Some of us have turned parenting into a competitive sport and are experiencing extra stress by trying to be perfect. So how do we break the cycle?
Trying to be the perfect parent seems like a hiding to nothing, but it’s a trap many of us find ourselves in. Striving to get everything just right for our kids, family and careers can make us miserable, as Yano discovered when we carried out a survey of parents recently.
We found that 64 per cent of them felt depressed at some point because they felt they weren’t perfect or doing enough as a parent. Seventy per cent of the mums and 48 per cent of the dads asked felt this way. We also found that 31 per cent felt like this on a monthly basis. Could this post-cradle depression be down to the pressures parents face in trying to deliver it all?
Liz Fraser, author of The Yummy Mummy’s Survival Guide and a key panel member for the Centre for the Modern Family agrees. ‘Those figures are exactly what I would expect as so many people are struggling and are feeling down,’ she says. ‘Particularly with the difficult financial circumstances right now. Many parents feel a lot of guilt.’
Dr Penelope Leach, psychologist and author of books such as Your Baby & Child adds: ‘The roles we women are expected to fill – mother, partner, worker, daughter, sister – are an overload for almost everyone. One mum told me her life was like being on a tightrope: gloriously exciting when all went well and completely disastrous if the least thing went wrong. A child being ill or a childminder taking a day off was enough to bring her whole life crashing down.’
For many parents it’s easy to feel inadequate as there is no objective standard, and the ones we have are influenced by our own experiences, family and culture. We are often confronted by mountains of well-meaning advice and it can be conflicting. For some this means a standard in our mind that is impossibly high. Most of us can’t even define perfect parenting but what we can do is repair our expectations, support each other and aim at being good ones.
‘I find myself coaching parents to be less than perfect as it allows room for their child to step up and solve problems for themselves,’ says says parent coach and family therapist Leah Koenig.
Perfectionism also puts you under strain, which may lessen your enjoyment of parenting and that’s good to remember next time you start to beat yourself up about something. Also holding impossibly high standards for your children can be unhealthy. They need to know that you’ll support them even when they fail. They need to know that they are intrinsically and infinitely more valuable than their accomplishments.
Dr Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in child development, play and parenting, believes ‘there’s an increased perception of parenting as a job, therefore the competition acts as a kind of performance review’. She goes on to add that this ‘pressure to perform’ may be the result of parental insecurities such as guilt from over-working or from low self-esteem that may result from something like a period of unemployment.
So, how can we tell if we’re being pulled in? Dr Gummer offers a simple way to work it out. ‘Parents should notice whether their feelings of pride/disappointment in their child include comparisons to other children in their mind, even if they don’t say it out loud.’ She also counsels parents to ‘use the child’s previous ability as a reference point, not other children.’
While Leach says, ‘It’s important to accept that good enough parenting is loving and liking your child not (or despite) what he does or can do.’
Keeping up with the Joneses (and their kids)
Seventy per cent of parents in our survey said that they compare themselves to their peers. ‘A certain amount of competitiveness and comparison between parents is inevitable and so is parenting rivalry. But it’s not necessarily just your peer group who can be like this. It can easily be a mother or mother-in-law who says ‘it was never like that when you were a child’. ‘If you have friends you trust and you have some ideas in common they can be really supportive’ says Leach.
Likewise, Fraser feels that we should take a stand against peer pressure. ‘The competitive parenting thing is so destructive,’ she says. ‘It’s strange that a subject that should be so bonding and human and one for which the sisterhood should really pull together, can be so hurtful too. I have wonderful mum friends whom I go to to talk about parenting. You need good friends who can laugh and say, “This is a bit of a nightmare, isn’t it?” If someone is pushy and competitive I say you don’t need them in your life.’
We can also compete through our children, their achievements and how we treat them. ‘One mistake we make as parents is mixing up what kids do with who they are,’ says Leach. ‘To have high expectations of your child in terms of their behaviour, kindness and friendship is absolutely fine but striving for them to be perfect in their achievements is a huge mistake. We know from research that the most damaging thing in early childhood for children’s development is neglect – that means neglect of attention as much as anything else. It is much more important that they feel that you are listening to them and are there for them when they need you, than any number of things that you may buy or parties you may arrange.’
On the subject of over the-top-birthday goodie bags, Fraser thinks we should buck the trend for overdoing it. ‘I swim against the tide of lavish party bag giving,’ she says. ‘The children have a piece of cake and a balloon to take home and they don’t ever seem to mind. The interesting thing is when you do this so many people who are also thinking the same way will say, “Thank God you are doing that; I’ve wanted to do the same for ages”. We need a revolution in parenting and get back to simple basics.’
She also thinks it’s a big positive that many of our children are being raised by people who are so aware of their emotional needs. ‘It’s brilliant for our children because checking that they are happy and balanced really matters to their overall wellbeing.’
One thing’s for sure, even though it can sometimes be a struggle, a lot of parents deserve a gold medal for supreme effort.
Additional research by Melanie Goose
Yano survey carried out in April 2012, based on 1002 adults around the UK