Carla Naumburg, YOU ARE NOT A SH*TTY PARENT: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break

Carla Naumburg, YOU ARE NOT A SH*TTY PARENT: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break

Zibby interviews repeat MDHTTRB guest Carla Naumburg, Ph.D. about her latest book, You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent, a reassuring and hilarious guide for parents who need to cut themselves some slack. After asserting that there is no such thing as a sh*tty parent, Carla outlines her three core practices (connection, curiosity, and kindness) and shares personal anecdotes to illustrate them. Finally, she and Zibby exchange recent parenting wins and fails (lesson: never trust the thoughts of a hungry or tired brain).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Carla. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Last time, you were here for How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids. Now you’re here for You Are Not a Sh*tty Parent. Basically, this is all to make me feel better about my life and my parenting. Thank you very much for writing exactly for me.

Carla Naumburg: I wrote it just for you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. You’re so sweet.

Carla: No, I wrote it for all of us.

Zibby: This second book came out of COVID. Talk about how you got all of the inquiries about what to do and how you decided to focus more on compassion and all of that.

Carla: My most recent book before this, How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids, came out in the fall of 2019, so just a few months before COVID. Then COVID hit. We were all stuck in our houses with our kids trying to do our jobs and not get sick and figure out how to live a life during a pandemic. Perhaps not surprisingly, we were all losing our shit with our kids, including me, this person who had just written this book. I started getting a lot of calls and requests from podcasters and freelancers and folks wanting to write and talk about it. They were like, tell us what to do. Tell us how to not lose our shit with our kids. I was like, um, so I wrote this book before the pandemic. Maybe during the pandemic, I would’ve written a book called It’s Impossible Not to Lose Your Sh*t With Your Kids. In all seriousness, I was trying to give this helpful advice, but a lot of the coping skills, a lot of the strategies that I talk about in that book just weren’t available to us anymore. We couldn’t connect with our support system in the same way. We couldn’t take space from our kids in the same way. We couldn’t take care of ourselves in the same way we had.

Not only could we not take care of ourselves, we had this crazy amount of added stress and anxiety and fear. Everything was worse. We didn’t know what to do. I would get on these podcasts. I would do the best I could to offer helpful advice. At the end, I was like, you know what? All we can really do in this moment is have compassion for ourselves. There’s no fix to this. There is no scenario where you can work a forty-hour-a-week job out of your house and have a three-year-old at home and let that — that doesn’t work. It’s not possible. I really started thinking more about my own self-compassion practice, which I had started prior to the pandemic years ago in an attempt to stop losing my shit with my kids. That was what led to this book. I was like, I don’t want to give parents more advice on what to do differently. We’re all doing as much as we can, the best as we can. What I want to talk to parents about is what to do, how to respond when the world goes to shit. You feel like you’re falling apart. There’s no good advice out there for you. That’s what this book is about.

Zibby: So no matter how bad a parent you are, you should have compassion for yourself?

Carla: I am going to challenge the first half of that sentence, Zibby. I don’t actually think there’s such a thing as a bad parent.

Zibby: Tell me about that.

Carla: I think there are parents who don’t parent the way they want to and maybe don’t parent in ways that are best for their children, but I’m never going to call them a bad parent or a shitty parent because how is that useful? That’s like finding someone on a trail who’s lost, and you hand them a map that says, you’re lost, and you suck. That’s not useful. It’s not helpful when you label someone that way. When we label ourselves that way, you just get even more lost and more stuck. What I think about is that there are parents who don’t have the information, support, and resources they need to parent the way they want to. Look, that’s all of us at some moment in our parenting life. Every single one of us lacks the information, resources, and support we need at some point. For some parents, it’s all the time. That deficit is really, really significant. They need a lot more than other parents. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a shitty parent. I don’t.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s good news.

