I was 22 years old when I had my first child. 17 months later, when I was 23, my second child was born. I had married at 19, dropped out of college and followed the father of my children to Farmville, Virginia where he got a job. I was 5 hours away from my family when the girls arrived in quick succession. I don’t think that I slept for 2 years. Those were the days of endless diapers, when getting an uninterrupted shower was unthinkable and eating an entire meal sitting down was a distant memory. It was hard. I was stressed. But, boy, did I have fun. I was the “un”mom who demonstrated “un”cookies for my daughter’s kindergarten classroom (graham crackers, store bought icing, and candy sprinkles!). When my oldest was 5, she wanted her hair permed, so I had it permed (hey, don’t judge, I’m a product of the 1980s). When my youngest came home with a note from school stating that she had forged a homework assignment, I failed to stifle my laughter (it was such a bad forgery). The poor girl was so overcome with guilt. That was punishment enough. In hindsight, I probably could have used some guidance.
The August 2015 issue of the Washingtonian Magazine featured a story about the high demand for behavioral pediatrician Dan Shapiro, aka “the child whisperer”. The article opens with the story of Nadine. Nadine “a 48-year-old aerospace engineer turned investment manager in Northwest DC, has two Ivy League degrees and an MBA from Stanford. She’d succeeded at pretty much everything she tried in life—and then she had kids.” The article describes the horrific temper tantrums of Nadine’s daughter and her constant fighting with her brother. Nadine copes with the stress by hiring around-the-clock childcare, even on the weekends, and counts the hours until she can return to work. Unfortunately, I have met many Nadines, their sullen, angry, and out-of-control children in tow.
I am a native of the 495 beltway, inside and out, a rarity of sorts. The Nadines of the DC metro area are still an anomaly to me. To women like Nadine “good enough” is never, has never been, the goal. I tend to have a different vibe. I have a different pace. Being a local means that I eat Maryland blue crabs and chicken wings with mumbo sauce. It means that I vacation on the eastern shore. It means I never drive anywhere without listening to WTOP on the 8s first. If there is traffic, I’m likely not going anywhere. It means that I am more chill, more type B than type A. I realize that I have a unique perspective, and nowhere is this more evident than in my views of parenting.
I raised two girls when I was merely a girl myself, and both of them turned out to be amazing human beings. They are so amazing that I often am asked probing questions, “What did you do?” “How did you do it?” I usually say something self-deprecating, insinuating that I just got lucky. The truth is, I thought that being a mom so young meant that I didn’t know what I was doing. And you can ask my children. They will tell you that I was far from perfect. But as it turns out, believing that you can’t be perfect at parenting is actually an important key to being a good parent. Here is how to be imperfect and do it well:
KEY 1. Focus on Being Good Enough (and only good enough). Why? Because perfect parents do not exist. Perfect families do not exist. In a “perfect” home, everyone must live in a pseudo-state of denial. Negative emotions are denied, uncomfortable questions are denied, dissenting thoughts are denied, and exploration is denied. Perfect parents are anxious parents. Perfect parents fill a home with their many fears, with their shoulds and shouldn’ts. And where there is fear, love cannot thrive.
KEY 2 Focus on Your Responsibility (to not for). Responsibility is the “ability to respond”. We do not have the ability to respond for our child, we only have the ability to respond to our child. Perfect parenting confuses being responsible to with being responsible for. The results are often disastrous. When a child’s failings, shortcomings, hurts, and mistakes become our responsibility, we are wrong. We are only to be responsible to our children, to feed them, to clothe them, to comfort them, to protect them, to teach them to work and to play, to teach them to communicate in conflict, to teach them to manage money, to teach them to fight for the weak and to give to the poor. But we are never never responsible for them. We are responsible only for ourselves.
KEY 3 Focus on Fostering Resiliency. Parenting is not a role to perfect. There is no prize awarded for outdoing the competition and beating everyone else to the top of the class. Parenting is relationship–messy, funny, exhausting–relationship. Be as real as you can be. We do best by our children when we model for them the truth that this world is not a perfect place and that they cannot be perfect in it. That they can strive to do everything right and still fall short. That they will fail. That others will fail them. That life will fail them. That YOU will fail them. But that with help, they can get back up no matter how hard or how far they fall (resiliency). They can work to repair no matter how broken things seem (resiliency). They can find peace when hard times come-and they will come (resiliency). Resiliency is one of the most powerful gifts a parent can give a child, and resiliency is only learned through adversity.
Through good-enough parenting, modeling the difference between responsibility to and for, and fostering resiliency, we raise up healthy children by teaching them to raise themselves up. In essence, we alleviate stress by embracing stress and laughing and loving in spite of it. Because we can’t escape stress after all. None of us can. This is parenting. This is good parenting indeed.
“Good enough parent” is a concept derived from the work of pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin 1973)