Motherly Collective

The below is excerpted from “You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent.” (Workman Publishing) by Carla Naumburg. Copyright © 2022.

We parents love a good circus metaphor, and it’s easy to see why. Circuses are sticky and stinky and filled with animals you’re pretty sure you didn’t agree to. Sadly, we rarely get to relax and watch the plates spin without having to worry about who’s going to clean up the mess when it all comes crashing down. Nope. We’re too busy keeping track of the trapeze artists and tightrope walkers, making sure the safety nets and sparkly costumes don’t have any holes, and getting all the clowns in the car when it’s time to go.

I actually don’t love the circus/ringmaster metaphor for two reasons: 1) It reinforces the idea that parenting is performative (which wouldn’t be so bad if we could actually sell tickets and make a little money off the deal, but apparently that’s frowned upon), and 2) it implies that we need to be in control of the chaos at every moment.

And you know how I feel about trying to control all that first-arrow bedlam.

Even so, most of us get so caught up in trying to control the chaos in our lives that we don’t even notice the circus in our brains. I’m talking about the monkeys in our minds that start flinging second-arrow crap the minute the show goes off the rails. A good ringmaster, a good parent, they tell us, would be running a better show.

But here’s the thing: Contrary to popular belief, ringmasters aren’t there to make sure that every act goes perfectly smoothly. If that were true, they would spend the entire performance running around, tightening the ropes, reminding the juggling unicyclist to stay focused, and spotting the flying acrobats. The audience would be so busy watching the ringmaster scurry from place to place that not only would the entire thing seem like a sh*tshow (regardless of whether it actually was), but many of the best performances might go completely unnoticed.

If we’re so distracted by the loud noises and flashing lights in our own minds, we won’t have enough headspace to even realize that we’re suffering or struggling.

That’s why it’s not the ringmaster’s job to worry about every last detail. Rather, they’re there for two entirely different reasons. First, to excite the crowd and build drama. Our brains are already damn good—often too good—at that.

So we’re going to focus on the ringmaster’s other job, which is to direct the audience’s attention to various parts of the arena. The ringmaster is there to keep guests focused on each performance and not get distracted by the transitions between acts, the equipment moving in and out, and any falls, fails, or mistakes that will inevitably happen.

Circus performers know that failure is always a possibility; that’s why they have safety nets. Despite all their practice, experience, and expertise, sometimes performers still end up in the net. They don’t expect to be perfect, and neither should we. We all need a good safety net, and yes, I am absolutely talking about self-compassion.

In order to do all of that, the ringmaster has to keep an eye on each act and the overall progress of the performance, but not get sucked in by any of it. They need to be aware of what’s happening all around them, but they also need to maintain enough distance and perspective on the whole situation to stay calm and make an intentional decision about what to do next.

That is exactly the relationship I want you to have with your own thoughts. The ability to notice when your mind-monkeys start flinging second-arrow crap—without getting caught up in it—is a first and crucial step toward practicing self-compassion.You’re never going to completely get rid of your mental tendencies toward isolation, judgment, and contempt. That’s the equivalent of running a perfect circus, and it’s just not gonna happen. It’s just not how our brains work, and that’s OK! Rather, the goal is to put on your ringmaster hat as often as possible and notice the drama in your mind, rather than getting sucked into it.

Noticing may seem like a subtle shift in your perspective, but it’s incredibly powerful and empowering in the following ways:

Getting some distance from the chaos helps us remember that we’re not responsible for everything that happens in our lives and our children’s lives. Yes, we need to support, educate, and encourage the clowns we’re raising, but that’s not the same as controlling their every decision and behavior. Assuming we should be able to control the uncontrollable puts us at high risk of Sh*tty Parent Syndrome.

When we’re swept up in the mess and mayhem, we miss the beautiful, astounding, delightful moments, the ones that remind us that maybe we’re not totally screwing up this whole parenting gig after all.

Finally, if we’re so distracted by the loud noises and flashing lights in our own minds, we won’t have enough headspace to even realize that we’re suffering or struggling. When that happens, we can’t make a choice to walk away from those sh*t-slinging monkeys and treat ourselves with compassion instead.

Noticing is a crucial step in the practice of compassion, so we’re going to dig deep into it in this chapter. We’re going to get clear on exactly what noticing is, why it can be so hard to know how and what to notice, and how to practice noticing.