Kate Spencer, co-host of the Forever35 podcast and author of The Dead Moms Club, shares why it’s so important—and also so challenging—to take care of yourself as a parent but also how important it is to teach your kids to do the same.
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[01:16] Hi, I’m Kate Spencer, and you’re listening to Good Kids: How Not to Raise an Asshole.
[01:25] A good kid is kind and empathetic. That is, I think in the end, all I hope for for my children and all children, and I would want that to extend to themselves. So, kind and empathetic to others, and kind and empathetic to themselves. You know, my understanding of empathy and kids goes back to when I was a kid. And my parents, I think, did their best to raise my brother and me as not-assholes, and yet I was an asshole a lot of the time. And I was unkind. And I did not extend empathy to others, especially in middle school. I did things to friends that were not nice. And, you know, there was a lot of fighting and silent treatment and anger. And also not feeling good about myself and not liking myself at times.
[02:41] And so I know from my own experiences growing up what kind of emotional challenges can arise for kids. And so that is something I think a lot about with my own. You know, let’s be honest, we are all assholes. I don’t think we would be humans if we didn’t occasionally dip a toe into asshole behavior. And I think that is what helps us understand then how to be kind. You know, we’re often encouraging ourselves and our children and others to make mistakes. And that’s the only way we learn. And I think that is how we learn to be good, kind, empathetic people. Pay attention to how it feels when someone is kind to you and pay attention to how it feels when you are kind to someone else. And then also pay attention to how it feels when you’re kind to yourself. Because I think sometimes those moments pass without us noticing how they make us feel. And I suspect that if we kind of note how we feel in those instances, we will be inclined to do them again.
[03:55] You know, I do a podcast for adults — we actually have teen listeners, which has been amazing — and it’s about self-care and acknowledging that we need love and attention in whatever form that takes on. But what is tricky is that sometimes that can veer into self-absorption and selfishness, and figuring out a way to teach my kids how to care for themselves, and how to make sure they know they have needs that are important, but also knowing when they need to acknowledge other people and put other people first. And I find that’s a very hard balance. And I’m raising two daughters, 6 and 9. One is almost 7, but you know how kids are, they’re very adamant about holding onto their ages until their birthday. So she would probably say she’s 6 and three-quarters. But, you know, I want them to feel empowered to say no in all situations. I want them to value their needs and their time and know their worth and their importance. And I think especially with young girls, we still culturally often raise girls and women to put other people first. And that can be a really tricky balance, especially when I’m also working on valuing myself and my voice and being heard more. And so I want to model that for my own kids.
[05:32] So it’s kind of double-work: working on it with myself still as a 40-year-old person, and then also trying to model that behavior so my daughters pick it up inherently. I hope they learn by example. I do have conversations with them about all sorts of things ranging from, you know, the importance of canvassing in our neighborhood about a local political measure, to caring for others. And we, you know, we ask them to put aside some of the allowance we give them to give back to our community. But also then extending kindness to themselves. But, you know, I’m trying to model those things, so showing them through my volunteering, or whatever it is that I do that this is a choice for them as well. But ultimately, you also have to let them come to these things themselves, and hope that you’ve modeled enough so that they just do it.
[06:39] It can take time. And that can be frustrating as an adult with aspirations for your children and how they treat people. One challenge for me is staying quiet as my oldest daughter works through friendships, deciding who she’s friends with, who she’s not friends with, how she wants to treat people. Now you can only say and guide so much, at some point you have to let them experience it themselves. Experience the discomfort, experience rejection, experience what happens if they make a choice and they don’t treat somebody with kindness.
[08:41] Taking care of yourself when you’re also raising children is a conundrum. It’s a challenge. It’s a struggle. You know, part of it for me, for example, is recently my children were home sick for days and days and I work from home. And because they were home sick, I got less work done. And then when they went back to school, they had a, you know, a big kind of volunteer-friendly activity, and they wanted me to go volunteer. And I had to tell them no, because, you know, my work is also important. In addition to taking care of my emotional and mental well-being, I wanted to take care of my work as well. And I don’t want my children — as asshole-y as this is gonna sound — to always think that they come first with me. I want them to know that sometimes I am going to have to choose work or my career or choose myself.
[09:36] And that’s not because I don’t love them unconditionally. It’s because I also value what I do professionally, and I value time where I get to recharge. And I want them to know one day, whether they become parents or not, those things can be important to them as well. And I fear saying this — that someone might hear it and think I’m a selfish parent or have disregard for my children’s needs. But I think balancing it all is really, really challenging. And you can get sucked into extending all your energy or focus in one part of your life, especially as a parent. And it is OK, I think, to show your kids that other things also can occasionally take precedence in your life. You know, one thing you hear a lot is the old saying, like, you’ve got to put your oxygen mask on first before you put it on your kids. And I do think the idea that you have to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others is truly important and accurate. And you have to take time for yourself to rest, to recharge, to nourish, to pay your bills so that you are able to then show up and be present and be there for the people in your life.
