Family Life…Living with Compassion

Family involves a lifelong commitment from parents and structures should exist to support parents, writes Fiona McCarthy

Fiona McCarthy

In my research I have read so many enriching and uplifting quotations describing the quality of compassion. It was interesting to note that at the time of reading these quotations, I was tired and feeling overloaded with the business of combining family life and work life in the middle of a most Irish of Irish summers! Simply reading the literature softened my edges and evoked a feeling of calm and a sense of motivation to carry on with the task in hand.

I have worked as a counsellor in Ireland and Scotland for the past 20 years and I have had the privilege of being part of many experiences of family life. During that period of time I also met with people who had not grown up in a family unit. Suffice to say that institutions rarely provide the type of environment that is conducive to healthy growth and development.

Family life varies in its composition and Ireland has become a more tolerant society, less fearful about embracing diversity. This is positive, as tolerance, love and support are surely significant elements of any healthy society. When I write about family I am writing of the composition of one or two parents living with their children.


In my experience, family life is wonderful, demanding, joyful and painful and often involves a degree of soul searching. It is within this context that future generations learn so much about values, relationship with self and relationships with others. It is the first holding place into which we are born and we are so often shaped by our experience of family life.

The parent or parents in any family hold an abundance of power and carry so much responsibility and yet we too are only human and indeed are the products of our own upbringing.

A mature and thoughtful society understands the importance of the role of parents in contributing to the lives of the future generation. Family life involves a life long commitment from parents and it is essential that structures exist to support them to do their best for their children.

There are days when family life feels like a cacophony of sound, with some members of the group clamouring for constant attention and affirmation and others happy and at times relieved to fade into the background.

As parents we know that every voice, including our own, deserves attention. We know that we all thrive in an atmosphere of encouragement, love and support.

In general, parents aim to provide the best environment for their children but what happens when we fall short of that ideal? Is it possible to extend an attitude of compassion towards our partners and ourselves, pick up the pieces and start again?

Before we think about this, let me reflect briefly on the attitude of compassion. Compassion may be defined as a human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It is often though not inevitably the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism.

How do we apply this to family life? Mother Teresa once said “compassion begins at home and it is not how much we do but how much love we put in that matters. Do not think that love has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired”.

Parenting on any given day is demanding both emotionally and physically and at times it can be truly exhausting.

Compassion for oneself softens our attitude towards our partners and ourselves when we inevitably mess up. In terms of family life we are charged with extending such an attitude of compassion to ourselves first and then to the people around us. It is hard to imagine and for many of us, hard to put it into action. We need to find ways to love ourselves first without ever getting tired!

My experience in the counselling room and in my own life has taught me that unfortunately we do tire of ourselves. We are human and so there are times when we become judgmental, anxious, depressed, often despairing of how we can carry on with life.

During these times it can be difficult to give to others, indeed we struggle to be with ourselves but these are the times when we are in most need of compassion. We need to turn to partners, members of our extended family, our friends a counsellor, or a loving God.

It is essential that the adults in any family circle are supportive, caring and respectful of their own humanity and integrity in order to fully support the development of children in our care.

Pema Chodron writes: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded, it is a relationship between equals.

“Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity.”

During a particularly challenging period in my life I retreated into a world of self-blame and utter isolation.

Without doubt it was the compassion of family and friends, and when they got tired, a counsellor that allowed me to restore a more accepting sense of myself and ultimately facilitated me to take up the reins again and be the parent I needed and wanted to be to my young child.

Healthy family life begins with the parents. We cannot provide the type of loving humane environment that is so supportive of our children unless we are compassionate toward our partners and ourselves.

It’s a tall order when both are tired or worried or stressed, but compassion can soften the harshest of attitudes and experience.

Children learn from their parents and they will integrate attitudes of self-care, caring for others, endurance and commitment when they bear witness to parents who are willing to recognise and support their shared humanity.


Fiona McCarthy runs the Knock Counselling Centre.