By Meryn Callander

The Shadow Sides of Parenting

Firstly, I want to say that while I am woefully ill-equipped to engage in any theosophical or esoteric discourse on the nature of the soul, I believe that there are not, in truth, any shadows of the soul itself, but rather the shadows that the ego/personality casts on the Light of the Soul. That said, these shadows pursue us, as parents, in the fears that we lay awake with in the dark of the night—fears that maybe we are doing the wrong thing, that we have done the wrong thing, that we don’t know what to do, that we are failing miserably as a parent, we are unwittingly harming our child … 

We fear that there is something terribly wrong—it should not be this hard, this painful. We begin to question whether it is right that we are sleeping with our baby, breastfeeding our toddler, not forcing her into day care. It’s too hard to explain or justify why we are doing all this that previously felt so right … and still does, on our “good” days.   Or it may be that the shadows descended closer to the beginning of this journey, with a caesarean rather than the planned upon natural birth, or with postpartum depression … whatever it was, the rose colored glasses were torn from our eyes and we found ourselves cascading into the shadows of our deepest fears. And with this came a sinking feeling there is no turning back … . This is the power of the Call, of the evolutionary force that at some point has a momentum of its own, a momentum that will carry us with it even through those times of heartbreak, those times when it’s just “too hard” to carry on.

Then there are the shadows that wrap around us in the tensions that surface in our marriage sometime after the birth of a child. We may find our partner withdrawing, “disappearing”—be it physically or emotionally. This I wrote about in Why Dads Leave. We are bewildered, distressed, angry, resentful…disappointed, sad. What is wrong?   Then there is the perhaps even more devastating experience when we discover our partner, the father of our child, is in the arms of another woman. It’s as if the ground has fallen away under our feet. Being drawn into the shadows of the psyche is like falling down a psychic rabbit hole, falling like Alice into a totally unknown, disorienting world. The anticipated wonderland of parenting is not an adventure but an abduction, and we feel helpless, terrified, devastated … a failure, alone.

But you are not alone. There is no shame or blame to be garnered here. Far from it. At this point in history, these rabbit holes are the stuff of the early years of parenting. Let’s look at just a few of the statistics:

In a New York Times piece from June 2014 compiles multiple studies showing the personal and relational decline of happiness after becoming a parent entitled The Trauma of Parenthood. The Journal of American Medical Association study cited in the article shows that 42% of new mothers and 26% of new fathers exhibit signs of clinical depression three to six months after the birth of a child.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also cited in the NYT’s, found that the “transition to parenthood is linked to reduced happiness in the marriage and more negative behavior during marital conflict.”

A 2004 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family shows some of this unhappiness is directly tied to the isolation parents experience after the birth of a child.   An article from the Washington Postin August 2015 compiled another set of studies that formed the jarring headline, “It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner.”

What I want to show here is some of what lies behind these statistics, and to reveal that the monsters we face, the biggest ones, are not of our own personal making: Family patterns, stored cellular memory, genetic coding, human history, culture and patriarchy, each intent on control and domination … are against us. But the impulse to chart a new course, to turn inward and follow our instincts and intuitions, sourced from the depths of our heart … this is the Call, and to accept it is the most radical assertion of self-love you will ever make. Those monsters are, after all, but shadows. And you carry the Light.

Meanwhile, here we are. We have read all the right books, attended the recommended classes, watched the best DVDs … done everything to prepare us for being the very best mom we could possibly be but this, this was never ever to happen to us. We are caught unaware, unprepared, and all too often alone with no one and nothing to guide us.

Here We Are: Escape or Acceptance

Suddenly we feel anything but a hero. We do not want to acknowledge, far less grapple with, the fears and anxieties that run relentlessly through our mind. And why bother? Escape has never been easier. We have an infinite array of tools to enable us to do this—from the online world, to retail therapy, medications and mind-altering substances that can assist us at the throw of a pill to suppress or repress our feelings.

We stand now at a crossroads. The longing to escape lures us back into the Old Story, while following the Call demands we be fully present to what we are experiencing. It demands we accept the unacceptable—in others and in ourselves.

We do not condone it, rather we accept it and we stand to meet it. What we resist, persists. In time, we discover how much energy denial has demanded of us.   What is, is simply what is. What has happened, has happened. It is in the past. Our only power is in the present moment, and anchoring in the fact that the next moment unfolds out of our responses and reactions to this moment … and to the next, and the next.

