Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Discovering Joy, Part 2 - Parenting and Perfectionism

I have never really been a perfectionist. "Good enough" has always been my motto. In my better moments I have striven for excellence and achieved it. In my worse moments, I have done enough to get by and had a lot of fun in the process. I generally have pretty high expectations of myself, and at a young age I realized that I could spend my life anxious and frustrated because I couldn't be perfect, or I could enjoy life, learn to laugh at myself and work enough to get the job done well.

All this changed when I became a parent. I was married 10 years before I took the leap and had children. This was partially because I got married at 18 and wanted to finish university and get a few years of teaching in before I had children. And this was partially because I was terrified that I would be a bad mother. And equally terrified that I would become one of those women who never really recovers from the rigors of motherhood, and goes a little bit odd after having children. I wanted my children to be parented differently than I had been parented, though I wasn't sure exactly what that would look like. I wanted my children to mature into adulthood with no "issues" left over from their childhood, so that they could approach life with a confident attitude and a strong sense of well being and identity.

The problem was figuring out how to do this. I knew several people whose parenting and children I admired followed the ideas behind attachment parenting. So I started researching these ideas, and they seemed sound. When my oldest son was a high needs baby, I was happy to have the skills and ideas I needed to gradually mellow him down into a child who we could all live with. As a baby, this worked pretty well. He was still intense and demanding, but we could all survive.

As he grew, and discipline became important, I started to research a lot about discipline methods and parenting styles. I didn't want to be overly authoritatian, but I didn't want to be too permissive, either. What I seemed to run across a lot was a theory of parenting that essentially asked you to manage the child's circumstances to help them behave, rather than insisting on good behavior and enforcing or allowing consequences. To this end, I spent a lot of time managing Andrew's environment. If he started to misbehave, I figured there must be something wrong with his situation. Did he have to go to the bathoom? Was he hungry? Was he over or under stimulated? What was causing the mischeif? Because he was a very sensitive child, I began to assume that all misbehavior related to his sensitivity, and that if I could just make him comfortable, he would behave perfectly well.

As time went on, however, I realized that this didn't work. First of all, it was making me responsible for his misbehavior. If he was grouchy or demanding, it was my fault for not presenting him with ideal circumstances. If we went somewhere that I could not control when he ate or how much was going on around him, he would be terrible. When he did not get his way, he would purposely act awful until I gave him something to make him feel better. It was a downward spiral. My entire life was wrapped up in making the environment perfect for my child. No time could be spent on my own needs or desires, as that might interfere with my son's needs. And when Aaron came along, I discovered I had created a monster -- a child who had no ability to amuse himself, take care of himself or do anything by or for himself. I had monitored him so closely, he was not even self aware of his own hunger cues. When he went to preschool, it was even worse. He was not used to having to do anything that he didn't want to do, and simply ignored any requests his teacher made that didn't fit with his ideas about the world.

Not only that, but I was stressed out and frustrated when he didn't act the way he was supposed to. After all, I was sacrificing everything -- my career, my social life, my individual interests, my right to sleep, personal space and basic hygene -- for this child. How dare he not respond in the way I asked him to. I was angry and resentful that he would take all that I was doing for him and throw it back in my face.

I had several realizations that helped to free me of this anxiety and perfectionism:

1. Andrew and I are separate individuals. I needed to give him some space, and he needed to give me some space. As two highly sensitive people, we are both very empathic and easily fall prey to enmeshment with other people. I needed to let him be, and teach him how to let me be. This will help him to do this with others later in life.

2. Not ever single, tiny thing I do is going to effect my son for life. One thing that frustrates me about parenting books (which I have generally stopped reading) is that they make your every act as a parent seem so important. If you don't use just the right words and techniques in every situation, your child is destined for depression and failure. I am just not that important in the long run. It is our societal obsession with blaming everything on our circumstances, our parents, and our society rather than taking responsibility for ourselves that has led us to this over-parenting. I needed to help Andrew take responsibility for himself and his emotions and responses, instead of trying to take them on myself.

3. I needed to get my needs met so that I was in a head space to enjoy my children. When my own basic needs for sleep and cleanliness, and the needs of our house to be orderly and run well were not met, I could not really attend to my son. I was in survival mode, and even the littlest thing that went wrong could push me over the edge. I needed to allow myself to take care of myself.

Giving myself a break as a parent, letting myself be a "good enough" parent, was very freeing. It gives me the freedom to enjoy my children, and my life. I know that I am a better parent when I have had a shower and let the boys watch extra tv while I have had a nap. I know that I am happier if I am creative. So I take some time to sew or bake during the day, even though it means the boys have to entertain themselves. I forgive myself for my parenting errors, and take them as lessons on what not to do next time, instead of obsessing about how they will effect my children 20 years from now. In short, I accept that I should approach parenting the same way I have approached everything else: enjoy life, laugh at myself, and work enough to get the job done well.


Anonymous said...

Now I feel normal :)


Jeff, Kym and Samuel said...

thanks for this one. leaves me a lot to think about. i think your realization of the error involved in directly attributing misbehavior to environment is a brilliant one. it's a hard one to recognize because it's true, some of the time, that misbehavior really can come from hunger, fatigue, overstimulation, or a host of other variables. but yes, at the end of the day, we do want to teach our children about self-regulating their behavior; about natural consequences for behavior; about taking responsibility for their response to their (imperfect) environments. it's a slow and painful learning curve, but yes, it's a necessary one to learn for a healthy and godly life and so we must start as we mean to go on, mustn't we? thanks for giving me so much to think about.