Trying to Parent While Parenting Myself: Single Mom; A Society of Disguised Obedience

I’m feeling very passionate about parenting right now. The last month of my life, I took an unexpected month long sabbatical to support my 21-year-old son through a difficult time; a process that will require patience, self-control, love, understanding, and empathic guidance. All attributes I’m trying my best to develop for myself and the relationships I care deeply about.

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to explore my intentions of growth through this challenge. As a 72 year-old author wrote in her memoir, “you never get used to the fact that you can still go another inch farther out on the limb of self-revelation, and with that self-exposure.” This experience is a call to reveal more of my truest desires —life enriching principles that support my children’s development and support full integration of my expanding personal values.

It’s time to reimagine our family dynamic and rewrite the stories of our future together, again. There’s so much I would love to see different and with that a lot to review and re-work. What kind of relationship do I want to continue building with my children? How can I ensure they will experience happiness, bodily and mental health, academic and career success, and relational fulfillment? This question beseeches me to review my relationship with obedience.

I imagine scores of people can relate to my story. The story of respect. But it’s not quite respect and you’ll see why.

I recall when a younger adult version of me despised the idea of respect. I didn’t understand why. The word uttered out of my parents mouths made my body flicker into a rage and devoured my senses with loathing and disgust. How dare they demand respect as if it is an honor granted simply for existing? What I thought I knew about respect was slowly coming apart. The more I paid attention to how my body reacted with the mere mention of the word, the more the dark underbelly of my beliefs were revealed. This self-awareness jolted some subconscious doors unlocked and I began to realize what I thought of as respect was infact disguised obedience; a rule to behave and act accordingly or else. Or else was the control and the fear was physical punishment, humiliation, dismissal, or worse becoming unlovable.

It has been and still is a DEEP unraveling for me – differentiating respect and obedience. I find myself challenged to undo the habits of expected obedience with punishment. The pattern of harshly expecting of myself without grace or self-love, the idea that I must suffer continues to play in the record of my behavior and has, at times, grievously become a demand on my own children.

As a person who chooses to live consciously, this unraveling is unsettling. A healthy one. It pushes me against sharp edges; the edges I desire to mold into a safe container for myself and my family. If I do not stop to notice the discomfort, I can easily fold back into the familiar yet painful reality of dysfunction, co-dependency and need for control. If I do not stop to notice, I deny and sabotage a very impressive truth – noticing IS progress. There’s room for celebration, though, the inner critic will scream, “you’re not fast enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not doing enough, you’re not doing it right!

If contempt and punishment was the go-to approach from my parents growing up, which it was, it will take practice and self-control to build a new habit as an adult to ensure the trauma cycle is broken. It’s not easy to give up the familiar. Logically, yes, simple and easy to be aware of yet this character ‘obedience-as-respect’ demands to be seen. So, I want to take a look and unveil this salacious character trait. Truth is, demanding respect is nothing short of expecting your children or anyone to obey you the instant you want something. In the role of mother, it sounds a lot like:

“Take your right now —stop playing around!”or “We have to leave and you’re taking too long—hurry up!” or “What’s the matter with you, you left the lights on again?! What did I tell you, electricity equals money.” or “Don’t talk that way, you’re being rude and disrespectful!”

As I’m learning from reading several books, there are numerous categories in which a parent (caregiver) can minimize or deny a child’s opportunity to learn:

Denying a child’s feelings: There’s no reason to be upset. You should just suck it up.
Philosophical response: Life isn’t always easy, you have to take the good with the bad.
Advice: I think you should do this instead.
Questions: Didn’t you realize you were going to be late?
Defense of others: I would have been mad if you said that to me, too

If I catch myself speaking carelessly to my children—I choose a long pause and sometimes fail. I find difficulty in unearthing a healthy language in the heat of the moment. While it’s known that repetition is key (practice, practice, practice), I’m feeling adament to remind myself of the harm and incompatable value ‘obedience’ that is conjoined with punishment plays in my parenting routine. I’ve incoporated a mix of knowlege acquired from books I’ve read to compose the following:

  • Obedience promotes coercion over choice
  • Obedience denies dignity, self-respect, and value 
  • Obedience treats a child like a burden over being loved
  • Obedience produces shame and/or guilt over self-esteem 
  • Obedience instills a sense of powerlessness over self-reliance
  • Obedience teaches helplessness by avoiding mistakes rather than learn from them

In this vein of reality, obedience does not allow an individual ‘to matter’, to have feelings, to share themselves openly, to learn from their mistakes. They cannot bridge a sense of worth and belonging and suffer long-term consequences as trust in their ability to think for themselves is short-circuited. Internal self-control is minimal, self esteem and confidence is fragmented, and it can show up in teenagehood and in adulthood in the following ways:

  • Unable to communicate openly and understand feelings – bottles up feelings resulting in a ‘blow out’ later
  • Attempts to please others – others are always first
  • Perfectionist – ideas and projects won’t see the light of completion because it has to be perfect
  • Possible complication with addiction – food, drugs, video games (anything can become excessive)
  • Self-loathing, self-hatred – can evolve into self-harm and suicidial ideation

If I yell, threaten or treat my children or anyone disrespectfully I cannot expect them to be respectful. So, how then can I help my children develop mental and emotional acuity? The antithesis of obedience and punishment is empathy and choice. Empathy increases connection and supports a child and/or adult to move through stuck emotions and connection encourages them to recognize who they are, who they are becoming, and to choose purposeful, intentional living.

There are several online resources on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) that present a healthy amount of alternatives and scripts that are worthy of exploration and study. You can learn more about SEL and parenting with the books I’ve listed below. I’ve read each of these books and oftentimes repeat them, print out notes, and use the concepts as much as possible. It’s a process so be gentle with it and feel free to send me a note or reach out if you’d like support in any way.

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