Updated: Dec 2, 2022
So you’re a parent now and you have probably noticed there is no manual for how to do this very important and challenging role. Many new parents - especially if they had not so great childhood experiences themselves - begin parenthood with the hopes of doing things better than their own childhood experience. Sometimes that desire leads us to place extreme pressure on ourselves to be a perfect parent. Suddenly, this already challenging parenting role may seem unmanageable since guilty feelings, a sense of inadequacy, and anxiety will often increase when under such high standards. Here’s the good news: there is not a perfect parent out there. Not a single one! Whether we acknowledge it or not, none of us are perfect. Yet, it can be very hard to accept our imperfect moments when it comes to parenting our children. I wish to offer you some ideas to ponder and words of wisdom as a therapist and as an imperfect parent myself. My hope is that you will ease up on yourself, forgive yourself for being human, and know you are doing your best and that your best is enough.
Most parents have experienced a moment or two when they completely lose their cool and speak in a harsh or impatient way to their children. I know that this is something that no parents want nor ever plans to do. I remember the first time this happened with my first child. I was immediately filled with guilt and shame. Then the thoughts began in my head, “you’re a terrible mom,” “who yells at their child like that?,” and the worst, “you are going to mess her up so bad.” The reality is that there have been many other times since that first moment 12 years ago with my daughter. What I have learned over those 12 years and with my own internal work is that I do not have to always respond perfectly to my child and in fact, it isn’t possible. It isn’t possible because I am human. What I have gotten really good at is apologizing when I mess up. I have become really good at saying “I am sorry” and repairing that relationship. I am constantly trying to do better, and I am also constantly trying not to criticize myself so much.
Guess what happens when we give ourselves grace and space to be human? We feel much less guilt and anxiety. We begin to see ourselves as a beautiful combination of amazing qualities and less appealing ones. It becomes both/and, not either/or. I now try to repeat to myself “I am a good mom who sometimes messes up, and I get up and try better the next time.” These thoughts are much less judgmental, less harsh, and give me the courage to stand up, own up to my mistakes, and try again later.
As a therapist, I have the privilege of sitting with other parents where they share with me their challenges and their less than proud moments. I hear the pain and guilt they feel for yelling after they tried so hard to be patient with an obstinate toddler or tween. I hear how they beat themselves up internally for their perceived failure as a parent. I also get to see the pressure lift and their breathing slow down as they begin to learn that it is ok to make mistakes.
Parents feel better knowing that their control lies in their ability to repair with their child after they have reacted in a way they do not want to. Their control lies in their ability to self-reflect and learn about themselves and the situation to figure out why certain things trigger them so much. Their control lies in their ability to learn new skills and ways of coping. Learning and self-reflection is always helpful for us parents. In contrast, holding ourselves to an unachievable expectation is not conducive to growth. In fact, if we aim for perfection the pressure will create even more challenges for us to navigate, and it often results in inflexible outside standards that when not met, we beat ourselves up and the freezing guilt and anxiety return. Therefore, if we can just begin to soften a little towards ourselves and recognize that we are not alone in our imperfections, then we are opening the door to more peace, more ease, and more self-acceptance. No one is a perfect parent. It is ok to make mistakes along the way. Mistakes are the best opportunities to learn. So go practice a little more self-acceptance this week and set yourself free!