Before we became parents, many of us had an ideal image of what that role would look like. This image is often based on our own experiences of being parented. Consequently, we might decide to parent our children similarly, or we might enter into parenthood with a determination to parent in a dramatically different way, or we might design an ideal based on any combination of these two. Regardless of which design we arrive at, one thing is true: our ideal image is often rooted in a deep sense of love for, and commitment to, our children.
That being said, one of the main problems with the ‘ideal’ image of parenthood is that by it’s very definition, it’s unattainable. That wouldn’t be problematic if only we didn’t forget that it is, in fact, an unreachable measure. And, in our desire to be the best parents we can be, we can confuse matters and, thus, believe our ideal is actually the norm. In my experience both as a psychotherapist and as a mother, I have seen how this mistaken belief, this ‘syndrome’, if you will, has created untold amounts of guilt and pain, and unfortunately, our suffering often commences either before, or not long after our children are born. Even before we’ve recovered from the miracle of our child’s birth, in some way or another, we may have already judged our feelings or actions as falling well short of our ideal. For example, when my son was born, he was taken to the Intensive Care Nursery for overnight observation. When I awoke in the middle of the night, I felt the urge to see him and was directed to the nursery where he slept. Once inside, I promptly walked past his incubator toward one occupied by another baby. As the nurses good-naturedly teased me, I interpreted my error as a sign that I lacked even the most basic maternal instincts: I couldn’t even recognize my own child. Animals can even do that, but I could not, I thought with an overwhelming sense of shame. In my own mind, my attempt at being the ideal parent had crashed and burned, and I had only been a mother for less than 6 hours.
It is my belief that the ideal parent syndrome is both universal and well-supported by society. “Society”, in this case, includes any number of ‘experts’, from early childhood researchers and physical and mental health practitioners to the developers of the latest educational fads for children. These experts, to a large extent, have attempted to set the standards for what they consider to be the very best for our children. Much of their input has proved beneficial to the extent that parents now have access to information that addresses a wide range of issues relevant to the task of child-rearing. The down side, however, is that the list of ‘the very best’ seems to grow exponentially with each new generation. Fear and guilt grow in us as we struggle in our attempts to rise to these gold standards – standards that these experts believe are important in order to raise healthy, happy, and well-adjusted children. Some of these include making certain our children are well stimulated, even prior to their birth. And once born, ensuring our children are appropriately stimulated visually, cognitively, physically, and emotionally – not too much, but certainly not too little.
As we attempt to absorb all of the available information from these experts, our concerns begin to mount: is our child bonding appropriately to us, to their siblings, to their peers? If we take time away from our children, will we foster insecurities in them? Are we bad parents if we feel the need to take a break, or to go back to work after only a few months? Concerns about how we should best prepare our child for their academic future arise and, as such, we can find ourselves searching out the very best preschools (and in some cases, pre-pre-schools) to ensure our child stands intellectually at the level of their peers, and even better, we think, if they surpass them. Thoughts such as this one, in particular, reflect another consequence of the syndrome: competition. Whose child is toilet-trained first? Or whose chose child can count to ten, or recite their ABC’s first, and so on. If the answer is not our child, then what did we do wrong, we wonder. And, heaven forbid if our child (or teen, or adult child) were not to perform in ways we, or others, judge as the norm. We’re convinced our less than adequate parenting skills caused it to happen.
In the end, the syndrome burdens us with a sometimes overwhelming sense of failure because deep inside we know we’ll never reach our ideal, and for that alone we believe we’ve failed both ourselves and our children. But instead of using the ideal model as a tool for continuous self-punishment, it can actually prove useful if used in another way. For example, if we’re vigilant about remembering that it exists, not as something to attain, but rather as a tool to guide us in the right direction, it can act positively as a self-monitoring or self-correcting mechanism. If we listen to ourselves and trust our instincts, it’s unlikely that we’ll stray far from the ideal goals we’ve set for ourselves. Again, the ideal model is often rooted in the desire to offer our children the best of who we are and, therefore, it is likely that as parents most, but certainly not all, of our actions will manifest that desire in the form of genuine love and support.
If you feel you’re spending too much time wrestling with your ideal image, or simply feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of parenthood, you might consider the following suggestions:
- Spend time in your local bookstore seeking out parenting books that might be helpful in addressing your specific concerns. (A couple of good ones include: “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Daniel Siegal and Mary Hartzell, and for the parents of teenagers, “Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall” by Anthony E. Wolf;
- Talk with friends who have children, and together you can develop creative solutions to the many challenges parents face;
- Join a local parenting class or parent-support group and find out you’re not alone with your concerns and fears; and most importantly,
- Begin to trust your intuition more, and at times when you to punish yourself for not living up to your ideal image, write a list of many ways in which you have brought joy, comfort, and encouragement into your child’s life.
Originally published in the Capital Parent Newspaper when the author was working as a psychotherapist at the Adlerian Counselling and Consulting Group in Ottawa, Ontario.