The Trouble With Conscious Parenting in an Unconscious Culture
Every day in my work, I witness the struggles of creative, progressive, self-aware, growth-oriented mothers who would do anything to ensure the wellbeing of their families. These women are incredibly attuned with the needs of their children, have read impressive numbers of self-help, spiritual growth, and parenting books, and are doing their very best to practice self-care in order to be able to “keep up” with “all the things.” Yet for all of their efforting, the majority of these mothers have something seriously heartbreaking in common:
A felt sense of inadequacy. A sense that no matter how much they do or how consciously they parent, it will never be enough.
Enough to ensure that their children will be protected from the harshness and dysfunctions of our culture.
Enough to promote their children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness within a society which actively breeds the opposite.
Enough to feel that they are making a true difference toward alleviating at least a bit of the world’s suffering.
Enough to feel at peace, at ease, and whole as women and mothers.
The irony is that, as a whole, today’s mothers are more invested, more intentional, and more “conscious” in our parenting choices than ever.
A look at the subject of discipline, alone, is enough to illuminate this truth:
As soon as our babies are born (if not sooner), we begin educating ourselves and stocking our tool kits with a host of seemingly gentler, more thoughtful, and more creative approaches than the yelling, spanking, ignoring, shaming, and depriving that shaped many of our own childhood experiences. Determined to create healthier family systems, we learn about forming secure attachments, identifying underlying needs, reasoning, using humor, honoring feelings, putting ourselves in time out, spelling out consequences ahead of time, rewarding positive behavior, and thinking in terms of connection rather than control. We adjust for the temperaments and needs of each child, try and make sure they’re getting enough time outside, and budget for alternative therapies best we can.
The list goes on and on.
Yet despite our very best efforts (in discipline and/or any other realm), the reality of modern-day parenting often feels more daunting and discouraging than gentle, conscious, or creative. I’d bet my dream farm that if we were to get a glimpse into the majority of households in our neighborhoods, we’d see that even the most heart-centered parents are yelling more than they’re proud of, occasionally spanking, shaming, or exploding in moments of utter exhaustion, and trying with everything in them to figure out what to do with their poorly behaving, screen-addicted, and/or depressed and anxious kids.
I know this because I hear your stories every day, sweet, wonderful mothers. I know this, too, because I count myself among you.
For all the progress we’ve made as a culture toward protecting and supporting our children’s well-being and development, parents now seem to be struggling more than ever.
In fact, the more “conscious” we become, the worse many of us seem to feel about ourselves.
What’s going on? How can we be investing so much and so intentionally in our families, while simultaneously feeling more collectively overwhelmed and inadequate than ever?
Are we simply not yet conscious enough?
I have a different theory.
I believe that the trouble with “conscious” parenting is that it’s idealistic, which means that it’s raised the bar immensely on what parents perceive to be possible. A picture has been painted for us of a connected, holistic, spiritually reciprocal relationship with our children. One in which we draw from our most authentic, soulful selves in order to honor, protect, and foster the authentic, soulful expression of our children.
So beautiful, right?
It is beautiful, as an ideal. It also has the potential to be incredibly disempowering and discouraging for millions of parents (particularly mothers, who are still responsible for the vast majority of day-to-day childcare) unless we also recognize how far we are culturally from the circumstances that would best support this ideal. Without this recognition, those of us attempting to achieve such lofty ideals are being set up for failure, or at least the perception that we are failing.
Increasing expectations of health and thriving while decreasing support structures simply goes against the laws of nature. We wouldn’t cut a tree from its roots and expect it to produce even more shade or fruit than when it was connected to its source of stability and nourishment.
In order to do and be more than ever before, parents need more support than ever, not less, which is what we are faced with in the absence of grandparents in our homes, alloparents in our communities, and packs of roaming children in our neighborhoods.
The first article that came up when I googled “conscious parenting” offered the following principles as a guide:
Reconsider your requests.
Stay focused on your long-term goals.
Put your relationship first.
Change how you see not just how you act.
Talk less, ask more.
Be mindful of your child’s age.
Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.
Don’t stick to no’s unnecessarily.
Don’t be rigid.
Don’t be in a hurry.
Again, beautiful, right? There’s not an item on this list that I disagree with, in theory, but achieving these ideals our day-to-day lives is a completely different story.
Let’s take a look at a few of the items on that list, not idealistically, but practically speaking:
The ability to be reflective requires alone time (or at least occasional silence).
The ability to stay focused on our long-term goals requires that we not be managing constant immediate needs and frequent crises.
The ability to put our relationship first requires that there’s enough money coming in to keep us from stressing about paying rent and putting food on the table.
