You[v'e] never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent. Every day, your first thought is not "I love him" but "how is he?" The world, overnight, rearranges itself into an obstacle course of terrors."
The above quote on parenting is taken from Hanya Yanagihara's novel, A Little Life. The novel itself approaches the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped gay life obliquely. Ironically, it reminded me of American parenting and the collective traumas that have so deeply shaped our parental lives today, often not so obliquely.
To somehow yoke the term parenting with the concept of an obstacle course of terrors seems somewhat frightening, and honestly an unlikely partnership of sorts. And yet, ironically, this description actually comes close to describing the profound mystery of parenting Americans are faced almost every day.
In truth, nobody ever said parenting was easy. It's just they never said it was quite so hard and fearful. And guilt-ridden. And, finally, anxiety-provoking. (Or did they?)
A friend recently reminded me of collective fear parenting. Half joking, half-serious he informed me of the horrors he faced during his own parental invocation when presented with the arduous task of reading What To Expect When You're Expecting in anticipation of his child's arrival. I smiled as he told me this since I realized my ex-husband read that one also, in addition to multiple others. In fact, I remember making him watch all the movies, too. (One wonders are there any dads out there who actually read these without being asked? Oh and did you know there exists also The Happiest Toddler On the Block? That's perhaps a separate topic.)
One laughs at the books and articles we all read nowadays in prep for children as though one could ever possibly prepare for children appropriately in a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month manual or guide. Would that we could approach them so uniformly and that all their temperaments might be the same.
The literature I remember reading as a child regarding childhood and parenting and guilt, or rather the only three stories that stood out to me involved a Hemingway story where an Indian slits his throat while listening to his wife screaming in labor since he is so demoralized by her agony; a Flannery O' Connor story where a grandmother lies to her grandchildren, manipulates her son, and harps constantly about the inadequacy of the present and superiority of the past; and finally a story by Tillie Olsen that tells of a narrator oppressed by a multitude of circumstances who, in reminiscing, greatly laments the choices she has made as a mother.
The latter story on parenting affected me deeply at an impressionable age as I recall. I was fourteen when I first read this story and also having difficulties with my own mother who was sick with a terminal cancer and unable to meet many of my own teenager needs.
Ironically, now I am a single mother of two children myself and I read the story differently; this time from a mother's perspective, of course -- and a single parent's mother's perspective, at that.
Indeed, Olsen's story about parenthood, guilt, life and how circumstances are not always conducive to great parenting is as singularly moving as it is tragically accurate. In "I Stand Here Ironing" Tillie Olsen in a single sentence captures motherhood and failure simultaneously. She writes, "I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron." The single metaphor of ironing out wrinkles in a child's garment and ironing out wrinkles in our minds of our perceived failures as parents is well wrought with symbolism and meaning.
And the wrinkles deepen. There is somewhat of a defeatist attitude in her tone, one of deep failure and resignation, and a sad acceptance that motherhood itself can often be far from the idealized idea of motherhood society would have us embrace. As she relays to us at the outset of the story, somehow the ability as a parent to pause, to analyze a particular situation deeply, and to then determine the best course of action was a luxury she never had when she was a young mother. And who among us can't relate to this? So many times we react rather than act. Most of the time as parents we don't have the luxury of time and contemplation and the ability to process.
Olsen reminds me of the modern day parent and effortlessly captures the angst in parenthood, the guilt ridden thoughts that plague us everyday as parents. She endearingly confesses:
You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me. And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped...I nursed her. They feel that's important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness.
And there, right there is the line of lines for anxiety ridden guilt induced parents everywhere. "I did like the books said." As though there could ever be a single book on parenting that won't be later contradicted by another book or article on parenting that won't offer ten million different choices we should or shouldn't make that in essence if we don't make will ruin our children's lives.
I believe we as parents would be better suited to focus on the process of parenting itself and where we are in our parenting today, authentically, and not so much the end goal of where we want our children to be.
Why don't we meet our children where they are and parent there?
Yes, it is obvious that we are all imperfect, inconstant, unpredictable, even flaky at times, that we're given to changing our minds, driven by heredity and environment - but we are also incredibly resilient, and thoroughly capable of change, as are our children. We should force ourselves to stand back and look at ourselves and our children for who we and they truly are -- complex human beings and that everything will be okay. Most of the time, anyway!
Is it perhaps time to take a brand new approach to parenting? Is it time to burn our books and articles as we once did our bras? Is it time to send the angst-ridden mom, the helicopter parent, the over-worried father out to pasture?
There's hope apparently. This past weekend, a close friend of mine shared with me an alternate collection of essays on parenting that appeared in Harper's magazine entitled, "http://harpers.org/archive/2015/08/how-to-be-a-parent/How To Be A Parent." What appealed to me most was how these essays were collectively introduced and framed and thus presented -- all in terms of parenting and how and where we fit in as modern parents.
The intro seemed to indicate that these are difficult times for parents mainly because of all the books and choices on children and literature made readily available to us. It seems choices don;t help us. These parenting essays however appear not as prescriptive but rather descriptive. The essays detail not "how we should" parent but "how we have" parented, which, I agree, is probably the best kind of parenting advice anyone could ever give. In a sense, do as I do if you want to and think it might be beneficial but don't do as I say, ever.
The same forum of essays made me think of what story I would write of motherhood, of parenting were I asked, and leads me to believe my story would inevitably also revolve around guilt in motherhood too, just like Olsen's narrative. Are we a mothers of guilt forum?