Why Bother? The Promises of Buried Treasure

We can be very well informed, “conscious”, even very spiritual… but it’s those times when we are pushed right up to the edge of our ability to cope or to understand, and rather than turn to our addictions we pick ourselves up and stand to align with the energy of the Call that we meet the Heroine, in ourselves.   Following the Call demands that we trust, somehow, that those falls into the abyss and leaps off the cliff—the bruised egos and even dark nights of the soul—are the tests that take us beyond knowledge to wisdom.

Sometimes, trust can seem too much to ask, and then we must simply hope … we breathe, stand strong in possibility, be kind to ourselves, do what we can moment to moment, surrender to the gods, and pray. We align as best we can with the resonance of the Call, even in those moments when it is but a distant memory.   We find ourselves on a deep inner journey where those parts of our selves that are most feared, painful and humiliating are the very ones screaming for our attention. Confronting and comforting these “demons and dragons” is integral to the Journey. Rather than demonizing them, consider that throughout mythology the dragons appear as the protectors of precious treasure.   In this case, the dragons within were assigned their roles when we were children. They were called in to guard precious treasure. That treasure is you—the jewels of your authentic presence or true self.

It is honorable that we meet and treat our dragons with respect. In time we discover that the other side of this pain is our healing—our wholeness—and we emerge with a new knowing. We discover that it’s in the shadows that as knowledge becomes wisdom, our heart opens to hold more than we ever thought possible.   For a moment, because it impacts so many of us today, , I will look briefly at the impact of divorce and infidelity on our children. What it might mean for the children is beyond the scope of what we will address here, other than to state my opposition—grounded in both research and personal experience—to the myths that “children are resilient,” “it happens to everyone these days,” they will “get over it.”

The worst symptoms often appear when children try to form intimate relationships and families of their own, but do so with much less ability to trust and little idea of what a lasting marriage looks like. As adults, children of divorced parents have higher than average divorce rates, and children of infidelity are more likely to be unfaithful to their partner.   In a culture inundated with disposable items, relationships are considered more easily disposed of than worked on. At the same time, expectations of marriage have grown as other social networks—friends, extended families, neighborhood groups—have broken down. Working on a relationship through times of adversity conflicts with modern messages of choice, personal rights, and freedom.   Regardless, growing numbers of young adults are saying they want a monogamous marriage, and growing numbers of Americans are disapproving of infidelity. Yes, adults have greater freedom and more opportunity than perhaps ever before, but there are hidden costs—and the costs are escalating.


How Did I Get Here?

An understanding of how we landed here, struggling in the shadows of the soul or falling down into that proverbial rabbit hole, opens a window that will allow us to appreciate the magnitude of what we are dealing with as we walk this path. It can remove the blinders that keep us oblivious to the habitual mind patterns that keep us trapped. It can remove us, too, from the disempowering grip of shame and personal failure.

The Prevailing Culture

First, let’s take a step back to look at the larger picture of the prevailing culture. As women, we are enmeshed in a sociocultural system of patriarchy that for millennia has put women “in their place.” It is the very air we breathe. This claim may sound outdated, but a little discerning observation reveals that many “emancipated” women have simply traded skirts for trousers and handbags for briefcases, metaphorically if not physically. Rather than freeing the feminine within us, we have adopted masculine values in order to succeed in a “man’s world.” I am not saying this is bad or wrong, but we need to recognize that this perpetuates the Old Story, the story of patriarchy, of control, and all the enculturated beliefs, values, thought forms and emotions that accompany it.   On the other side of the coin, a 2005 U.S. study reported that the most important attributes associated with being feminine are being nice, pursuing a thin body ideal, showing modesty by not calling attention to ones talents or abilities, being domestic, and caring for children.

All but the latter demand a betrayal of our instinctual and intuitive nature, a betrayal of the heroine in us seeking to rise.

Few women are aware of the depth of the beliefs we carry that we are “less than,” or “not enough,” and that our worth, happiness, and fulfillment is to be found outside of ourselves—perhaps most obviously, in the eyes of a man. Feeling compelled to comply with demands or expectations of others as to who we should be and what we should do, we betray ourselves, day in and day out. “Not me,” you say? Perhaps, but first read carefully over this list, noting on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is never and 5 is always, where you fall on that continuum. No judging—simply noticing.