Carla: I hope so.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit more about how to be kind to yourself. What are parents supposed to do on a day where they feel like everything is out control? They don’t know what to do with their kids. I know you have all these helpful printouts, many of which I felt like I should rip out and put on my wall. Maybe you could start making posters or something like that.

Carla: I’m just going to show up on the podcast with it stuck to my forehead like this.

Zibby: Even reminders, all your chapters — You’re Not the Only: The Power of Connection. How do we connect? How do we leverage the support systems that we do have, even if they’re not in front of us? What can we do to feel better and help ourselves be stronger?

Carla: First of all, Zibby, to answer your question, I want to start by getting really clear on what self-compassion is because I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings out there. It’s just noticing when you’re suffering and treating yourself with kindness in response. That’s all. For so many of us — I know you can relate to this. I certainly can. We’re so busy rushing through our days trying to do all the things, trying to be the best parent and the best worker and the best partner, if we have a parenting partner, and the best person that we can and get all the things done and schedule the appointments and remember the appointments and switch the laundry. I never remember to switch the laundry. We either don’t notice when we’re suffering or we just kind of blow it off. We don’t have time for this. That’s just not nice. That’s just not kind. That’s not how we would treat the people we love. Yet we do it to ourselves all the time.

Compassion is about noticing when we’re really suffering or struggling and taking the time to treat ourselves well in response. It’s not about making ourselves feel better. When we’re really compassionate and show up for the people we love, sometimes the kindest and most loving thing we can do is just sit with them in the muck. We’re not saying, put that smile on your face. Feel better. Be happier. That makes people feel worse. It may not fix our feelings. It may not fix our problem, but it makes everything feel sort of easier and lighter. It’s the difference between being at a job and making a mistake and having a boss who says, “You’re a total screwup. You that. What a loser you are,” and having a boss who says, “Yeah, you made a mistake. We all make mistakes. It’s okay. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or bad employee.” In both of those scenarios, the boss didn’t give you the solution. He didn’t tell you how to fix it, but the second one feels so much better, right? All of a sudden, you can imagine how you might move forward. Does that make sense?

Zibby: That makes sense.

Carla: Let’s talk about how to practice this. In the book, I outline three core practices: connection, curiosity, and kindness. There’s a bunch of different practices within connection. Some of it is about connecting with the supportive people in your life who love you and will be kind to you. Some of it is about just connecting to the present moment. So often, when we get in a shame spiral, our thoughts can get completely out of control. Our kid has a terrible moment. All of a sudden, our crazy brain takes us to this place where they’re going to suffer their entire lives. They’re never going to be worth anything. They’re going to have a horrible life their entire life all because of us. When your brain goes to that place, what I want you to do is come back to the present moment. Where am I? What’s actually happening in this moment? Take a few deep breaths. That connection can really slow down that shame spiral.

The biggest connection practice is called connecting to common humanity. I get this from Dr. Kristin Neff out of Texas. I want to give big props to her for her work. That’s just a fancy way of saying, remember that you’re not alone. I think so often in parenting when things go wrong, we can land in this place of, I’m the only one who… I’m the only one who forgot to put my kid’s lunch in their backpack. I’m the only one who missed the sign-up for soccer camp. I’m the only one who screamed at my kid and slammed the door. You’re not. I’ve done all those things. We’ve all done all those things. We’ve all done worse. Even if you are a parent who’s like, oh, no, Carla, you have no idea what goes on in my house, I promise you you’re not the only one struggling and suffering through parenting. It is hard for every single one of us, no matter what social media would have you believe. That’s the connection piece. Does that make sense?

Zibby: That makes sense. I love it.

Carla: It can be as simple as, anytime you notice yourself saying “I am the only one” or “Everyone else does this better than me,” just flip that script. Remind yourself parenting is hard for everyone. Just because it’s hard, that doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong. That’s just the nature of the beast. Parenting is hard no matter how you do it. It’s just hard. Yay for that. Should we move on to curiosity?

