Thursday, July 11, 2013

Good Enough: Perfectionism and Parenting

I managed to reign in a fair few of my perfectionist tendencies after becoming a parent. When I returned to work at two days per week just after Riker turned one, I realized I had to get a lot done in a very short period of time and I couldn't afford to spend hours on the fine details. I learned to be more efficient and probably more effective as well. Was anything done perfectly? Nope, but it was good enough.

Similarly, I've had to abandon those perfectionist leanings when it comes to parenting. It doesn't take more than three days on the job to realize that parenting is messy business (literally and figuratively) and that by maintaining unreasonable standards, you'd send yourself to the loony bin pretty quickly. Plus, it's one thing to try to ensure a quilt or a document or an event are stitched, edited or managed perfectly, but no matter how hard you try, you just can't project manage a child into your desired outcome.

With so much conflict happening between the boys lately, I've had to revisit the notion of "good enough" parenting. This post is about how I've tried to conscientiously move from a place of frustration to a place of acceptance (more or less) of both mine and my children's strengths and weaknesses.

When Riker was about nine months old, I called up my dear friend Katherine feeling distraught and completely exhausted. I wasn’t enjoying mothering at that moment and I was feeling that my ideals were failing me because Riker was waking up every hour all night long and I was crumbling. Before she'd finished saying hello I burst into tears and told her of my frustration, hopelessness and guilt. I felt angry at my baby for his sleeplessness and had yelled at him in the middle of the night. For this I felt horrendously guilty. The advice Katherine gave me as I was sobbing into the phone has stuck with me to this day. And since I've been experiencing some trying behaviors lately, I've been thinking about that advice again.

The first thing she said was to give up the guilt. Let it go. Throw it away. Stamp it out. This, however, is most certainly easier said than done and I've thought about this a lot in the past few years. I think it's because I waited so long to have children and spent so much time thinking about the parent I would be, that the realities that stand in stark contrast to the ideals I held can be so frustrating and guilt inducing. When I don't respond in ways I'm proud of, I feel bad. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that a particular action was not one we are proud of or want to repeat, but it doesn't do any good to keep beating ourselves up. One of the only ways I've found to give up guilt is to recognize the ways in which I judge myself and to then consciously stop making those judgments. I know I'm trying to be the best parent I can be (if I didn’t care so much, I wouldn’t feel guilty, now would I?) so I try to curb the self talk that says "bad parent" when I make a mistake. Then I remind myself that I'm only human and that the only person expecting me to be "perfect" is me. So if the day held more yelling than I care to admit, I do my best to forgive myself, learn from the incident and move on. Each day is a new day and all we can hope for is to do better tomorrow.

Back to that phone call that saved my sanity. Katherine went on to say that even if each of us could be an absolutely perfect parent, we would NOT want to be for the sake of our children. Now she had my attention. I know I'm a pretty decent parent most of the time, but I certainly have my share of less than perfect parenting moments. Katherine was telling me that not only is this normal, but perhaps it’s even desirable. Our children will not live out their lives in a bubble where everyone always responds to them with infinite patience. Their lives will be filled with relationships that are emotionally complex and challenging. In order to exist in the real world, our children need to witness and experience a whole spectrum of emotions and learn how to deal with them appropriately. They need to see that normal and healthy adults get angry, lose their patience and even say hurtful things once in a while. But when the angry adult has calmed down, they apologize if necessary and then go back to being their normal, calm and happy selves.

Eureka! This advice was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment of despair once upon a time ago and to date it's some of the best parenting wisdom I've received. The mistakes we make as parents offer us an opportunity to teach our children valuable lessons. When they see us accept responsibility for our own actions, they learn that it’s okay to make mistakes and they begin to learn the art of forgiveness as well. Those same mistakes offer us as parents the opportunity to be gentle and forgiving with ourselves.

We can take some comfort knowing that as long as we are trying to do our best, then it’s surely good enough. In fact, good enough may be just what our children need to become well-rounded and resilient individuals!

 These moments of affection make my heart soar!


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