  • A woman betrays herself whenever she judges herself, sees herself as “less than” or not enough, or as being unworthy of love and respect.
  • A woman betrays herself when she lives in her head rather than her body. Most women learned at a very early age to abandon awareness of the body as a means of avoiding feelings of helplessness, fear, and pain. Many women live, almost habitually, with their attention out of the body.
  • A woman betrays herself whenever she turns to addictions to relieve her pain, rather than accepting responsibility for her feelings and what needs to be done.
  • A woman betrays herself when she laments or criticizes another’s attitudes or behaviors, and blames others rather than accepting responsibility for what is asked of her, to right the situation.
  • A woman betrays herself when, aware she is betraying herself, she persists in doing so.

When a woman has a healthy degree of self-worth and self-love, she is aware of her own needs and naturally sets and enforces boundaries that honor and respect these. In talking of self-love, I am not referring here to the “I-me-my-mine-itis” of the self-centered or narcissistic personality. This form of self-love has a place in our evolution—it is a step up from shame or fear, but it requires we think we are better than others, and this gives us permission to put others down, control or exploit them. When I talk of self-love, I refer to that which is sourced in the deep heart, the love that is “we” rather than “me first” in it’s daily orientation.

With self-love, you are your own best friend, you love and accept and encourage and care for and believe in yourself. Feeling no need to defend or protect or yourself, you feel connected to others, and treat others as you treat yourself.   With a healthy degree of self-love, we do not question whether or not we have a right for our own needs and aspirations to be respected, and to set the boundaries that allow her to do this. Sadly, this is the exception rather than the norm. In fact, many women are not even aware of their own needs and aspirations. There is no shame or blame here, for self-betrayal is endemic in the feminine collective. However, we can choose otherwise.

The Hero’s Journey is in many ways an invitation to do just that.   Whenever we deny our own needs, our inner sense of what is the most nourishing or right action to take in any given moment, we weaken the capacity of our instincts and intuition to guide and direct us. We lose our inner compass, we lose our way. We turn, as we have been taught, to external authorities to tell us how to parent our children.  

Our Own Childhood

This brings us to the second turning on the wheel of the bigger picture of “How did I get here?” The parenting style that emerges from patriarchy is one of control, rather than connection. This begins in infancy. If left alone in a crib to cry, we begin to doubt our own instincts, to feel there is something wrong with us. We are forced to learn this way rather than our own way. As a child, dependent on others for our survival, acceptance demanded we think in terms of what should I do, rather than what do I want.   From our earliest days, shame may have been silently communicated to us as children, either verbally or physically through the disapproval, ridicule, or absence of care and attention from our caregivers. Most of us, even those who present as intelligent and accomplished women, carry the belief that we are in some way lacking, unworthy of love. We pretend that we are okay, but there is something in us that feels that we are not.

“Shame … tells us that we are fundamentally flawed, no matter what we do and despite all evidence to the contrary. Shame discounts our good deeds and interprets any mistake as proof of our basic, unalterable unworthiness.” —Jalaja Bonheim, Ph.D., The Hunger for Ecstasy

If we had the good fortune not to receive a huge dose of shame from our parents, we absorbed it from the culture around us. The education system excels, as does the media, in shaping and creating what is normal and natural, right and wrong, worthy and worthless.   Given that the prevailing culture is intent on control rather than connecting us with our intrinsic worth and personal authority, it is of little wonder that shame and self-doubt emerge with a blast through the early years of parenting our children, and/or as we face ever increasing tensions in our marriage. These shatter that false façade of okay-ness, throwing us into places within us we have long denied, repressed, or suppressed. We are besieged by the internalized voices of control we carry in our head—the inner critic, the judge, the self-hater, the critical parents.  

Drum roll please, for here we have that turn of the wheel on the hero’s journey where we meet out dragons and demons, in the underbelly of parenting. We find substance in the statement, “I have met the enemy, and it is me.” Not fair! And why now? This brings us to the third turn of the wheel that acompanies us into the underbelly of parenting:   Our Own Adult Needs for Connection.

While, as parents-to-be, we spend countless hours devouring a bewildering amount of information from a multitude of sources about how to meet the needs of our infant and .child, nothing prepares us for the changes in lifestyle that are demanded of us. We are even less prepared for the changes that occur within us as we become mother/father, and between us as we assume these roles.

As early as 1950s, John Bowlby, the father of attachment science (the foundation for attachment parenting), spoke about the resentment a parent may experience after the birth of a child. He emphasized the importance of not blaming the parent, but looking to the origin of these feelings—their own infancy and childhood. More important than these early experiences, Bowlby discovered, was how as adults we reflect on these experiences.  

Bowlby discovered adults have the same attachment needs that children do, and this need shapes our adult relationships. When, as adults, we feel secure with our partner, we can reach out and connect easily. When insecure, we become anxious, angry, or controlling—or we avoid contact altogether. This is just what we see with parent and child.