Zibby: Let’s do it.

Carla: So often when we have a bad parenting moment, we jump straight to judgement. My kid screwed up. He’s lazy. I’m a terrible parent. I’m getting this wrong. Whatever it is, we just label it. We judge it. Again, that just leaves you in a place of feeling stuck, feeling hopeless, helpless, confused. It’s not useful. Instead of judgement, can you get to a place of curiosity? Can you ask yourself, what is going on here? The other day, my kid was really struggling with a homework assignment. She didn’t want to do it. We had to get it done. I was stressed. I was trying to get other things done. We really got into it. My brain jumped to this place of judgement. She’s a lazy kid. She doesn’t want to do work. She’s never going to figure out this homework. I am a bad parent because I don’t know how to motivate her. That’s the judgement piece. Then I was like, oh, right, I just wrote a freaking book about this. I’m going to switch to curiosity. I was like, what’s going on? Okay, she’s exhausted. I’m not sure if she got a snack after school. She’s worried about applying to high school. All of these things. When I understood and had a bigger perspective on what was going on, I was like, oh, my kid’s not a lazy jerk. Neither am I.

She’s having a difficult moment because of all these things going on. Let me get her a snack. Let’s talk about, is her concern about this homework related to her concern about high school? We did talk about that. We got a little clarity. I wouldn’t say the homework was fun. Let’s be clear. It’s not like all of a sudden, we were like, yay, math problems, but we got through it. The curiosity piece is important for two reasons. One, it can really help you get some clarity on what’s going on so you can be more effective in your parenting. When we’re curious with ourselves and we ask ourselves what we need, we can actually start to take care of ourselves in some pretty powerful ways. The one thing I will say about curiosity is, I don’t generally go for why questions. Why did I do that? Why did I scream at my kids? I don’t know. I’m having a bad day. The moon is out of alignment. My back hurts, and I didn’t notice it. If you want to do some why work, and some of us need to, that’s a great time for therapy. That’s where you can really dig into the whys. When you’re on your own in the kitchen, it’s a busy evening, you’re just trying to get through the afternoon as best you can, or whatever, don’t dig into the whys because you’re probably just going to make up some story that’s like, well, I did it because I suck. That’s actually not the vibe we’re going for.

Zibby: I used this technique yesterday, by the way, thanks to you.

Carla: How’d it go?

Zibby: My son, who’s seven, just does not like to sit down at the dinner table. He’ll stand next to his food, but he doesn’t like to sit. Every meal, I’m like, “Sit down.” Finally, last night, I was like, “So why don’t you like to sit? Why do you prefer to stand? Is it the chair? Do you need a taller chair? What is it about sitting down at this table that you have an issue with? Tell me about it.” I tried it. He had no good answer. At least, my husband was like, “That was good parenting of you.”

Carla: Often, our kids don’t have a good answer. I will tell you that my daughter is twelve, and she’ll still often eat dinner with one butt cheek hanging off the chair as if she’s got somewhere really important to go. She has no idea why either. I want you to know, Zibby, you are not alone in this. Sitting still at the dinner table is really hard for a lot of kids. I’ve mostly come to peace with it. Sometimes I kind of get cranky about it. Mostly, I’m like, you know what? If you want to shove your food in your face because you have to race off to absolutely nowhere, knock yourself out, kid. I can’t fight this battle right now.

Zibby: I’m fine with it. It’s just, we only all end up sitting for a short period of time. I would like for even five minutes — just five minutes, just sit down. Just don’t stand there. Forget about the fact that by the end of the dinner, literally, my daughter was rollerblading around the table. My son was off dancing somewhere doing whatever. I was like, tequila. Can I have some tequila, please? I’m kidding.

Carla: I want to do rollerblading. I have this fantasy about rollerblading. This is often how our dinner ends, with the three of us, my older daughter, my husband, and myself, sitting at the table and our younger daughter doing some kind of interpretative dance next to the table for us. She’s got to move her body. I’m like, at least you can dance for us. She totally gets into it. Then she ends up on the floor. It always ends on the floor.

