There are good days, and there are bad days. Several months ago, I had a really bad day. It likely had something to do with a teething baby, sleep deprivation, and having all four kids at home for the day. Whatever the reason, I was feeling hard-pressed to juggle my household responsibilities along with my children’s competing needs and demands. By 3 p.m. I had lost all patience and virtuosity and by 5 p.m. I was lying on the kitchen floor, sobbing uncontrollably while I nursed the baby and my two-year-old played leapfrog over my outstretched legs.

“Why are you crying, Mama?” asked my four-year-old son as he peered over my shoulder with compassionate curiosity.

“Because,” I managed in between sobs, “I don’t think I’m doing a very good job.”

“Mama,” he replied, “you are doing a very good job. Now stop crying and be happy.”

Out of the mouth of babes. “You are doing a very good job.” How many of us as parents take the time to stop and commend ourselves with those words?

As a thinker, I enjoy molding and bending thoughts into different ideas and possibilities. Mostly it’s fun, except when it comes to the arena of parenting my own children; then the boxing gloves go on and I find myself face to face with my worst enemy—my internal critic. We have regular matches and once in the ring bound by insecurity, self-doubt and feelings of “not-enoughness,” I find myself easily thrown off my centre and flung repeatedly against the ropes. I feel worn down and drained by the “should haves” and “could haves” and blameworthy for all of my children’s thoughts and actions. The announcer blares “How have you scarred them?” “It’s all your fault.” “What did you do wrong?” My internal critic is a merciless opponent, taking shots below the belt with some solid jabs of shame and judgment and often leaving me in a FOG or “Fatigue, Overwhelm and Guilt” (a term coined by Linda Kavelin-Popov in The Pace of Grace).

I know that I am not alone when it comes to this sort of personal flogging. Why are we so hard on ourselves as parents? How can we see past the FOG to a more constructive and optimistic forecast?

Take a load off
As we watch our children grow into themselves, my husband and I frequently remark on how they all seem to have “come out of the box” with their personalities. This recognition validates my skepticism of the “tabula rasa theory”—the human mind at birth is not a blank slate. Yet in spite of this knowledge, I still have to guard against mapping out my children’s future and filling their “slate” with my projections as well as all the desires that I have for them. The focus on “creating a masterpiece” can often result in inflated expectations, burdening us parents with a tremendous amount of performance pressure, need for success and fear of failure.

In his booked entitled Selfish Reasons to Have More Children, economist Bryan Caplan contends we would all consider having more children if it didn’t seem like so much work both physically and mentally. Much of this resistance lies in the fact that parents grossly overestimate the influence they have over their children’s traits, believing that they have control over the outcome. Micro-management and the pressure to produce results can be stressful and draining for everyone involved. In argument, Caplan refers to twin and adoption studies, which indicate that much of the credit for our children’s health, intelligence and happiness is owed to nature. While I believe that the relationship between nature and nurture is an interplay between the two, Bryan Caplan’s case provides some relief and comfort for those of us on the extreme end of the spectrum who fall into the trap of hyper-parenting.

Parenting needs to be viewed as a process, with children as co-creators as opposed to “products.” When we recognize that we can’t control our children, we lighten the load that we carry. Should we still feel overwhelmed and find ourselves in the ring with our internal critic, we need to give our shoulders a massage, call on the virtue of detachment, and companion ourselves by asking:

• What does “being a good parent” look like?

• What does “doing a good job” look like?

• What type of influence can I have?

• How do I nurture my children’s nature?”

Change your mindset
“Savour the experience, it goes by fast.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard these words from people nostalgic of my life with a young family. And it’s true—as quickly as their cuts, bumps and bruises heal, I literally see my children developing physically, cognitively and emotionally. Relatively, I feel “full grown.” However, I have to remind myself that learning is lifelong and while my children are developing, I too continue to develop. I realize that the illusion of being full grown has left me vulnerable as a parent to what author Carol Dweck in her book Mindset calls a “fixed mindset.”

According to Dweck, when we as parents adopt a fixed mindset, we believe that our basic qualities and traits, such as our intelligence or talents, cannot be changed. As a result, our energies become focused on documenting our intelligence and talents instead of developing them. We tend to:

• Look outside of ourselves for approval and to shore up our self-esteem.

• Make comparisons and become critical of others as a means of validation.

• Worry constantly whether we are adequate or not, trying to prove ourselves and live up to the image that we have defined.

The danger of a fixed mindset is that our own actions and reactions, as well as those of our children, soon become a direct measure of competence and worth. When things go wrong, we feel powerless, incapable and sometimes depressed.

We can rise to the challenge of parenting in a confident and truthful manner by instead assuming what Dweck refers to as “a growth mindset.” When we as parents embrace a growth mindset we:

• Allow ourselves to be human, to make mistakes and to be imperfect.

• Recognize teachable moments and life’s lessons as they unfold.

• Take risks without the fear that we may shatter a fixed image of ourselves should we fail.

• Pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off when we make mistakes.

• Get excited about ways that we can do better the next time.

With a growth mindset, self-improvement as a parent involves tracking our own individual change over time. We follow our own trend line, our own course. What other parents are doing does not become a reflection of what we are or what we are not. Instead, we keep our insecurities in check, honour that there are different paths, and perhaps even take advantage of the opportunity to learn from one another. In this way, we become more supportive of each other as parents. We also become more supportive of ourselves and of our children.

Parent yourself as you parent your children
When I think back to all the research and reading that I have done and continue to do, as both an educator and a parent, I realize that regardless of philosophy or approach, there are several underlying commonalities that promote self-esteem and self-efficacy in children:

• Blame the action, not the person

• Focus on the do’s not the don’ts

• Reinforce progress

• Celebrate successes

• Provide unconditional positive regard and love.

What does it look like when we apply these same rules to ourselves? We as parents need to pause and consider ourselves through the same loving lens that we see our children.

I have called a truce with my internal critic. I am trying hard to live by the expression, “Mother yourself as you mother your children.” Being a good parent doesn’t mean getting it right all of the time. Parenting is full of challenges and many times it can feel like we are wallowing and sometimes even sinking in mud. However, when we call upon humility and acceptance to help us recognize the teachable moments in our experiences, we can appreciate the luxury of a mud treatment that sloughs off our old skin and renews us into greater self-awareness.

I know that I am being a good parent so long as I am willing to learn. My new mantra in life is, “It’s not what you did or didn’t do, it’s what you do next.” I accept that I will have many “terrible, horrible, no good very bad days.” On these days, I can take comfort in the fact that, in being mindful and conscientious, I will awake the next morning with the chance to start over. It is one of the best lessons and most important influences that I can have with my children.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” at CFSI 107.9 FM or online at web link.