Every parent has a least favorite task to do with their kids. I have more of a top ten, but there is no question that haircuts rank at the very top.
Now, I know that most kids go through a period of disliking having their hair cut. They have to sit still, engage with a stranger, and deal with some serious sensory discomfort. My own kids have always particularly hated this ritual. For a while, a lollipop or trip to the park after was enough to at least get through the experience, but those promises lost their luster a while back.
I find myself totally dreading the hair salon several days before the appointment. I’m anticipating what typically happens: We start with a refusal to go in. If we work through that, my kids will approach the stylist with a mix of trepidation and anger. They tell them not to cut anything, leaving the poor stylist to look at me helplessly. I signal that they should, in fact, cut their hair, and then the real drama begins. We’ve had everything from kids running away and locking themselves in the salon bathroom, knocking over other patrons, screaming obscenities, covering heads with their hands, jumping up and down, and so much more.
The experience itself is utterly exhausting. I find myself running between the various kids, trying to validate to them how much they dislike it, while also trying to just get this done as quickly as possible so we can leave this stupid place. I’m putting out fires, chasing kids down, and trying to keep myself regulated while salon staff and patrons alike seem to be staring daggers into me. I’m trying to avoid a repeat of the time we were even not-so-politely asked to leave.
If we somehow manage to get out the door with everyone having less hair than we came in with, it’s been a raving success. I guess.
Because I’ll still find myself feeling like a total failure. My heart hurts and my mind spirals with questions.
What am I doing wrong?
When will this get easier? Or will it?
What’s wrong with my kids and what did I do to make them this way?
How can I be causing them so much grief?
Why is this so hard for me?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about our experience with haircuts and just how miserable they make my whole family. I’ve realized a few things that probably feel glaringly obvious as a reader. Maybe most simply, the current approach isn’t working and it needs to be adjusted.
And honestly, when I can step out of frazzled mom mode and into objective analyst mode, I can see dozens of different ways to mitigate the painfulness of this and improve our experience. For one, I need to find a more kid-friendly and understanding salon. I need to do more practice and preparation for the distress with my kids. I should probably take them one or two at a time so there is less intensity and I stay more in control. I need to better prepare my own body and brain to help me stay closer to baseline during the particularly tricky moments.
But here’s what I know: I can never and will never be able to find the ways to support them through this experience while I’m in a place of anxiety, self-blame, and guilt.
We are so accustomed these days to the experience of “mom guilt” that some of us even worry we’re not doing enough if we aren’t feeling it.
I hardly think I need to define it, but for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll tell you how I’m conceptualizing it here. Mom guilt is that pervasive and disquieting feeling as a mother that we’ve not done enough or not done things right for our children. What makes it so painful, though, is not just the idea of screwing up, but that we find ourselves believing that our mistakes will somehow negatively alter the course of their trajectory.
Mom guilt is an interesting phenomenon to me in a lot of ways, but particularly because while it’s an internal experience, it’s shaped so strongly by cultural forces.
Consider, for example, how much more mom guilt is embedded into our current parenting ethos than it was for our parents and grandparents. Sure, we are in no way the first generation of parents to feel badly for not doing right by our kids, but previous generations didn’t live and breath their parenting experience through the lens of guilt and worry.
We all know the trope of the mom who locked the kids outside until dinner, trusting the kids and the world to bring them home in one piece. They didn’t see their constant protection as their role, and relatedly didn’t take absolute responsibility for how their children engaged with the world. If a kid got in trouble at school, parents were upset, but they didn’t generally internalize the experience as reflective of deep failures on their own part. They didn’t question whether the issue was caused by them working outside the home, or giving them dairy, or letting them have too much screen time.
Fast forward and we have a current generation of millennials and Gen Xers who are sorting through this seeming lack of accountability of their parents in therapy, wrestling with how this less intensive approach left them feeling at times unseen. And who should we blame for our problems with intimacy? Our lack of drive? Our uncontained emotions?
As modern parents, so many of us feel committed to doing things differently. We are a generation of responsibility. We would never leave things up to chance for our kids, prefering to have control at best and oversight at minimum. We curate experiences for them. We know their whereabouts, always. We travel thousands of miles for sports. We read parenting books by the dozens. We buy conversation cards and resilience-building toys. Nothing left to chance.
But the reality of parenting – indeed the reality of humaning– is that we can only influence so much. I know that this might be the last thing that many of us want to hear, having invested so many of our resources into shaping our kids’ worlds for the better. But it might be just what so many of us need to hear.
Consider this for a second: our children are born with over 400 unique and specific traits that are written into their genetic code long before they come earthside. This is a point driven home by Dr. Russel Barkley, a psychologist famous among the mental health set for his ground-breaking work in ADHD. His work extends beyond neurodivergence, and he serves as one of the preeminent voices on child development writ large.
He describes our children not as a lump of clay to be molded by parents, even by loving and capable parents, but as a “unique genetic mosaic,” The mosaic is comprised of genes passed down through innumerable generations of humans, the vast majority of whom we’ve of course never even met. Instead of working to mold or engineer the outcome, Dr. Barkley begs parents to instead think of themselves as shepherds. We didn’t engineer the sheep, but we can learn it and guide it.
An interesting dichotomy in modern psychology is that we are prioritizing biology and brain science over all else, but at the same time we love the idea that we can control outcomes. We’re left in this tension between recognizing the biological bases of so many aspects of personhood, but also rejecting the idea that some things may be pre-written.
One result of this constant tension is mom guilt. As mothers, it’s as if recognizing those 400 unique genetic traits is like giving up. But it’s not. It’s so far from it.
The shepherding approach reminds us that we are raising complicated, unique, messy, imperfect people who need our guidance, but not our guilt. We cannot – and should not – be responsible for all of our kids’ reactions, responses, and behaviors. We can learn each child intimately and use our best shepherding skills to lead. We can tend the pasture. But that’s all.
How as mothers do we confront the crushing guilt that threatens to derail our shepherding skills? One way is by holding together in our minds two seemingly opposing thoughts, both that come from the recognition of our child as a unique genetic mosaic.
The first is that because each kid is a mosaic, this particular child has never been parented before. No one on this planet can know precisely how to parent this one, and so no one is doing it better. Our experience is unique.
The second is that we exist in a worldwide community of parents who are each trying to parent their mosaic of a kid. We are all trying to learn each of our little humans and are all doing it imperfectly. We are in this together.
Next time you are in a situation in which your mom guilt is loud and threatening to derail your solid mom instincts with self-criticism, consider repeating this two truths to yourself, perhaps with a hand over your heart or belly and while taking a deep breath:
Inhale: It makes sense that this is hard.
Exhale: I’m not alone in going through this.
A couple of days after our most recent haircut fiasco, a friend posted about her youngest child’s own struggles with haircuts. He’s been diagnosed with autism and this mama has been working extraordinarily hard to find ways to shepherd him. She shared on her post about how they worked for weeks preparing for the cut, and they had it scheduled with a local barber known for his work with kids with special needs.
I admired how in tune to her kiddo’s needs this mom was and all that she did to make this experience as low-stress as possible for him.
It left me thinking about how so many of the mamas of special kiddos have something to teach the rest of us. Many of these moms have long recognized that believing they could engineer their child differently or getting mired in guilt was going to lead them to nowhere but misery. Instead of drowning in self-critical thoughts or feeling responsible for everything, they focus on how their child is a unique mosaic in need of their guidance.
My wish for all of us doing the work of modern parenting is that we can see our children this way. I hope that we can see the goodness not just in them, but in ourselves too. I hope that we can release ourselves from the tyranny of guilt. I hope we can be shepherds.