Zibby: I feel like this is not how I grew up. I was forced to sit at my table. I had to sit. That’s what we did. I didn’t really have a choice. There was no dancing around. We had courses. How did that even happen?

Carla: You just sat. I don’t know about you, but I was scared. They would get really mad, right?

Zibby: Yeah, they would get really mad. I get mad, and nobody cares. I get mad, and they still stand up.

Carla: That’s all of us. We’re a totally different parenting generation with a totally different vibe. If I had gone back to 1982 and tried to write a book called How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids, they would’ve been like, what are you talking about? That is my prerogative as a parent. That doesn’t mean they were bad parents. That was the vibe they were in. This is the vibe we’re in. The vibe we’re in, I think we’re a lot more concerned about our relationship with our kids. That’s not to say previous parents weren’t. Of course, they were concerned. Of course, they cared about their kids. I think for the first time in the history of humanity, we’re talking more really explicitly in the popular culture about what it means to have a relationship with your kids. Nobody was talking about that in the seventies, eighties, nineties. It just wasn’t a thing. That’s a real double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s really useful and really helpful and really important. Sometimes I think we get — I use the “we” because I mean all of us, Zibby, you, me, and everybody listening to this who has kids. We get so worried about how our kids feel that we don’t want to say or do things that are going to upset them too much because we’re told that we’re supposed to be happy. We live in the happiness culture, happiness classes, happiness books, all the things. If you’re not happy, then you’re doing something wrong. You need to work harder. You need to make changes. I think we’ve kind of brought that to our kids, that it’s our job to make them happy. As I write about in the book, happiness is a feeling. We can’t control feelings. I can’t make myself happy. If you were like, Carla, I will give you a million dollars if you will feel pure happiness and nothing else for the next ten minutes — that’s an amazing incentive. I can’t make myself do that.

Zibby: You might be happy about the million dollars, though. That might carry you over.

Carla: I am guessing that in that moment, within about thirty seconds, I would feel anxious about screwing it up and not winning the million dollars.

Zibby: I would do the same thing, yes.

Carla: We just can’t force feelings. We can’t make ourselves feel a certain way, which brings me to the third practice of self-compassion, which is kindness. I would say there’s a bunch of ways to treat yourself with kindness. The two things I like to talk to readers and listeners about is — in that chapter, I talk a lot about basic self-care. One of the things I want to talk to people about is the idea that self-care is not self-improvement. Those are two different things. I think we often get them confused. We think self-care means we should start our new diet or go run a marathon or read the latest self-help book or sign up for some self-improvement course. That’s important in our lives. That matters. I’m not saying that’s not useful and it’s not something we should pursue. Of course, it is, if it’s right for you, but it’s not the same thing as self-care. The way I think about it is, what would you do for a friend who was struggling? If you had a friend who was crying and they’d had a horrible parenting moment and they were really suffering, would you go over to their house and be like, “Oh, this is an amazing time to start organizing your house. You should totally sign up for this online class about how to declutter”? You would not. You wouldn’t be like, “If you only got more sleep at night, you would be a better parent. Here’s this ten-step program for getting more sleep.” Don’t do that. You wouldn’t do that to a friend, so don’t do that to yourself. In the book, I talk about self-care. My self-care, Zibby, here’s what it looks like. A lot of romance books lately. My free reading time is just juicy stuff that makes me feel warm and yummy inside. That’s self-care for me. I’ve decided that my family and I — we started this tradition at the start of the pandemic. I’m like, I want to end every day laughing. As a family, we get together and we watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine. We’ve watched Parks and Rec. We’ve watched The Office. We watch two episodes of Bluey. Do you know what Bluey is, Zibby?

Zibby: I don’t.