I recall three years ago confessing to a therapist when my fourteen-month-old son Liam was diagnosed with autism that I was bombarded with guilt for what his life might become, how it might fall short of what it could be, how I had failed him somehow, how sad I was that he wouldn't have all the other opportunities regular children have, etc,. Well, actually it began with her asking me if I was angry that my son had autism since she never had seen me express any anger at such. I told her anger would have felt uncomfortable, guilt was more natural.
I vividly remember her response -- something so helpful I think now perhaps it might also have helped the narrator in Tillie Olsen's story act rather than react and get busy parenting. (Tillie Olsen's narrator should have seen my therapist on Congress Avenue.) I clearly recall, amidst the tears and pains of frustration Elizabeth my therapist asking me how this new found guilt of mine would help my son heal, recover, fight, persevere? Did it serve a purpose in his recovery? How would my guilt ultimately help my son? She had a point. Would focusing on his weaknesses and mine, my mistakes, things I could not change make life better for either of us? If I thought the answer was YES than i should continue to do it.
The truth, of course, from all my readings is that guilt couldn't help my son or me. It doesn't help the majority of people in their parenting unless it is truly understood for what it actually is.
And yet, guilt in parenting is everywhere, misunderstood and heavily courted and wooed on a day-to-day basis. We somehow cry out for these articles like poverty stricken lepers who are searching for comfort that can't help us. I have many friends who are parents and most of them are trans-guilty, everyday. What I mean by that is I don't believe I have ever had a conversation with a single one of these parent friends where they can deny having guilt about how they have raised or are raising their children.
Everywhere I go, every parent I talk with I hear it or some subtle combination of it. "I was too critical" or "I wasn't affectionate enough" or "I'm not engaged with my kids" or "I have my mind on multiple other things" or "I lost my temper and overreacted" or "I should have dealt with the divorce better." A penny for every time I have heard an anxious, loving parent and friend ask others for advice, help since their child is bed-wetting, or overreacting, or talking back, or fighting with a sibling, or acting like a child.
Even worse is the guilt when we can't make every choice we would like to make for our children since there will always be options we must turn down, one sport or activity over another and we feel guilty about this too.
And guess what guilt can bring on - more helicopter parenting and more control. And that in essence equals more guilt and more shame. And the cycle continues, repeatedly.
I'm not saying guilt is all bad (yes, that's the Irish Catholic in me speaking). But everything in moderation, as the Greeks might say. If the French truly are doing a wonderful job in parenting I would warrant it's because they don't have the same guilt. Hell, I don't believe they have any whatsoever. That and they drink wine. (Many's a successful parent was born on wine.)
It's true that a moderate amount of guilt is actually a sign of our love, our strong attachment and commitment to do the best we can to raise healthy children. Guilt we might argue keeps us in check. But, it's a question of how much guilt we experience that's pivotal.
Simply stated, too much guilt or not enough (remember sociopaths and narcissists don't have guilt like we do) can pose a serious threat to both parent and child. The answer lies in knowing ourselves and why we have guilt, why we feel it, and how guilt is connected to every choice and action we take as a parent.
Every psychology book will tell you that guilt is an emotion (a feeling), and not a reality or a death sentence. Guilt arises when we become aware of failing to be the best we could have been for our children. It comes and goes and can be mild or debilitating. Guilt tries to tell us something is wrong and needs to be corrected. If it isn't faced it will turn into shame, a feeling of worthlessness and a negative sense of self.
In her article Is Parenting Guilt Inevitable, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. informs us,
Even if we were willing to make every possible sacrifice for our kids, we would still have to make choices. Our time and energy is limited. We can't buy ourselves everything we want. And we can't give our children everything that is good and worthwhile...should you kick the kids out of your bed? Should you let your kids watch TV? Should you buy that frozen pizza? If we take an unrealistic, one-sided view of things, we label every compromise as bad. And we feel guilty. But it's our job to make those compromises. Even if we were the most competent parents in the world, we would still have to make trade-offs. And that really is a human universal.
And then guilt can turn to self-blame which most of us don't understand and the situation gets downright ugly for us and our children. Self-blame (though many of us are unaware) can appear in many forms including enabling others, dramatic pleas for change, threatening as a resort or means to change someone's behavior, blaming an actual child for our distress, "WHY could you do this to me," pulling away, silent treatment, withdrawing, raging, anxiety, hovering and sometimes quitting as a parent. I confess I know them all.
Michael J. Formica in his article: Self-Blame: The Ultimate Emotional Abuse states:
One factor that significantly contributes to our system of self-blame is the failure to recognize our own humanity. We are, on the one hand, perfect beings. On the other hand, we are very much human beings -- perfect in spirit, not so perfect in our humanness... secondarily, blame leads to shame and, in the context of self-blame that means self-shaming. Taking on responsibility that is not our own cannot only paralyze us, but drag us down into the inertia of self-devaluation. If we are not perfect, we must be something else: something less than.
We need to realize that parenting does not need to be perfect, nor should it be. Our children learn from every experience in their lives, even our mistakes -- more especially our mistakes. Thus our goal in parenting should be not perfection, but being good enough.
The goal is "good enough" -- not perfection. Children need some challenges and frustrations to become healthy functioning adults.
Goodnight perfection, goodnight moon. Hello Good Enough.
In essence and conclusion, why do we need another book or article to tell us what we should already innately know and be doing with our kids. Growing up requires and will involve some suffering, for our kids as well as for us. In real terms, this means we need to let children struggle, allow them to be disappointed at times, and when failure occurs, help them to work through it.
In fact, our first thought of our children should not be "How is he?" but a knowledge and assertion that he will be perfectly fine.
And we as parents should realize in the words of The Bee Gees that "we have nothing to be guilty of."
Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Guilt, Goodnight Guilt On How To Be A Better Parent. Goodnight Cow Jumping Over This Guilt.