When I tell people that I practice gentle parenting, I think they get the impression that this means always being positive, having infinite patience, and never losing one's temper or getting angry. In truth, I see gentle parenting as a practice, and one that takes considerable practice at that.
Yes, I do strive to always be responsive to my son. I try to maintain a positive outlook, to be supportive, to use gentle guidance instead of punishment, to be patient, and to keep my own emotions in check. But I'm human. And I have my own baggage. And I wasn't raised this way. And I'm not naturally patient or calm. And he's a toddler.
So sometimes I falter. Sometimes I feel resentful when my own needs go neglected too long. Sometimes I get sick of playing the same game 20 times, of cleaning up messes, of answering the same question over and over again, of repeating myself, of hearing him repeat himself, of whining, crying, and the whole lot. Sometimes I am just too darn tired to deal. While I don't use punishment, I do sometimes yell or say things I don't really mean. Sometimes I look like any other parent of a toddler.
So how is that "gentle" parenting? I think it's largely a matter of attitude and motivation. I don't condone my own shortcomings, nor do I dwell on feeling guilty about them. I apologize for my behavior to my son when I act in ways I don't want to. Then I make concerted efforts to do things differently, and tell him I am doing so. I reflect on what's driving my own emotions, then take steps to care for myself and heal myself if necessary. Sometimes I repeat my mistakes. So I try again. And again. I just keep trying. Parenting is, after all, a lifelong practice.
I also have an intense desire to be a better parent today than I was yesterday. I make that commitment every day and I make it a conscious choice. It's a decision that takes high priority in my life, but it is a decision I have to make repeatedly. I can't take it for granted that I'm just parenting along fine all the time. Even when things are going well, I still take time to consider how and why they are good so I can nurture those qualities. Over time, I believe those positive aspects of my parenting will become so habitual that my shortfalls will become less frequent and less intense. I'm growing with my son.
However, I think maybe the real trick to gentle parenting is being gentle to the parent. What I've found is that when I am patient with myself, I am patient with my son. When I put my basic needs first, I can easily tend to his. When I allow myself to experience and process my own emotions - however ugly or beautiful - I handle my son's emotions with sensitivity and compassion.
Don't get me wrong, my son's needs do come first. Sometimes his needs are in direct conflict with mine and I have to negotiate how and when to address my own needs. Those are challenging situations that I work on as they arise. Sometimes clarity comes with hindsight, but the point is I'm always looking, always trying to learn, always open.
More importantly, I am learning to love myself through those stressful circumstances so that I can show him the unconditional love that I feel for him, too. Self-love is a wellspring of unconditional love, the place where I find positivity, undying patience, and emotional well being. It's where I find my guide to gentle parenting.