Motherhood is a huge shame trigger for me. I know. It pains me to even type those words. Motherhood is a gift. And a treasure. And a life changing experience that should be valued and beloved. And for me, it is all of those things, most of the time. But sometimes, it’s my biggest shame trigger I have in my arsenal.
I didn’t coin that term, “shame trigger”. Of course it comes from the leading expert on shame and vulnerability and my new hero in life, Brene Brown. (In fact, just to be respectful and honest, this whole post employs her methods and research, so go check her out for the real deal.) Dr. Brown has spent decades researching and studying the phenomenon of shame. She has collected thousands of stories from thousands of people from all different walks of life and has discovered that shame is the culprit that stands most readily in our way in the pursuit of an emotionally healthy and functional life. Shame’s number one enemy is vulnerability. And to that end I have been doing my own little social experiment with vulnerability this year, but that is a post for another time.
Most people read the word, “shame” and associate it with something bad that happened to you. We think about traumatic experiences or deep dark secrets. And while shame can hide out in those obvious places, it is most usually found in the boring humdrum day to day of our lives. Dr. Brown describes shame most accurately as that moment that happens in life that you can physically feel. Someone says something to you in passing (or maybe in attack mode) and it triggers shame. Your face heats up. Your stomach drops. Maybe you feel like bursting into tears or punching a wall. Or maybe just crawling underneath a rock for a while. Shame has indadvertedly been triggered and our emotions (and sometimes our bodies) are going haywire trying to save face or fight back or simply survive. You can read more about this process and how to fight back or identify your own shame triggers by picking up any one of Brene Brown’s four books. Or even more simply, watch one of her two Ted Talks and get a quick shot in the arm.
Regardless, back to me, motherhood is one of my triggers. I’ve written before how motherhood is a constant battle for me. It stems down deep from spending most of my early adult life convinced I didn’t want kids and that I most certainly didn’t need them. BAM! Levi happens and I spent all 9 months of my pregnancy with him and most of the first year of his life doing battle with motherhood and most of the time, losing, resulting in my feeling insecure and lost. I have come a great distance in my 4 years of being a mom and I have had some great triumphs but because my fear that I lack the ability to be a good mom is one of my biggest insecurities, it can easily trigger huge shame in me from time to time.
It happened this week. A few weeks ago, one of Levi’s toenails fell off. We thought this was definitely odd but his shoes had been getting a little tight, because Lord help me, he WILL NOT stop outgrowing them, so we just chalked it up to small shoes, bought him some new ones and went on with our lives. Last weekend, one of Levi’s fingernails came off. Now THIS was alarming. Kid’s fingernails aren’t supposed to fall off. I’m not an expert but I’m pretty sure that’s true. I went to my go to research device, otherwise known as Google, and sought the advice of the always correct, never dramatic internet. Multiple searches led me to the same place: a vitamin deficiency. This, although painful to admit, seemed accurate enough. Levi eats nothing. That’s really not that far off of an exaggeration. I would give you a list of the things that he will eat except my shame is still hanging out at the surface and it would be unwise for me but its safe to say what he will eat you can count off on one hand and I can tell you there are very few fruits he will eat and absolutely no vegetables. On the rare occasions that we can coax/beg/guilt him into eating vegetables, he literally throws them back up about 10 minutes later. So I made this vitamin discovery. I felt shame creeping up but I shoved it back down because I didn’t want to deal with it and I figured I’d get him a multivitamin and all would be good.
We started the multivitamin this weekend and I felt pretty good about myself. Then Sunday night he got a fever. Not a huge deal. Lots of kids, including several good friends of ours, have gotten sick this week after starting the petrie dish that is school. The fever went in to day 2 and I started to feel a little nervous but no other symptoms were popping up so I toughed it out a little more before heading into Mom freakout mode. Then another fingernail came off. And then another. And then a toenail started to come off and I lost my…mind is the polite word here. I swooped him up and whisked him to the pediatrician.
After some thorough examination, it was determined that the fever was just a part of a virus that needed to play out and the fingernails? Well, that would be a pretty big lack of proper nutrition. The doctor was very kind and let me know that it was in no way my fault and that this was common amongst kids who are picky eaters and he was growing just fine and yada yada but my shame had been triggered and there was no stopping that freight train now. On top of all that, she gently let me know that until we identified what exactly he was deficient in and his nutrition improved, he was most likely going to pick up every little bug that came his way because his immune system isn’t exactly top notch.
Not only did I feel all of the physical manifestations of shame, like my face being on fire and my stomach twisted in knots, my emotional life was a wreck. It started with blame. I needed someone to blame. I blamed Levi for being a picky eater. I blamed Greg for not helping me figure this out. I blamed the IKEA Small Land we let Levi play in this weekend because its probably where he picked up the virus. Or his new school that is a lot larger than his previous school and also functions as a wonderful day care. And of course, I blamed myself. And that’s where the blame game stopped and the shame game kicked it up a notch.
This was all my fault. I don’t force him to eat better. I make his meals. I suggested we let him play in Small Land because I didn’t want to drag him all over the hell that is IKEA on a Saturday. I picked the new school. Etc etc etc.
The greatest and worst thing about motherhood is it can be an irrational place to live. The instinct that causes you to question the doctor when your gut says otherwise, or to ignore the wisdom of well read books or well meaning friend’s advice because you know your kid, that kind of “irrationality” is GOOD. More so than irrationality, it’s instinct. No one can deny a mother’s instinct, it’s crazy spooky how spot on it can be. But the dark side to that instinct is irrationality. We take on blame that isn’t ours. We blame ourselves for our kid’s sicknesses, their unhappiness or, as they get older, their hard falls and mistakes. That’s not instinct, that’s irrational, and it leads you straight to the door of shame.
So I got Levi home from the doctor, let everyone know who had expressed concern what the game plan was and called Greg to give him the update. He instantly knew where my emotional spiral was going. Without me even having to admit it, he said, “You know this isn’t your fault, right?” I then proceeded to sob on the phone with him all the ways that it was in fact my fault. He listened lovingly, countered all my points excellently but wisely realized I needed to play the shame game out.
And I did. I sat on the couch for a while and felt the brunt of my shame. I sat in its ugliness and felt its pain. I cried and I probably snapped at Levi a time or two. And then I started getting real with my shame. I started asking it questions about the “Truth” it was shouting to me. Did I really make all those decisions on my own? No, Greg was right there with me the entire time. And to take him out of the equation in the replay of events is unfair to me and insulting to him. We parent Levi together. We make decisions together. I started turning the accusatory “I’s” in my thinking to the communal and comforting “We”. Shame has a hard time existing when you start to take away blame.
Did I know that Levi needed a better diet? Yes, I did. And I did what I knew would be the best decision of getting him on a better road nutritionally. I got him a multivitamin in the short term and got him to a doctor to figure out the long term. I could have done a better job addressing this problem earlier, but now that we know, Greg and I and Levi’s doctor can come up with a better plan to get him back on track.
When I allowed myself to sit in the shame and feel it all out, I gave myself the freedom to start being curious about its origins and the so-called Truth it wanted me to believe. And asking those questions and changing some of my thinking lead me to the real Truth: I am a good mom. I make good decisions for Levi. I mess up sometimes, but that’s what makes me human and being a human is a good thing.
Ultimately, I won this battle with the shame game. Who knows if I will succeed next time but worrying about the next time isn’t what keeps you healthy. Celebrating a success and learning from your mistakes, that’s what keeps you moving forward.
Also, I am learning how to hide all sorts of vegetables in muffins that Levi will eat. So that helps, too.