When I only had two bio kids, I prided myself on my excellent parenting. My kids were obedient. They didn’t have tantrums in public. Their clothes were clean. Their hair was neat. I made organic, healthy, colorful meals. I limited their simple carbs and sugar. I made sure their screen time was almost nonexistent. I was such a good parent. Then we adopted two kids, and life got a lot more interesting. I remember the first time I felt the shame of not having it all together.

There was the time we were all in the school district office waiting for a speech evaluation for my 3-year-old. She had mismatched socks, a juice-stained shirt, and (apparently) a sticky face. The school secretary came over and said to me, “Oh honey, here’s a wipe for your baby’s face.” Turning to my daughter, she said, “Did you just have breakfast, sweetie?” It was 11:00 am. I simply forgot to wipe my kid’s face. Milestone: stranger commenting on my kid’s appearance.

Then there was the time we went to an end-of-the-year picnic for my older kids’ school and I left my toddler’s shoes at home an hour away. Milestone: buying knock-off crocs at the local pharmacy. 

And the time we were on our way out the door (late, of course) for a school function, my toddler started screaming in that high-pitched screech that could only mean pain. After searching her all over, I realized she had eaten some “red berries” from a weed. After calling poison control, I learned it was a poisonous plant. We gave her ice to chew on, and she was good as new in ten minutes. No actual harm was done, thank goodness. Double milestones reached: first call to poison control and being epically late to a school event.

The kicker? This was all in the same week. My younger self would have been horrified by any one of these situations, and the self-loathing would have been strong. I held myself to an incredibly high standard that no parent should try to attain. My kids’ clothes and faces were always clean. I never forgot their shoes. 

It would take two more kids and several years later to finally learn the truth: that clean faces and limited screen time are not what makes me a good parent.

Parenting adopted kids is hard. They come with trauma and complicated behaviors. Sometimes they require extra patience from us. They need a lot of our energy. They need us to co-regulate with them. We can’t do that if we’re running on empty from trying to do too many things that don’t really matter.

We Need Less Guilt & Shame

Brené Brown talks about guilt versus shame in her 2012 Ted Talk. Guilt, she says, is focused on behavior. It says, “I did something bad.” It is one of the most prevalent emotions parents feel. But do we deserve to feel it? The next time you feel guilty about something ask yourself, “Did I actually do something bad to my kid by saying no to that fourth marshmallow?” (Or the expensive pair of shoes, or the sleepover you know they can’t handle?) No, it’s our job as parents to make good decisions to keep our kids safe and healthy. We need to quit feeling guilty about things that aren’t bad behavior. 

And then there’s shame. Brené Brown says shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” When we constantly feel like that as parents, it’s unlikely we’re connecting with our kids the way we’re meant to.

So, how can we be the best version of ourselves for our kids? We’ve heard that we should practice self-care, but what does that look like when you’re in the middle of messy parenting? Not many of us have time for a bubble bath or a night out with friends. Here are a few things we need a lot more of that don’t take much time at all:

Slow Down and Smell the Roses – Literally 

When is the last time you just sat outside with no agenda? Just felt the sun’s warmth on your arms, the breeze brushing across your face, the grass under your feet? Being outside is good for our kids, but it’s also good for us. It makes us feel better when we stop for a few minutes and just be.Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings.” When we feel calm and regulated, we can have more patience with our kids and more like the parent we want to be. Read more about the healing power of being outside in The Nature Fix by Florence Williams.

Compassion For Our Kids

Recently I read a quote in the book Love Centered Parenting that stopped me in my tracks. The author, Crystal Paine, told about a conversation where a therapist said to her, “I think you are trying so hard to fix and correct your child. What would it look like if you just walk with them and love them instead?” Ouch. That one hit home for me.

I have a kid that I am always trying to fix. Food is the main issue that I’m trying to fix with her. She craves carbs. I tried everything to aid with her food issues, to no avail. Nothing is so comforting to her as a quesadilla, fluffy tortilla on the outside, and gooey warm cheese on the inside. To her, the food she loves equals safety. And when she feels safe, she can relax and feel the love we’re trying to show her. When I stopped trying to fix her food issues, I had more compassion for her. I was able to come alongside her and work with her to find foods that we can both agree on. She’s happier, I’m calmer, and there’s a lot less nagging. 

Grace for Ourselves

One of my favorite adoption parenting resources is The Adoption Connection by Melissa Corkum and Lisa Qualls. They always sign their newsletters with the line “You’re a good parent doing good work.” This maxim always encourages me and it’s an important one for us to hold on to on those hard days.

We cannot possibly be everything to our kids. We can’t be their therapist. We can’t be their teacher or psychologist. We can try our best, but in the end, what matters most is our relationship with them. When our kids are adults, they won’t remember that their clothes were clean for strangers. Or if they do, it will be a negative feeling of imposed perfectionism. But what will have a huge impact is memories of compassion and love. You don’t have to be anything close to perfect for your kids, but you do have to make them feel truly loved. 

I feel like I am a much better parent today than I was all those years ago. Yes, life is messier now (and a lot louder!) But my kids and their different needs have helped me see what is most important in life: loving them and letting go of everything else.