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Times Will Tell

Podcast: Parents need to give themselves a break, says self-help writer

Clinical social worker Carla Naumburg speaks about her latest book, ‘You Are Not a Shitty Parent,’ a self-compassion primer and guide

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

This week’s Times Will Tell is a conversation with clinical social worker Carla Naumburg about her latest book, “You Are Not a Shitty Parent: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break,” a self-compassion primer and guide that came out this fall.

Naumburg, based in Boston, talks about her own kids and family, using a welcome dose of humor and practical advice, hammering home the need to accept oneself and not feel guilty, because most parents are generally doing their best.

She wants people to acknowledge how tough parenting can be, and to treat themselves with kindness, following through on various strategies in order to care for themselves.

Naumburg offers some personal examples of how she practices self-compassion in her own life.

She also talks about modern parenting as opposed to how our parents and grandparents parented, and how that’s changed over the decades.

“Just because things are really hard, doesn’t mean I’m doing it wrong,” said Naumburg. “It’s just how life goes.”

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

Carla Naumburg speaks about her latest book, “You Are Not a Shitty Parent, How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break,” on The Times Will Tell (Courtesy PR)

The Times Will Tell: I’m here today with Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker, writer and mother. She is the author of four books, and her writing has appeared all over the place, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and CNN. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two daughters. Hi, Carla.

Carla Naumburg: Hi, Jessica.

Carla’s latest book is, “You are not a Shitty Parent.” She writes with great clarity about the conundrum of parents who often feel that they are shitty parents, parents who aren’t succeeding at caring for their kids in the way that they should. And I guess the first thing I wanted to talk about is we don’t usually curse on The Times Will Tell. And I wanted to ask if you thought twice, three times, at all, about using the s-word, because, of course, it’s something that you use throughout the book. 

This is a great question. And for this book, there was really no question about using the word, because this book follows on the heels of my previous book, “How to Stop Losing Your Shit with Your Kids.” So the decision was really about whether or not to use the s-word in that title. And I decided that for a few reasons. One, from a very pragmatic perspective, if you look at The New York Times bestseller list, there are a ton of books with profanity in the titles. It just seemed to be a moment in time when readers are really resonating with this kind of casual, everyday language, which is what I think a lot of us are craving right now. But also, when I wrote “How to Stop Losing Your Shit with Your Kids,” I wanted to convey through the title that I’m not here to judge parents. I’m not some expert saying, I never do this and you should never do this, and I’m going to talk down to you and give you all this judgmental advice. I was trying to convey the sense of, like, you know, what if we were like two parents sitting down for a cup of coffee, just talking about how hard parenting is?

So I wanted to use the language and the voice that I use all the time in my life, right? And I swear. And I’m funny. And so that’s what I hope comes through in the book.

Absolutely. It definitely does. And I think it’s a funny kind of thing. I always think about my mother when I use profanity, which I do a lot, and I try not to use it with my kids, and then I say, really, what is stopping me? Now let’s go back into other the main subject of the book, really, which is about self-compassion for parents. Carla, it would be extremely helpful for you to define self-compassion as you do in the book. 

Yes. So the way I think about self-compassion and I’m following on the work of giants in the field, like Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer and others who I just want to acknowledge have done amazing work in this area. It’s really about noticing when you’re suffering and instead of beating yourself up or feeling guilty, you’re going down a shame spiral. It’s about treating yourself with kindness and understanding. And so the three specific practices I look at in the book are once you’ve sort of noticed that you’re suffering, which is a thing that many of us don’t do right. We’re so busy in our daily lives, we’ve got kids to pick up from school. And as you and I are talking right now, Jessica, there’s like Thanksgiving to prepare for and we’ve got all the moving pieces and then doctors’ appointments and do we pay the bills and what’s going on with the mother-in-law, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We don’t even notice when we’re suffering, when we’re in pain, either emotionally, physically, psychologically. So the first step is to just take a moment and kind of notice that. And then we can look at these three specific strategies I outlined in the book, which is connecting to the people we love, to the people who will be compassionate with us.

So that moment of connection. Also curiosity, kind of getting interested in what’s going on for us and what do we need and how can we take care of ourselves. And then also just kindness, really choosing not to beat ourselves up when we’re struggling or suffering, and instead treating ourselves with the kindness that we would offer to a good friend or a loved one. So that’s how I think about self-compassion in the book.