 Today, hundreds of studies validate adult attachment needs, yet despite the significance to couples becoming parents, these studies have not found their way into any popular parenting books. The exception I know of being, allow with Why Dad’s Leave,  Elly Taylor’s recently published book Becoming Us.  

“The belief that all mothers automatically love their babies, or that all fathers can let go of past hurts to nurture their offspring, is naïve. Without exception, we are all descendants of generations of neurotic parents. This is not a criticism but a fact. The scars on our psyches tend to interfere with our natural capacity to love and respect both ourselves and others.” —Thomas R Verny, MD, Pre-parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception  

This highlights the importance of:

  • an awareness of our own attachment history;
  • reviewing our own early years to identify unresolved issues;
  • a healthy couple relationship prior to conceiving;
  • nurturing the adult couple relationship;
  • recognizing that the new father too is having a baby and needs reassurance and connection especially when baby arrives and he is likely to perceive his primary love relationship as being threatened—the subject matter of Why Dads Leave.

Yet we embark on parenting oblivious to these challenges that surface from the depths of our psyche, catching us completely unawares.   As if this isn’t enough … now to the fourth turn of the wheel drives us into the shadows of parenting.  

The Nuclear Family Disaster, or, Don't Take It Personally

While the early years of life are pivotal to the wellbeing of the child and the adult she becomes, they are also the years of greatest stress and isolation for most parents. Patriarchy is built on separation and control and so does not value the altruistic attitudes that are the essence of connection parenting. Parenting has never been more challenging than it is today, with the stronghold of the nuclear family.

In The Absence Of Intervention

The final turn of the wheel that I will address here revolves around a disturbing fact that—like most disturbing facts—is rarely addressed. This is the fact that most of us are ourselves the product of insecure attachment, and in the absence of intervention, this is passed from generation to generation, so compounding our difficulties in forming healthy relationships—a difficulty compounded the escalating rates of divorce and infidelity.   And so the disconnection, domination and control that is the essence of patriarchy thrives, and we see how each of these turns of the wheel drive the others in still deeper … and as long as we remain oblivious to them, drive us down deeper with it.  

Take Heart!

Take heart! Those of us who have chosen conscious parenting have accepted the Call to end this cycle. We have felt in the depths of our being, enough is enough. We have taken up the gauntlet. In our naiveté, we did not imagine what this would demand of us, and in the face of the challenges we can lose sight of ourselves as the courageous, wonderful beings we are.   This is true for any form of western style parenting, but perhaps especially for those of us practicing connection parenting. While the Old Story is one of control, the New Story is one of connection, compassion, communion, cooperation … the way of the feminine.

As such, it threatens the very fabric of the world as we have known it, generation after generation … this is how deep the resistance we meet is. Practicing connection parenting in a culture intent on control and domination … well, in another time and place we could be burnt at the stake for this. 

Do you see why this virtual retreat is named Parenting as a Hero’s Journey? And how you are, indeed, heroines of the New Story?   Do not underestimate the magnitude of the mission.   Do not underestimate the significance of every small step you take, in ending this cycle.   The Old Story would have you believe you are separate in your undertaking. Today, new physics confirms what the ancients and indigenous peoples have always known: that we are profoundly connected, that our every action and reaction, thought and emotion, reverberates throughout the web of life.  What you do, you do not do for yourself alone. This is the essence of the New Story.

A Way Out

An understanding of the larger context, the terrain we emerge from and the terrain we cross, helps us navigate our way through this unfamiliar—and make no mistake about it, unpredictable—territory. Recognizing that in becoming parents we enter a danger—or at very least caution—zone is not affirming the negative but preparing for the journey with an understanding of the challenges we may face. Just as the Chinese word for crisis is both danger and opportunity, diamonds are formed under the heat and pressure of the Hero’s Journey.  

Following the Call is hindered by viewing any dives or abductions into the dark side of parenting through the lens of personal failure, shame, or guilt. There are many things operating in our psyche over which we have no control, and so deserve our compassion. Similarly, we can rage endlessly against the world of the Old Story—whether our rage be directed at our parents, the medical system, the education system, the patriarchy—but neither blaming nor shaming will serve us.   And, at the same time, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to see and own our personal roles and responsibility in what is happening, we remain not only victims but perpetrators of the Old Story.  

