A little while before my son was born, I started on a quest to track one the world’s most elusive creatures. There have been times when I think I am really, really close and have caught glimpses of this rare beast over the past 20 years. I’ve seen something out of the corner of my eye but when I would turn around, the image would be gone. Sometimes I have felt dejected; if I could only find this being, my life would be complete and the sun would shine down on me all day. Other times I felt guilty, wondering if I had made the right choices. Had I spent too much time in my search, at the expense of my kids’ happiness and my own? Then, I would see something on TV, on my Facebook newsfeed, or on a Pinterest board that would remind me of my search and I would be off again on my mission. There have been times, too, when I was too tired, discontent, or annoyed at my lack of success, and I gave up the mission completely. Surprisingly, it has been during those times that I have had the most peace.
At this point, you are probably wondering what I could possibly be searching for all of these years. It’s something many of us spend a good deal of our adult lives searching for – the perfect parent. I’ll take a moment to describe to you what image I carry in my head for the perfect parent. For me, the perfect parent keeps an immaculate house, with “floors so clean you could eat off them,” as my mom would say. There are no dirty laundry piles because it has all been washed, folded and put away before anyone else is even up. Meals are planned well in advance, using only the best, most nutritious ingredients. She is able to bring the family together each evening to share in the delectable dinner she has prepared. She always knows the right thing to say to motivate her children, and is able to balance work/life perfectly. She has it all, it’s all put together, and it’s all in the exact right place. And, most importantly, she never, ever has a voice in her head questioning whether or not she is doing the “right” thing.
While it may look very different than mine, this vision of the idealized parent has likely grown and changed over time as you witnessed more parents exhibiting flawless execution of nurturing and caring. I use the term “exhibiting” here on purpose. For, “to exhibit” means to put on display or to expose to view. As parents, we are all on display as we parent our children in the store, at the soccer game, or at the local pizza place. We see other parents and it can be pretty easy to compare ourselves to them. That comparison often comes up lacking on your end if you happen to have been blessed with a strong-willed child as I have. I know I’m not alone in this because I talk to parents every day who ask me the same question: “Why can’t my family be like that?”
I could go into all the cliches about how each family is different (they are), your family isn’t as dysfunctional as you believe it to be (it’s not), and how we’ve all been there (we have). James Lehman is able to clarify what’s going on much better than I when he says, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Don’t compare what goes on in your home, with your family, to what you see going on in other families. Those glimpses we get into other people’s lives are just that—glimpses, and not the full picture.
I’ve come to the realization that the perfect parent will never be found because the perfect parent doesn’t exist, like the mythical unicorn. It is simply an ideal we have created within ourselves from a mishmash of what we “think” a parent is supposed to be. Having an ideal isn’t necessarily bad. After all, it may motivate us to change things about our parenting that just aren’t working with the child we have. The problem comes when we keep that ideal in the forefront of our minds, constantly comparing and berating ourselves for always, always coming up short. It can cause us to harbor a lot of negativity in our lives in the form of guilt, sadness, worry, and blame. Those feelings may keep us stuck where we are and cause us to miss out on all the positives that exist right alongside those challenges.
Do I still think about being a perfect parent? Of course I do. Something that ingrained may never go away completely. My aim has changed somewhat, though. Instead of perfection, I’m looking for just right, or what Janet Lehman refers to as the “good enough” parent. We have dinner every night in my house and most of the time we sit down together. Sometimes I don’t know what we’re having until I go into the kitchen to make it. It’s not always the most nutritious and sometimes it comes from a box or a bag, but, we always have dinner. Some of the time I do know exactly what to say to my kids to motivate them or to help them through a tough spot. Other times, I come up empty and only hope that I can help them with my presence. The laundry will never be done because, well, it’s laundry. Until they develop self-cleaning clothes, there are always going to be clothes that need to be washed. I may not have it all or be completely put together, but I am becoming more aware of who I am and what I offer my kids as their parent. While it may not be perfect, I’m pretty sure it is good enough.
Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.