Carla: I didn’t know what it was until three months ago. It is a phenomenon. It’s a preschool cartoon, a little animated series for little, little kids, preschoolers. Each episode is about five or six, seven minutes long. It comes out of, I think, New Zealand, Australia. It’s about a family of dogs, mom and dad and Bluey and Bluey’s little sister Bingo. It is hilarious. My husband and I and our daughters, who are twelve and thirteen, are watching this cartoon for preschoolers every night. We all love it because it leaves us laughing.

Zibby: All right, Bluey, on the list.

Carla: It’s just seven minutes of joy to inject, little joy injection. The biggest piece of self-care I want to leave people with is the idea of kind self-talk. This is the ultimate kindness. When you start practicing self-compassion, one of the things you’re going to notice is that you talk to yourself like absolute shit. We all do. I used to say things to myself that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy. I’m a horrible mother. I’m screwing up my kids. I am failing at the most important work in my life. I suck. I’m awful. Who says that? A lot of us do, it turns out. What I encourage parents to do is just flip that script. I’m not saying when you have a bad moment you have to be like, I am the best mother ever. You’re not going to believe that. Nobody’s the best mother ever. That’s not what we need. What you can say is, wow, this is a really hard parenting moment. I’m having a bad day. Then you can go into curiosity. What do I need? You can go to your common humanity. Parenting is hard for everyone. The difference between “I’m a shitty mother” or “I’m a shitty parent” and “I’m having a bad day,” it feels like sort of a minor switch, but it’s huge. It’s a world apart. “I’m a shitty parent” is soul-level judgement. You’re just stuck. You’re screwed. “I’m having a bad day” and “Parenting is hard for everyone” is like, oh, this is a moment in time. It’s a moment in time that we all suffer and struggle with. That feels so much easier. I really go into the kind self-talk, which is so crucial.

Zibby: Here is when I needed the kind self-talk. I think we’re all so hard on ourselves, too, when we’re in the moment or whatever. I got back from a book event the other night. I had already felt bad that it ran late. I rushed back before bedtime. I let the kids watch an extra episode of whatever so that they could still be up when I got home. It wasn’t that late. It was still eight thirty or something. I didn’t want to miss bedtime. Then we got home. I was starving because I hadn’t eaten in six hours or something crazy. My husband had heated up some soup. My daughter, it was time for her to go to bed. I was like, “You go up to bed. I’ll be up there in a few minutes. I have to eat this soup.” She’s like, “No, I’ll sit with you.” I was literally scooping up my soup, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m such a bad parent.” I’m just keeping them up because I had a book event and now I’m hungry and all this stuff. Literally, my daughter looked at me. She’s like, “Mom, you’re eating soup. You’re not a bad parent.”

Carla: I feel like that should be the title of a book, You’re Just Eating Soup.

Zibby: You’re just eating soup. No, it’s fine. It’s two minutes.

Carla: Look, Zibby, you and I are in parallel worlds. Last night, I came home from a book event. I was home late. My kids were already supposed to be asleep. One of my kids is just having a hard time right now. She wasn’t asleep. She was having a really hard night. I could hear her crying. I was like, I need to go upstairs and be with my kid. I also have to eat. I’m so hungry. I’m going to eat a horse. I’m downstairs shoving, literally, cheese and banana and nuts in my face instead of dinner trying to get this food in. I know I’m not going to be useful to her if I’m starving because I’m such a cranky lady when I’m hungry. Then I go upstairs. I’m comforting my kid. I’m like, she’s up way past her bedtime because she’s having a hard time right now. I should’ve been home. Then I was like, you know what? Nope, I’m not going to do that. In that moment, I was like, I actually am so tired. I don’t have anything better to offer myself. I literally couldn’t come up with anything better. I was like, “Kiddo, we’re just going to do a counting exercise to fall asleep.” That’s what we did. I was like, “We’re going to start at 102, and we’re going to subtract three.” She’s like, “Ninety-nine.” I was like, “What’s minus three?” She’s like, “Ninety-six.” All I know is she’s sitting there mired in her yucky thoughts. I’m sitting here mired in my yucky thoughts. I actually can’t get to a better place, so literally, we’re going to count because even counting is better than lying there feeling like crap. That’s what we did.