OK, let’s talk about real life for a second. You are the mother of a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old. I am the mother of two 14-year-old boys. And I was thinking a lot about this from my own life, but I wanted to ask you, how does self-compassion as a parent enter into your own life really of late? Like the last couple of weeks, the last day, the last month.

Over the long term, self-compassion changed everything about parenting for me. But last week is a great example. I live on the East Coast of the United States, and I had a very close family member in a medical emergency on the West Coast just last week. I flew home on a red-eye two days ago. So at the very last minute, I had to rush to get a plane ticket, hop on a plane, kind of dump everything on my husband. But he’s a fully involved parent, and he stepped up, and it was seamless. He’s the primary caretaker of our children at this point, which is amazing. But I missed some things that my kids were doing that I wanted to be there for. I wasn’t able to be there for my husband during a time when he needed some additional support, and I felt like I wasn’t enough. My gut initial thought was, I am not enough. I am failing everyone. I’m failing my family on the West Coast because I wasn’t there for them all along. Like, I chose to go away. I’m failing my family on the East Coast because I’m bailing on all these plans.

And what I had to repeatedly say to myself and what I was able to say to myself because I’ve been practicing self-compassion for so many years is life is really hard. I’m talking to a bunch of Jews. Why do I need to explain to them that life is hard? We all know life is hard, right? Life is so stinking hard, even on the good days, and then these things happen that just kind of blow everything up and make it almost intolerable. And I have to keep reminding myself that just because things are really hard doesn’t mean I’m doing it wrong. And just because I’m missing these moments with my kids or I’m not being as present wherever as I would like to be, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me. It’s just how life goes. And it’s okay if this feels hard. It doesn’t mean I’m a problem or what I’m doing is a problem. But I will tell you, just because a few years ago I didn’t have that language at all, I didn’t have that perspective, I would have thought, I screwed this up. This is all falling apart because I’m doing it wrong.

If I planned better, if I thought I had better, if I had blah blah blah, whatever better, this wouldn’t be this way, which is, by the way, total BS. That’s not true. Like, crazy, awful things happen that are completely beyond our control. So self-compassion really made the last week, which was a very hard week on many levels. It just made it a little bit easier and less stressful, and in this day and age, easier and less stressful in many cases is amazing, right? That’s like the best we can hope for. So this past week my self-compassion was on high practice.

We think about our parents and how they dealt with these situations. We all know that life was different then. No seatbelts, there was no Netflix, there was no cable, there were no cellphones. Do you look at that generational difference for yourself and in terms of your writing when you think about all of this? Do you think about us now compared to your parents, your grandparents, in terms of parenting, in terms of self-compassion?

Absolutely. And I think that keeping that bigger perspective in mind is so important because we humans, this is a very human dynamic, tend to think of our imperfections or our problems or our struggles as very personal. Like I am the cause of this when in fact sometimes it is, right? Sometimes it’s a personal problem that really has to do with our very unique situation. But more often than not it’s a societal dynamic, a societal cultural context that we are taking personal responsibility for. And so, you know, I was talking to my husband’s grandmother, so my daughter’s great grandmother who is going to be, God-willing, 100 in a couple of months and she’s amazing. And I was trying to explain this book to her and she’s very with it, right? I was trying to explain my book to her and she was like what are you talking about? The idea that parents would think of themselves as shitty parents and have this total shame cloud that we’re walking around in was very foreign to her. And I think that’s also true to some degree of our parent’s generation. And it’s not that they didn’t care about parenting, of course they cared about parenting but they were getting a very different message.

First of all, I think so much of our shame and blame of parents today comes from comparison, right? And people, humans have been comparing themselves to other people since time and memorial. But back when we were growing up, the parenting comparison happened primarily in our neighborhood. It was the person next door. And so yes, there were always the people who were richer and better resourced than us and there was always that mom whose life looked so perfect and whatever. There was always somebody to compare yourself to but at least it was generally happening in the same context. Like you have the same options for school and you have the same snow days to figure out and you had all the same stuff whereas now we are comparing ourselves, thanks to social media and reality TV, we are comparing ourselves to literally every other person on the planet, and we’re comparing ourselves to lies about their lives. So I got hooked on a reality show about some family with like 13 kids. It’s like mom and dad and 13 or 14 kids. They have no help in the house. They have no help. They’re homeschooling these children.

