“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous.
It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
– Elizabeth Stone
Although parenting is one of the most common human experiences, for those who don’t have children and even for those who do, there is still a fair amount of mystery around how to do it well and why it is so hard. Author Elizabeth Stone’s quote seems to imply a couple of somewhat unsettling points. First, that raising a child means there is a part of your life over which you no longer have full control, and second, that, to the rest of the world, your child is a reflection on you. These two ideas, taken together, account for much of what is challenging about being a parent.
Parenting makes us vulnerable on multiple levels. Our kids depend on us; we feel judged by others about how we parent; and, we’re reminded of all our issues around how we were raised and our relationship with our own parents. We often set the bar very high, and as a result, feel like we’re failing much of the time.
“Parenting is the hardest job because it brings up all our stuff; we’re constantly wondering if we are doing enough or the right thing,” says Maria Droste therapist Kim Stromgren, MA, “and parents rarely get any credit until their kids are 25 or 30 and realize the magnitude of their parents’ sacrifice and love; and develop compassion for their humanness and imperfections. It’s also challenging because many people did not have healthy parenting role models to emulate or look to for validation.”
Parenting roles – What are we actually doing?
In decades past, the proverbial 2.4 kids were raised by a cheerful, self-sacrificing, stay-at-home mom and a gainfully employed, rarely home dad – at least on television. Mom kept the house in order and made sure they all had food and clothing. She baked cookies, cared for the kids when they were sick, and generally made them feel better through their trials and tribulations. When they got in trouble, however, Mom would typically say, “Wait until your father gets home,” because he was the one who administered the discipline.
Today’s families are much more complex and varied (and let’s face it, they always have been), and the demands on kids and parents seem to be more stress inducing than ever.
Stromgren explains that according to developmental psychology, the primary caregiver’s job is to nurture and protect, while the secondary caregiver’s job is to promote independence and self-esteem associated with ability and confidence. Kids need both messages, she says, and that can be a challenge for some families. Traditionally, women (mothers) have been considered the primary caregivers and men (fathers) the secondary caregivers, and as such it has been hard for both parents to understand that they may be providing different support for their children, but each approach is equally valuable. Gender lines and roles continue to evolve; however, and there is no hard-and-fast rule that says only women can be nurturers and only men can instill independence. The fact that both types of parenting happen is much more important than who does what. In fact sometimes both parents, typically adaptable personalities, teach both messages equally well. Single parents must provide both messages and know the importance and challenge of this and same-sex couples, who are somewhat liberated from gender roles, also navigate how to best provide messages of nurturance and independence.
Goodness of fit
Parenting is complicated by the simple fact that children have their own personalities, thoughts and feelings. When do you rein them in and when do you let them find their own identities? Goodness of fit refers, in part, to how well a child’s temperament fits with the people around him. (The Center for Parenting Education, n.d.) When a parent and child have goodness of fit, their relationship is less combative. They like the same things, have similar temperaments, and have an easy rapport with one another. Sometimes that is the case with a parent and one child, but a second child is completely different. Everything that works with one, fails with the other, and so a new set of strategies is needed for that child – one that may not come so easily to the parent.
Parenting in the Information Age
“Kids today know far more than we did pre-internet,” says Stromgren. Because there is much greater access to all sorts of information, parents are no longer necessarily the greatest influence on their children.
While this is true of much younger children, the impact may still be felt the most with teens and pre-teens who are beginning to assert their independence. “Frustration comes from having conflicting agendas,” Stromgren says. “Don’t back off on issues of safety,” she adds, but allowing teens to explore new ideas and express their opinions is a necessary part of development. “Kids today tend to have broader views. Parents can improve communication by listening to their children’s perspective and not only acknowledging how an issue impacts their generation, but maybe even allow it to expand their own knowledge and beliefs.”
All types of families have struggles
Single parents don’t have someone right there to share ideas or responsibilities, so they are on 24/7, which can be exhausting and lonely. Two-parent households have the challenge of triangulation and disagreement. Whatever the issues, connecting with other parents and seeing that you are not alone in your feelings or experiences can be very helpful in lowering that parenting bar to a realistic level. Chances are, you are doing just fine.
If, however, the stress and struggles are too great, and are negatively impacting you and your family on a daily basis, counseling is an excellent way to understand what is going on, and to heal without projecting or repeating patterns. “A lot of parenting happens in the dark, without a good role model, and therapy can offer validation for that experience,” says Stromgren.
For more information on parenting resources, or to speak with a therapist, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600.
The Center for Parenting Education (n.d.) Understanding Goodness of Fit. Retrieved on December 8, 2016, from: http://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/child-development/understanding-goodness-of-fit/