Good News: You're Probably Failing at Parenting
I love my 2-year-old daughter so much. She is such a wondrous, willful little missile. We are in the tantrums phase right now (also known as the please-don’t-crack-your-head-open-on-the-floor-while-you-mourn-the-loss-of-that-bread-knife-you-somehow-yanked-out-of-the-dishwasher-just-as-I-was-rushing-to-close-it phase), and it is rough. And it’s also — please excuse my pseudo-French here — a total mindscrew.
Because the thing with tantrums is, when someone (even a very small someone) responds to you like this, when you have upset them to the point of snot-level screaming and full-body flails, there’s a part of your brain that wonders, "Am I a monster? And I just don’t realize it? Am I the worst parent/person/grocery shopper in the history of the world?!"
And this wears on a person (by "a person", I obviously mean me), especially a person who staggered out of bed at 4:57am (also me) because another person was alternately crying and laughing hysterically while announcing, "It’s MO-NIN TIME! Good MO-NIN!"
On some level, you know, rationally, that this tantrum thing is totally developmentally appropriate; that we all must learn how to metabolize our big feelings, deal with rules, and somehow manage our immense lack of individual control over the universe. Your brain knows that it’s called the "terrible twos" for a reason, and by that measure, your child is doing just fine. (And in that moment, you probably feel a surge of shame for calling your kid "terrible" — even in your own mind — which is when you hear yourself wistfully say out loud, "What a sweet little nugget" and you mean it, because it's true — what a terribly sweet little nugget.)
I want you to know this: you are not suddenly failing at parenting because you snapped at your child or chuckled quietly behind her back when she lost her mind because her peanut butter and jelly are "all mixed up now" or because you finally gave in to her pleas for an ice cube and just fished one out of your margarita.
You are not failing as a parent because she had 3 Oreos for lunch or licked an escalator or bit that one kid in music class. (Or because you told her a hard "no" and didn’t explain it. Or because you validated her feelings while still correcting her behavior.)
If you are failing as a parent, it is likely because parenting is kind of an impossible thing. ("Raise" a child? I can’t even keep my little kitchen windowsill basil plant alive! Succulents have died on my watch!)
And this impossible thing we are doing — this loving, holding, teaching, growing, learning, changing thing called raising — is so beautiful and so intense and so precious and feels so high-stakes sometimes.
And because I work with moms (including myself!) on the regular, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This is one of the touchstones for me when I feel like I'll never quite be "good enough' (or ready enough or rested enough or selfless enough or fun enough) to be the caretaker I believe my daughter and all children deserve:
YOUR CHILD DOES NOT NEED YOU TO BE PERFECT. THEY JUST NEED YOU.
They need you to care, to try, to show up, and to model for them what it means to be a person (including uncertainty and improvisation and mistakes and amends and bursts of love and giggles and all of the other things that make you not a robot).
Not to mention, self-compassion: they need to see you do that. Not talk about it or fake it, but practice it.
As an absolute Psych nerd, I find theories and concepts comforting. I really do. This one is from Winnicott’s theory of the "Good Enough Mother" (which came out in the 1950’s and didn’t include fathers, but seems very applicable across the board to me):
"A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities."
Please read that last line again: "Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities!"
First of all...Phew!
But really, from the time I first came across this theory in grad school, throughout the many times it has rung in my head as I’ve sat across from exhausted parents who are doing their absolute best (which is definitely good enough), to now, when I am staring down the tiny-but-somehow-huge moments of imperfectly mothering my own gorgeous little one, I just make myself remember: in this particular case, good enough is actually better than perfect.
Perfect would be a disaster! Can you imagine a kid who experienced, to use Winnicott’s words, constant "complete adaptation" to their needs??? That kid would never make it. One raindrop would fall and that kid would be like, "I'm drowning! Mommy, call the weatherman! Call the sky! Doooooooo something!"
Our "failure" is how they learn. It’s how we learn.
So keep doing your best.
Give it your all.
And hope to God it’s not perfect.