And not once in like two seasons do you see the mom lose her shit, right? And at first I was like, oh my God, I can barely get my kids off to school, at the school I send them away to for like six or seven hours a day. And I only have two kids and I’m losing it. And then I had to step back and be like, oh, wait, this is not a reality show. It is labeled as reality, but it’s, you know, it’s actually TV, just TV. It’s entertainment. And then we also see Gwen Paltrow. All of a sudden, we know how Gwen Paltrow’s parents. We know that. So this is a person with unlimited resources. Right. And I am comparing myself to what I think is her reality, but clearly not because I have no business knowing what Gwen Paltrow’s reality is. But like, I am comparing myself to what I think is going on with her. And of course, I’m going to come up short. She has all this staff, right? I have two cats. They’re not helpful. My husband is very helpful. That’s true. I do have an extremely helpful husband.

But I think that’s part of just one example of the generational differences and why there are many more, but that’s one example of why I think it’s actually in some ways harder to be a parent now than perhaps it was when you and I were growing up.

You write about the different inspirations that you have yourself. Meditation. I don’t know if Buddhism is a personal one. Brene Brown, therapy. You wrote in Kveller about how the book is an exploration of Hillel’s teachings. If you sort of break that all down, what really comes to the fore for you? What are some of these teachings that have really helped you personally and professionally in coming up with these concepts and moving yourself forward and writing this book? 

So if we need the tagline about, like, my inspirations, I’m just a Jewish mother who overthinks everything, right? That’s really what it boils down to. Overthinking is like, my favorite hobby. What I tend to think about when I’m looking for inspiration and I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but I think Buddhist psychology is some of the wisest stuff out there. It’s really brilliant. But when I’m looking for inspiration. Here’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for ideas and practices that align with my values, some of which, many of which are drawn from Judaism. And I’m also looking for something that’s practical, pragmatic, doable. Right? So I remember reading a parenting book years ago that was like, you should spend ten minutes a day alone with each of your kids. And at that point, I only have two daughters. It’s not that many in the grand scheme of things, but they’re only 20 months apart. And I think when I read that book, they were like, that’s hard, right? And you have twins, what am I telling you for? But I think at that time, the girls were like, in preschool, and I’m thinking, what am I supposed to do?

Like, lock one kid in her room and tell her I’m playing with the other kids? Like that advice. And I was like, I don’t understand, because the girls are so close. And even now, if I said to my daughters, who are twelve and 14, I’m going to take one of you out for ten minutes and we’re going to do something fun together, and the other one has to stay here and what, stare at your phone? I don’t know. Like, it’s bonkers, right? So I’m always looking for advice. Look, I love evidence-based advice. I love when there’s research. And I also realize that the most important research we can do is in our own home, on our own family, trying to see if things actually work for us, because research is one important step. Evidence from the outside world is really important, but also, like, being real about what works for us. But I need advice that is pragmatic, that is doable, that is workable. I can handle it. It doesn’t make my life harder. And also that aligns with my values. So that’s really where I come from. But yes, Brene Brown is my favorite pop culture social worker. She’s extremely wise and she writes a lot about sort of shame and vulnerability, and I think her stuff is really brilliant.

Okay, take a step back for me into what made you decide to take your professional advice and knowledge and to write books. Self-help books and parenting books are great, and people sometimes need them. They need to sit down and be able to say, okay, who is going to be able to help me to see myself through this situation? And on the other hand, of course, sometimes you look at the pile of the shelf or the pile of self-help books, of parenting books, and you say, how am I going to take this advice and apply it to my life? 

That is a brilliant question. And I share the same ambivalence about parenting books and parenting advice and self-help books and self-help advice as you do. On the one hand, I’ve read some parenting books that have been incredibly useful and helpful, and on the other hand, I’ve had more than my share of parenting advice that left me feeling overwhelmed and confused. And I probably would have been better served by going and sitting on my porch and reading a juicy romance novel and calming myself down so I could go back and be present with my kids. So I think it’s a great question. Look, I have always wanted to write. I remember being like six years old and being in a diner with my grandfather and being like, Poppa, I’m definitely going to write a book because, you know, you’re smart if you write a book. And he’s probably thinking, yeah, there’s a lot of morons who wrote books, but he said to me, you should definitely write books. So even before I understood why, it’s always been a thing I’ve wanted to do, I picked college majors and I picked a master’s program and I picked my doctoral program because they all required a significant amount of writing because I love it.

