. Or I telescope my awareness away from myself and see myself as a miniscule human being stuck to a revolving Earth only by gravity… in my mind’s eye, I see the blue planet we live on and I cannot even see myself on it, such is my insignificance. In the great scheme of things, how much do my daily ups and downs really matter? And finally, one thing that helps me enormously is to focus on my children: touch the softness of their forearms, compare the size of their hands with my own, notice the soft downy fluff on my toddler’s cheeks and the sprinkling of freckles across my six year old’s nose. It doesn’t take much to bring myself back into the present these days and away from thoughts about how I should have acted in the past.
The past is gone; this moment is here, but not for long. Time is fleeting. Where has it gone? And what’s the point in wasting it dwelling in the past when my children are here and now?
© Lisa Hassan Scott 2012. For reprint permission contact the copyright holder.