Debunking The Perfect Parent Myth

Photography: Kimberley Rich Photography

By Genevieve Simperingham

When we’re the least successful in being the parent that we want to be, that’s usually when we most need to be kind and compassionate towards our self. When we snap at the kids, raise our voice, give those lectures that make us cringe and when we struggle to listen attentively to our child’s feelings; this is generally symptomatic of our emotional tanks being near empty. Parenting requires immense physical, mental and emotional holding. And parents also need to feel held.

Without a good balance of feeling held and supported as we hold our child, tensions and frustrations can mount, and even threaten to overwhelm us. Being self-critical doesn’t help, in fact it increases our stress greatly. But we can start to dissipate some of our tensions when we view our impatience with our child as a cue to give loving attention to our feelings and carve out the time to meet some of our own needs.

Yet most parents find it hard to be more kind than critical towards themselves when they struggle? “Life ain’t fair, get used to it”, “no point in wallowing”, “you’re your own worst enemy”, “you shouldn’t reward a child’s bad behaviour with positive attention”, are the kind of messages that many of us grew up with. Unless challenged, these kind of beliefs can cause us to feel overly critical towards ourselves when we don’t manage to live up to our expectations and ideals and when we make mistakes. It’s a big ask to expect ourselves to generously apply tolerance, patience and support to our children through their mistakes and struggles, when we carry an ingrained belief that we don’t ourselves deserve empathy and support when we fail to be the “perfect parent”. But it is so important to be just as patient and kind towards ourselves as we aim to be for our children.

It can be helpful to compare emotional needs with physical needs. When your body is hungry and thirsty, you may start to feel weak, irritable and headachy. If you reward your body with food and water, are you encouraging your body to be weak, irritable and headachy? When you notice that your plants aren’t performing very well, do you deny them water for another day to motivate them to flourish, or do you aim to meet the needs in the trust that when the plants are nourished in a mindful and balanced way, they will flourish? Likewise, when you nourish yourself with self-empathy, compassion and actions that meet your emotional needs, you are fostering emotional health and balance that ultimately benefits the whole family. To joyfully nourish our child, we all need to feel nourished.

To joyfully nourish our child, we all need to feel nourished.

Being kind and compassionate towards ourselves reduces stress, guilt and shame and lightens our load. Self-compassion tends to lead us on the journey back to balance, back to parenting with more peace and confidence.

I can identify many interesting patterns with the parents I work with. I notice that when parents have worries about finances, health or increased arguments with their partner, the extra stress compromises their ability to be truly present with their child. These are valid contributing factors. For many parents, the higher the pressure, the more self-critical a parent becomes. And the more self-critical a parent becomes, the more inclined they can be to hide their struggles and hence the harder it is to reach out for the support they need.

When pressures mount, it’s also harder to keep on top of the housework, or for some keeping control of the housework borders on compulsive at the expense of all else. Stressed, overloaded parents can easily tune out of their child’s inner world. Exhausted parents find it harder to be patient and can be more reactive. Parents who feel unsupported and misunderstood can become less approachable as tensions replace warmth in their relationship with their child. The fact that most parents feel a lot of shame when they struggle to be a calm and patient parent reflects the high expectations and harsh judgements towards parents and children in our society. Although I see lots of evidence of this changing for the better, overall I believe most people still live in an empathy deprived society.

One of the points in my parenting journey when I struggled the most was when my second child was a baby. I remember well the shame and humiliation I felt around struggling and often failing to keep all the balls juggling. My older child was suffering the loss of the very available and cheerful mum that I’d previously been to him. He was hurting and he was understandably angry. It was a daily struggle just to cope. I was forced to confront my super strong and sorted persona that I presented to the world when I felt shaky. If I was to gain the support and the empathy that I was desperate for, I knew I had to swallow my pride and show my vulnerability.

I painfully started to practice being honest with people who asked “how are things?” I would first give the automatic “good” or “not too bad” and would then pause and nudge myself to tell my friend or family member that I wasn’t good at all, that I was in fact really struggling. My husband was away from home with work nearly all the time, but even in the little windows of time that I saw him I would again push myself to be more honest about how difficult things were, and I asked him to also be honest when he bumped into friends and they asked about myself and the kids, at least with our closer friends.

I wished people just knew how hard things were and would reach out with empathy, and without judgement, without having to tell them how fragile I felt. Yet each person is busy in their own world with their own struggles and needed some information and permission if they were to support us. This whole process of exposing my very sore internal state and reaching out felt like the emotional equivalent of labour pains, as I didn’t grow up in an environment where it was OK or safe to show feelings and needs. In challenging my outdated beliefs that associated struggle with shame and needing others with weakness, I formed some much healthier beliefs like some of those that I share in this article. It was very healing and encouraging to discover that not everybody runs a mile when you show that you’re hurting. I retrospectively really value growth edges such as these on my parenting path and touch back often on the awareness I gained as I support friends or clients who have similar struggles today.

All parents go through times that are more challenging than normal for a variety of different reasons. When being self-critical, a parent can put themselves under pressure to just do better, just stop yelling, just stop feeling sorry for themselves, just get organized, just stop eating the wrong foods, just decide to do more exercise, just be a peaceful, patient parent. It’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself. These are the times when a parent needs to draw on the internal and external resources that will meet their needs, that will help them survive and grow through their challenges. Perhaps they need quality connection with another adult, to receive empathy and understanding, perhaps stress release through exercise, meditation, relaxation, time in nature, journaling or a big cry. Perhaps the soothing of a hug or reassuring words of encouragement, a parent may need more information about their current challenges, maybe more fun and laughter is critically needed, and the needs can be the simple but essential ones like food, rest or sleep. But at challenging times, there’s usually a backlog of unmet needs.

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