The ability to be respectful requires that we’re getting adequate sleep.
The ability to not be in hurry requires that we a culture that values presence and wellness over productivity and efficiency.
Every one of these points describes the opposite of most mothers’ daily realities, particularly the most disadvantaged mothers among us, who also navigate racial, economic, and gender inequalities on the daily.
To expect increased consciousness, increased emotional labor, and increased everyday investment of time and energy from perhaps the single most overworked, sleep deprived, emotionally drained, under-appreciated demographic within any culture is to perpetuate the narrative that a mother’s worth is based on her ability to endure suffering and deprivation for the sake of others.
Until more mothers stand up for and honor their own needs and desires, this narrative will continue to present itself, morphing with the times and changing form to fill in the cultural cracks that mothers’ self-sacrifice has always filled. Until we begin to organize our lives around not just our children’s worthiness, but our own, mothers will continue to bear the brunt of cultural pain and dysfunction. Such burden adds immensely to our individual and collective sense of disempowerment, and keeps us from rising to our rightful place in the natural, balanced, and vibrant order of things.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for the brilliant, essential work of people like Shefali Tsabary (author of The Conscious Parent) who are revolutionizing parenting and child development. When Tsabury proclaims that “Parental metamorphosis is the key to a leap in human consciousness,” I want to stand up and holler “amen!” and “hallelujah!”.
But I also cringe for exhausted mamas everywhere when I read statements such as this one:
“Conscious parenting is more than applying clever strategies. It’s an entire life philosophy involving a process that has the power to transform both parent and child on an elemental level. The only meaningful way for a parent and child to relate is as spiritual partners, in mutual spiritual advancement.”
Because let’s be honest: most parents are too fried from full-time jobs, stressed partnerships, financial pressures, and out-of-control children to even begin to think about what it might mean to be their child’s spiritual partner.
And as wonderful as this sounds:
“As you muster the courage to abandon the control inherent in a hierarchical approach and step into the spiritual potential of a circular parent/child dynamic, you will find yourself increasingly free of conflict and power struggles,”
…I believe it’s a setup for deeply felt inadequacy unless we follow it up with:
“…assuming you’ve gotten adequate sleep, you aren’t so broke that you can’t pay your bills, you’re feeling well resourced and supported by your local community, your children are all neurotypical, and your own soul is being frequently fed.”
If we’re going to ask parents to enter into a spiritual partnership with their children, we also need to educate them about how impossible this can feel within a culture that holds families with so little reverence.
If we’re going to ask parents to stop spanking and yelling at their kids, we’ve got to address the epidemic of overwhelmedness plaguing isolated, exhausted parents from all demographics.
If it’s a truly evolved cultural consciousness we’re attempting to cultivate, we must create conditions that ensure the thriving of those doing the heaviest lifting.
Today’s mothers are carrying a hugely disproportionate burden along the path to greater cultural consciousness. We don’t merely have babies on our hips, we also haul around guilt, shame, self-doubt, and countless other stressors that we’ve been conditioned to believe we must carry in order to be deemed worthy of even a sliver of happiness, inner peace, recognition, or reward for our efforts.
It is our work as awakening women to examine the consequences of this conditioning, to decide what it’s time we let go of, and to imagine what might be possible if the world’s mothers were revered, respected and well-resourced.
Conscious parenting is a beautiful concept. And, in order for it to be sustainable, feel accessible, and truly revolutionize human development, the needs and wellbeing of those being called to show up consciously must be honored right alongside the needs of those of the children we’re striving to protect and nurture.
We need way more part-time jobs with benefits.
We need rich communities full of children playing in streets and parks like when we were kids.
We need places where we can be honest and real and open about our experiences without fear of judgment and ostracization.
We need to destigmatize the asking for and hiring of help.
We need more intergenerational connections and mentorship.
We need more rites of passage and ceremonial celebration of milestones and natural progressions.
We need more focus on wholeness and healing and less focus on the perfecting of parenting paradigms.
By all means, parent with as much consciousness as you can muster. Learn as much as you can about the shape of your children’s tender young souls and requirements for thriving. Enter into a spiritual contract with your kids and you will no doubt add richness and meaning to the rest of your days. And as you’re making the seemingly-impossible, heart-wrenching choices that growth will inevitably ask of you, please remember this, dear mama:
The path to greater consciousness isn’t lit by perfection, but by soul expression. Learn to nourish, protect, and support the tender young soul within yourself with as much dedication and devotion as you have for your children, and we’ll all benefit from your radiance. We all benefit from mothers rising.
With endless respect and reverence…