Alone We Walk

I don’t know about you, but when I think of heroes I think of bells and flashing lights and applause. The journey we speak of here has none of that … we journey alone and no one else will know the courage we take, the depths we plunge into, the terrain we cover. They may have some familiarity with the territory, may be able to offer comfort, encouragement, crumbs we may follow … but where we each need to go inside ourselves, the voices we need to confront and to comfort, and the time it takes will be unique to each of us.

As Joseph Cambell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and creator of The Hero’s Journey said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”   I believe, as did Joseph Campbell and the thousands of years of human history the hero’s journey wheel represents, that the heroine’s journey is ultimately a journey home to our selves, to the deep sacred heart of our own authentic being. It doesn’t begin with parenting and it doesn’t end with parenting, but parenting can provide grist for the journey like perhaps nothing else.  

Having chosen to consciously parent, we have an incentive like never before to heal, to be our best self. And in parenting, we stand in the heights and in the depths of our love for our child … a love that has been said to be “supernatural.” Supernatural or not, mothering is the source for many women of a hitherto unknown wellspring of courage, compassion, determination and dedication. 

While the internalized voices of control, the demons and dragons we meet in the shadows of parenting challenge our determination and dedication like perhaps nothing before, while the forces against us seem huge, at the same time our hearts are wide open and we have on our side the power of the evolutionary force itself. We have, after all, heard the Call of the New Story.

How do we sustain that, how do we follow that over the voices that would have us turn back?   

The journey home to ourselves is an inside-out process. It’s not about what others say or what is expected of us. It’s a process of self-discovery—of shattering long held illusions and accessing our inner knowing, personal truths, and self-worth. This is not something that can be rushed, but we can engage in a process of inquiry and awakening that will set us firmly on the path. In the retreat I want to focus on what we as individuals can do now, in the immediacy of our daily lives, so as not to lose our way in the shadows of parenting.  How we can instead dive deep into ourselves and rise to meet the Call, to walk the walk that the New Story demands of us?

I make no claim to offer any single, sure-fire, clearly chartered path for you to follow but hope to deepen your awareness of the ways in which you may be seduced back into the life-depleting threads of the Old Story. I hope to deepen your appreciation of how with self-compassion and self-love you can cultivate the ground on which you can stand to restore and replenish your energy as you chart your own path through the shadows of parenting. Standing on the ground of your own authentic being the next step, and the next… is revealed. In its own time.   

The more we respond to the Call, the more it is given to us that we will no longer allow ourselves to be diminished by any power outside of our self. We discover the wellspring of power and potential within us. This power has never and can never be taken from us because it wasn’t granted to us by an outside authority, it is intrinsic in our being.


meet meryn callander

A Note from Meryn...

Many of us in the initial anticipation and excitement of Answering the Call into conscious parenting did not anticipate the frustration, distress, and even anguish that is often part of charting new territory. Almost each and every one of us has at some point had our hopes, dreams and aspirations come crashing down.   Whether you think of the Call as coming from your Higher Self, your Soul, or God/Goddess, it touched you so deeply that you have turned from the comfort of the known paths of parenting, perhaps even at the disapproval of family and friends … and now, as likely as not, you find yourself alone.

I found myself feeling a little daunted when Parenting As A Hero’s Journey creator, Lisa Reagan, proposed I address “the underbelly of parenting”, but then again, surely I know something about this … I have been forced into the underbelly of parenting, the dark corners of my soul, more times as a parent than I had ever anticipated. Goodness, I have authored two books on the subject (Why Dads Leave and After His Affair). And so I wondered, why this apprehension?

The subject at hand touches vulnerable, tender parts in me … the sadness, the helplessness I felt so acutely when I was unable to protect my daughter from the inevitable hurts of life—did I really ever imagine I would be able to? The times I knew—in retrospect—I had done “wrong” by her. The times I felt disappointed in, or angry with, my then husband … I had no idea how having a child would impact us, as individuals or as a couple. These are hard times, painful times, bewildering times. We all know them, in one way or another.

Today I know these vulnerable, tender parts that are still so alive in me serve me well, they are a gift to me … far from wishing them away, I receive them, soften into them. Although these times may now be in the past, the tenderness remains forever … and with that the knowledge of how vulnerable we as human beings are, the knowledge of the power in that vulnerability, the knowledge that our children come through us but have their own paths to walk and lessons to learn and destiny to live. I learned the value of surrendering into the moment, and trusting that even in our suffering and struggles, everything is just as it is meant to be. I learn that the learning never ends … and so here, my wish is that we will learn, together, a little more about parenting in the shadows of the soul, and the gifts therein.