Writing has always been my way of exploring my own experience and trying to get a handle on what the hell I’m doing. And so I started writing books when I became a parent. Not necessarily because I felt like I had the answers to give other people, but because this was my journey to finding the answers for myself and it was a journey of doing this work for myself. So in both “How to Stop Losing Your Shit with Your Kids” and “You Are Not a Shitty Parent” it really draws from a lot of work I did personally around mindfulness work and self-compassion because after a lot of searching and experimenting that was what I found actually helped me be a calmer, more present, more focused parent. Because I struggle hugely with anxiety. This is a big part of my life and the anxiety impacts a lot of different parts of my parenting. And so I’ve developed these practices over the years that I kind of have to stay on top of so that I’m not an anxious, irritable mess with my kids. So that’s just one example. But these really came from my own love of writing and my desire to share what I’ve learned with other people, but also in the writing process, I learned a lot about myself.

And you’ve got the humor, of course, which does not hurt in a parenting self-help book. It’s a very, very helpful part of it when you literally laugh out loud in this passage or another because you’re saying, that’s funny, and that is something that you, the reader, have experienced.

If I couldn’t laugh about parenting, I don’t have anything left. Like, humor is in life and everything. My number one coping mechanism. And I will say that you might experience as Jessica, but my 14-year-old occasionally has no sense of humor whatsoever. She’ll get it back. But for me, humor is, if we can’t laugh at this, what are we going to do? It’s so absurd.

Does everyone stop you in the neighborhood, at the supermarket, at the pharmacy, and say, Carla, this is the situation I’m dealing with right now. What should I do? Do you get these questions all the time?

I don’t, actually. Thankfully, I do every once in a while. My family and I, before COVID we used to do this thing, you might remember, it was called going out to restaurants where you actually go into a building and someone else cooks for you and does all the dishes, and you just pay the money.

Oh, my God. It’s amazing. And every once in my family and I would be out, and somebody would, like, hear my name and be like, oh, you’re that person. But no, people don’t generally ask me for parenting advice, which is good, because my books aren’t really about how to parent, right. They’re about how to take care of yourself as a parent. So when people ask me something like, how do I get my kids to put their shoes on? I often say, like, Good luck, godspeed, and let me know when you figure it out because that’s not the kind of parenting advice I have. But I will say you know what? If you want to talk about parenting, let’s grab a cup of coffee and sit down and laugh, cry into our mochas, because that’s what I can do with you.

Something that I really liked were your maps of compassion. Yeah, it’s something that made me think a lot about how I take care of myself as a parent, how I take care of my partner, my husband as a fellow parent, friends as parents. I was curious if that was something that came later on in the process of researching and writing this, or if that was out there for you early on.

You mean the crap maps?

Yes, crap maps and compassion.

I think that’s something that came up for me in a conversation with someone once. What I was trying to explain was it was actually before I wrote this book, and I was thinking a lot about the ways in which we really treat ourselves so poorly when things go wrong, when we’re feeling lost and confused in parenting and we don’t know how to solve a problem or how to support our children. And we end up saying things like, god, I’m a shitty parent, I’m really screwing this up. And we sort of think everybody else knows how to handle this problem and I don’t. And in that moment, I was seeing, what is the metaphor for this? I love thinking in metaphors. I think they’re very useful, especially when you’re talking about hard stuff. And I was imagining somebody who’s out for a hike and they get lost and they’re really confused. I have a whole little funny vignette about this in the book, and a park ranger comes up and hands them a map, and the map just says, you’re lost and you suck. Right? Like, that’s essentially what we’re doing to ourselves and self-compassion is when that whole script kind of gets flipped and we’re having a hard moment.

We’re lost, we’re confused. And the park ranger shows up at the map, and the map says, you’re lost. It’s okay that you’re lost. This is a hard trail. Lots of people get lost. You’ll figure this out and P. S you’re a great parent, right? And so that’s sort of the thing about self-compassion, is it doesn’t really give us the answers. It doesn’t say to us, this is how to deal with your child’s struggles in math class. This is, you know, the right choice to make when they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD or whatever it is. Self-compassion doesn’t do that. But self-compassion calms us down, helps us kind of clear out all this really judgmental crappy thinking that we have so that we can focus, we can get a little clarity on the situation. We can think creatively about what to do. Right. If you’re out for a hike and you’re so stressed out about how did you get lost in what a terrible person and parent and partner you are, you can’t think clearly about what to do next. You’re not going to come up with any creative solutions. But when you’re calmer, when you’re not beating yourself up, there’s a lot more sort of head space and heart space to get a handle on what to do next.

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