When do our family interactions become toxic?
I’ve never been able to resist the allure of a brand new start. Whether it’s a Monday, a new month or the New Year, I jump at the chance to put my failures in the past and do better this time.
One year, I embarked on a twelve-month revamp of just about every aspect of my life complete with weekly action steps toward a better me. I wanted to lose 20 pounds, take up running, and implement a system for organizing my home. By the end of the year, I would be the person I had always hoped to be.
I don’t have to tell you how this ends. I bit off more than I could chew. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t meet the expectations I had set for myself. A few minor setbacks compounded until I dismissed my resolutions altogether sometime around March.
“Next year,” I promised myself. “Next year I will do better.”
Except, the next year I had a baby. A sweet daughter, the beginning of my life as a mother and the beginning of a new way of thinking about what it means to do better. I’ve never wanted anything more than to raise her to know she was accepted and loved, exactly as she was. I held my dark-haired daughter in my arms and knew that no resolutions or promises of self-improvement could possibly make me love her any more than I did and I wanted her to know that, too. As I embarked on a new year with my six-month-old on my hip and my list of self-improvements at hand, I tried my best to the ignore the dissonance that existed between how I felt about myself and how I felt about her.
I suppose there is nothing wrong with making improvements to ourselves. We become better people for a lot of reasons, so maybe the problem for me was in the approach. Every January 1, I took off with a handful of empty promises and said so-long to the old me, because she simply wasn’t good enough.
This year, I am re-examining my approach. Although I have become more accepting of who I am, I still see the New Year as a way to leave behind imperfection. As I think about setting off on a brand new start toward a brand new me, I can’t help but wonder how my own self-criticism will thwart my efforts to teach my daughter—and the two other children I’ve birthed since she was born—that they are enough just as they are. Is it possible for me to reinforce the idea that no improvements are required for them to be accepted and loved if I haven’t really made peace with who I am?
Repeating failed New Year’s resolutions can communicate a few different ideas to the children who are watching us make and break them, according to Leah Benson, licensed psychotherapist. When we try, fail and repeat, our children may first observe that resolutions are meaningless, having no real effect on our lives.
And when our children watch us take our failure to heart, beating ourselves up over unmet resolutions?
“It imprints the reality that we should beat ourselves up about meaningless, inconsequential things we say because society tells us we’re supposed to,” she said.
When parents can model healthy self-acceptance, making a consistent effort to improve on an ongoing basis rather than getting caught up in the false hope of a brand new beginning, they provide children the chance to see that happiness doesn’t come from perfecting yourself, according to Benson. Instead, they can learn from parents who lead by example to like themselves as they are and to approach life with a realistic belief about goals and self-improvement.
This year, I am taking this advice to heart, beginning with a resolution to be gentler with myself. I want my children to see me not as a perfect mother, but as a mother who was joyful, who celebrated growth no matter how small or imperfect and embraced her failures as lessons in self-acceptance.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.