Shame: a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
My son Mason is 14 years old. He is the oldest of my children that I gave birth to. He has an adopted sister who is now 23 years old, her name is Meg. He also has two younger sisters, Avery, 12 years old, and Harper, who is 8. I can honestly say, as can most every parent, that I have done the best I could, with what resources and energy I have had available from day to day, and circumstance to circumstance. I have loved my children intensely and sometimes that is messy! There have been times when I have looked back and wanted to do moments over because my reactions to a behavior or event were less about any wrong doing on their part, and more about my old wounds and stories, my self judging and shame spilling over onto them.
This is what I will refer to as "the usual shame". I got this terminology from one of my teachers while on retreat. She was talking about some of her recent life events and became tearful. The rest of the group clearly wanted to comfort her and she said, "Oh don't worry, it's just the usual shame." When she said this we all started to laugh, and she did too. We laughed because we all knew exactly what she was talking about, and she brought us into togetherness with that expression. Her words like arms pulling us close to each other in deep human understanding.
Later as I thought about those words "the usual shame", I was brought back to an event that had happened just a week earlier.
I was with my kids in Milwaukee visiting my sister and her family. I went to high school in Milwaukee, and so I still have some friends from school who live there as well. I made arrangements to meet up with a couple of those friends, one single and one married with two kids. We decided to do a picnic dinner in a park and my sister and her family came along as well.
Now my sister has three boys, 7 years old or younger. Jack, the eldest, is 7 and is on the autism spectrum. Jack is a delightful kid, funny and smart, but he can't tolerate certain certain things and struggles in some social situations.
When we arrived at the park the kids headed off to the playground and the grown ups sat down to chat. The kids would play a bit and then come around to hang with us and have some food. Mason was playing quite happily with Jack over on the playground.
At one point I look over, and I see Mason struggling to carry Jack, as Jack cried and flailed. Mason was eventually able to deliver Jack into my sisters arms, and she took Jack off to the side to comfort him. Mason made his way to the table where I was sitting with my friends and a few of the kids.
I asked him what had happened to Jack? He said that two little girls had been teasing Jack and chasing him, and that both he and Jack had asked them to stop because it was making Jack uncomfortable and upset, but the girls would not stop so Jack had picked up a rock and thrown it at them. The girls rushed off and told their mother.
Mason then described how the mother came after Jack and began to scold him. Mason said he told the mother to leave Jack alone, that it was not his fault, and that he has Aspergers and he can't be blamed. Her daughters wouldn't stop teasing even when they asked them to stop.
I felt so proud of Mason as he told of his heroic defense of his little cousin. I found myself thinking about how good of a mother I am, and how impressed my friends must be.
Then Mason said, in front of my friends and their children, "Mom, that lady was an asshole!" I felt a bolt of horrified shock run through me, and my girlfriend's husbands' eyes grew wide. I said, "Mason that is not appropriate language, and there are little kids here!" So he said, "OK, she was a butthole then!"
( I did not laugh at this at the time, believe me, but I do now, and so can you.)
I looked at the shocked father sitting across from me, and I felt the usual shame pouring through me, a wave of defeat and self deprecation, and an impulse to punish Mason for this wrong doing. I apologized to the dad that Mason had used bad language in front of his little ones, but added, "He is a 14 year old boy." The father replied, "And does that make it OK?" I meekly said, "No, it doesn't."
Just after that it was time to go, we all packed up and went on our way. My mind was still reeling and tumbling with guilt and hurt, but it shifted away from needing to make Mason wrong, and I saw how this feeling was coming from a well of old wounds and pains, the usual shame, it was really about me, me being flawed, me being a failure, me not making the grade.
By the time we got back to my sister's house I had decided that Mason deserved that badge of heroism despite his slip of the tongue, which only showed how fiercely he felt about defending his cousin. I saw the goodness in him, his strength, and how he was stepping into being a man, and a great one at that. A great man defends those weaker or smaller than himself, even in the face of authority.
How often do we punish our children, not because they are really doing something "wrong", but because they are bringing up pieces of old baggage and touching old wounds that send our egos howling? How often do we punish them for being completely appropriate for children, but the environment, as well as social dictates and pressures are harsh and unforgiving? How often is it really about us as parents and our own fragile self images versus a real behavior issue? I am not saying children should not be disciplined. I am saying perhaps a closer inspection of where the impulse to punish or correct is coming from, and how we as parents choose to implement it, is needed.
In this instance I saw through "the usual shame", which made me reactive, and incited a punitive impulse toward my son, and I arrived at a new place of love and tenderness. I saw the "right" of my son, his right to act, to express, his right to be fierce and bold, demonstrative. Honestly there was nothing to fix. I had a brief talk with him about using expletives in public, and especially around little ones, but I also told him how very proud I was of what he had done for Jack, and how special it is to be a person who stands up for others.
I think, wow, what a world we would create if we had a new paradigm of parenting free of "the usual shame"! What if we could all gather together in love and honesty, have that laugh and cry, be in a deeper human understanding together? What if the parents re parented themselves and shifted out of oppressive strictness and into compassionate awareness?
We could create a new generation of someday grownups, future leaders, innovators and parents living beyond the legacy of "the usual shame". I know that new paradigm is generations in the making at best. I know I won't always succeed in being so mindful, and I will try to be much more self forgiving in those moments too. Awareness is where it starts, love is what it is.