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The “bad” perfect parent rebels

April 15, 2009

Yesterday I was musing over the most recent blog to make it from blog to book. The blog is Babble.com. The premise of the forthcoming book, based on this blog is about the anecdotes parents of young children have shared about times they were “bad” parents. Most are harmless: the time a Mom gave in to the “N”th request for candy; the time a Dad didn’t feel he’d made quite the leap to involved coach that other dads had. But the reason I think the idea of this blog has caught on, is how tired parents are of “achieving” the loving, even perfect goal of being the parent we imagined we would be. Of doing better than our own parents. And now with the culture rife with experts on parenting, we can truly measure ourselves on a finely calibrated scale–see if we measure up or don’t.

Actually, this is an old idea. My favorite book on the topic, over 25 years old now (giving away my age), is Inventing Motherhood. No doubt, there’s an Inventing Fatherhood out there somewhere too. Inventing Motherhood describes the cultural shifts in the view of the idealized mother, which took place shortly after World War II. Women’s new job (freshly displaced from the factories by returning GI’s), was Motherhood. It was an era in which women’s roles were shaped by an idealization of motherhood, helped along by the Bowlby studies on the psychological consequences for abandoned infants and children of the Second World War, and then widely misapplied to our U.S. culture to reinforce the need for an ever-present mother. Mothers were credited if their children turned out well, and blamed if there were problems. In the mental health field of that era, the term, “refrigerator mother” was coined to describe the mother who turned out a schizoid or schizophrenic child. We now know that neurochemistry can be blamed for that one.

Yet leaps were made in response to all this idealization. Psychotherapy and family therapy blossomed to the benefit of many. Women had more aspirations for their daughters, and then for themselves. Fathers shifted from the Organizational Man to the Little League Coach, and the nurturing husband. All good things.

What are the remnants of this bygone era, for this blogging generation? Many of today’s generation of young mothers and fathers grew up in single parent or step-families, admirably determined to avoid the pitfalls of divorce, become more aware, more involved perhaps than their own parents. Wanting to give their kids everything. And then, tired of the overwhelming demand of this goal (just like the Mom’s of the 50’s and 60’s begat the women’s and men’s revolutions of the late 60’s and 70’s), this generation, like so many before them, have flipped guilt feelings on its head, and are taking a little naughty pleasure in defying the demand for being the perfectly loving parent all the time. It’s a bit like sticking out your tongue at what you “should” do or feel.

As a couple’s and family therapist, I think the best remedy for being as good a parent as you can be, without the unnecessary pressure of being perfect, is to truly evaluate the pluses and minuses of your own growing up. Face your gains and losses of the parenting you had, head-on; don’t pretend it didn’t impact you. Don’t just strive to “be better” strive to understand what you would do the same, and what you would do differently. Ask your own parents if they had regrets. If they could hit the redo button, what would they change? Then perhaps you can escape the pressure to be the “best” parent–that may put too much pressure on your kid to be the perfect kid. Watch out or they’ll be blogging about you one day.

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