[11:10] I think there is pressure on parents, and especially mothers, to be all the things for all the people. And it can feel scary and uncomfortable to make a different choice. Like tonight, I’m going to go to a movie by myself, an adult movie, and I’m going to take myself out to dinner. And you’re not coming, like, this is my time. You know, it can feel uncomfortable, to remember your autonomy, I think, as a parent. And declare that and remove yourself a little bit from your children every now and then. But I think it’s so important to remember the things that interest you and also to keep exploring new things that interest you as an adult. I mean, look, I’m taking tap dancing and ballet class for the first time in my life. Every Thursday night, you know, and I’m missing bedtime with my kids so I can go learn how to tap dance. And the coolest thing is that my kids think it’s awesome. I feel so supported by them as I explore this new terrifying hobby that I’ve developed as a grown-up.
[12:21] I feel like it is important to always be trying the things that interest you, whether they’re new or repeat things from your past, and to show your children that you can be uncomfortable, or be new at something, or not be good at something and keep doing it. I also tell them how nervous I am all the time about my dance classes because I am truly, truly terrified and almost didn’t go because I was having such anxiety about it. But I did it. I enjoyed it. I will also say that the day before my first-ever dance class, my daughter was running late for ballet and she was taking her sweet time and we ended up being late. And I gave this whole speech about respect and respecting others and how her lateness wasn’t showing respect to the other students in her class and her teacher. And then the next night I took my first dance class and I was late. And I told her that, I was like, remember how I was really frustrated with you being late for your ballet class? Well, guess what? I did the same thing. So I want you to know that I also do that, and I recognize my choices weren’t respectful of the other people. But, you know, I try to tell them that I’m also an asshole.
[13:39] So one thing that I’ve given both my daughters, which they’ve asked for, are journals. And I’m always encouraging them, when they’re mad at me especially, to go write about it in their journals. And that seems to help them process their feelings of frustration. I mean, I also think they’re probably just journaling about whatever it is a 9 year old and a 6 year old think about. But I have definitely said to them, like, I know you’re frustrated with what I’m telling you, and that’s OK to feel that way. If you want, you can go write about it in your journal. And you know, I’ll see them in their rooms scribbling away. Then they also, like, try to hide their journals, but they do it while I’m in there. So I don’t know if they totally understand that like the hiding space. I don’t know what they think. I don’t read them. I would never do that.
[14:31] But I like that they are figuring out that that’s a way for them to express themselves and get out whatever feelings they might be having and work through them. On my podcast, we answer listener questions, so we’re often giving advice. And one thing we preface every episode with is that we’re not experts. And I think the same is true of being a parent and also just being a human. I’m still learning. I’m still doing this, like, this is my first time, you know, probably last time as a person. And so I try to fail in front of my kids and acknowledge when I’ve made mistakes or tell them when I’ve done something wrong to them or just in general. Because you can give advice out, but truly, I feel like you also have to take it, you know. Especially when talking about self-care and self-care as a parent, that’s an ongoing challenge for me and figuring out balance.
[15:37] I mean, balance is bullshit. But figuring out how to, you know, extend myself without overextending is that’s gonna be like life’s work, right? Like, that’s just never solved. It’s never easy. It’s never finished. And again, I think that’s OK. You know, I don’t think anybody is here for the pursuit of perfection.
[16:00] I’m definitely not because I’m a total mess, but I don’t mind that. So how do I reconcile the fact that I’m going to fail as a parent and, when that happens, to be kind to myself? I mean, that’s the journey. That is the challenge of parenting. And this whole idea of kindness, right? I mean, we talk about behavior modeling for our kids, but you’ve got to do it whether or not your kids are paying attention, especially when it comes to kindness about parenting failures. I mean, let’s be honest, the way I work through it is talking to my therapist about it. Key to surviving parenting. But I also tell my kids when I feel like I have failed them because I think they sense it, they sense that I maybe have not made a great choice. And so I want to kind of validate whatever they’re sensing. But also I feel like it’s important to communicate to them, “Oh, man. I messed up. I don’t feel great about it. I’m sorry.” And then also, like, bounce back from that and move on to the next thing. Because the only way you’re ever going to succeed as a parent is by just failing over and over and over again. I mean, that’s parenting. Parenting is like a sea of failures dotted by the occasional parenting success.
[17:32] And it is really, really hard. But the moments that you feel like you’ve done it right or, you know, you can sense that it’s all going well, I feel like that’s what you earn from screwing up all the time. You wouldn’t be a human if you didn’t totally occasionally suck at parenting. You’re not perfect. You wouldn’t want your children to think that about themselves or about you. And I think showing them your challenges and failures and mistakes and weaknesses, whatever you want to call it like, it just helps them be more comfortable with their own. I want my kids to not hold themselves to a standard of perfection, so I don’t either, I don’t hold myself to that.
[18:34] If you want to find out more about me, you can listen to me on my podcast, Forever35 podcast, or check out my book, The Dead Moms Club. And I’m on social media @KateSpencer.
[18:49] Good Kids is a production of Lemonada Media. It’s produced and edited by Andrew Stephen. Our executive producer is Stephanie Wittels Wachs and our music is by Dan Milad. Ad sales and distribution are by Westwood One. You can find out more about Lemonada online @LemonadaMedia. If you liked what you heard share, rate, review, say great things about us.