Zibby: I like that.

Carla: We sat there for five minutes just counting together. She calmed down. I calmed down. Eventually, we got to sleep. Then I woke up, and everything feels so much better after you can get some sleep. Don’t trust a tired brain. Never trust the thoughts out of a tired brain. They’re not helpful.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so easy to see that with the people you love. Anyone in the family, when they start acting snippy or cry-y or whatever, it’s so obvious to me. Oh, this is the person I love not acting like themselves because they are so tired. Yet when it’s me, I don’t see that as much. It’s harder to identify.

Carla: You know why? Because when you get tired, your prefrontal cortex — the neuroscientists out there are going to be like, you’re not exactly right. Okay, people. I’m close enough. When you get tired, your prefrontal cortex, which is this part of your brain right behind your forehead, the part that is reflective and insightful and can think clearly about things, that’s the part that shuts off. It’s also the part of our brain that shuts off when we’ve been drinking alcohol or when we’re overwhelmed with emotion. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with you, Zibby. It’s that because when we are tired, our brain has developed to conserve its resources to the most important things like breathing and eating and staying alive. We don’t have the resources to think on an advanced level and be insightful, which is why I am working so hard that when my husband says, “Are you tired? Are you hungry?” I try really hard not to bite his head off about it, which is my natural — no, of course not. I try to just listen to him. I’m working. We’ve been married almost nineteen years. We’ll get there. Eventually, I will start listening to him. Probably, I will. I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe never. It’s hard to know.

Zibby: I had a feeling this would all be amazing for me personally. I’m kidding. I’m kind of kidding. I feel many times that I am just a proxy for everybody else. If I am feeling this, if you are feeling this, we are all feeling this. I think that is what you’re trying to say in general with your whole, I am not the only one who… I am hoping that by sharing my parenting fails or not fails or whatever and your sharing yours makes everybody else feel better. I particularly love, I’m not a bad parent; I’m having a bad day. That’s a great mantra to put on the bulletin board, to repeat, to remember in the worst of times.

Carla: I love the idea that you said remember. That’s part of the practice. When adults use the word practice, we generally mean a thing you do. A medical practice, you do medical stuff. What I mean is a thing that you start doing. It’s hard and doesn’t go easily and feels uncomfortable. You can’t come up with the words. You don’t really know how to do it. You have to consult the book and blah, blah, blah. If you keep doing it, it gets easier. You get better at it. When I first started doing this, Zibby, I was like, what am I supposed to say to myself? This was probably eight years ago. Now I don’t have shitty-mom thoughts anymore. I don’t have those. Am I a significantly better parent than I was eight years ago? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty similar in my parenting, but parenting feels a little bit easier because I no longer think of myself as a shitty parent. It took years of practice to get there, but that’s not a narrative that’s in my brain anymore. Man, it was there with a vengeance for a long time until I really started practicing.

Zibby: I love it. Thank you, Carla. This has been so great. I always love talking to you. You always reframe things in a way that makes life feel a little bit easier and better. That’s a real gift. Thank you.

Carla: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for everything you do for parents and authors and women and people on this planet. You make the world a better place. We are grateful for it.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. This was so fun.

Carla: Zibby, I always love talking to you. If there’s ever anything I can do to be supportive of you and all your endeavors, I am delighted to do it.

Zibby: Thank you, and me for you.

Carla: Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Carla: Bye.

Carla Naumburg, YOU ARE NOT A SH*TTY PARENT: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break

YOU ARE NOT A SH*TTY PARENT: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break by Carla Naumburg

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