I hate it when my mom friends are hard on themselves for being human. I had an epiphany the other day, in a comment that I left on a friend’s blog:
It’s hard sometimes to be the “parent you want to be,” because that doesn’t always jibe with who you really are, as a person.
It’s not a novel idea, or even a new one but it’s easy to lose sight of this reality of parenting, when you’re in the thick of it. Who I am, as a person, does not always neatly dovetail who I’d like to be as a parent. There is plenty of overlap, of course. I am, by nature, a kind and generous person and that does carry over into my parenting (I hope so, anyway). The problem lies in the ideal that I’m just not motivated to live up to, quite frankly. Nonetheless, I like to make myself feel bad about it, despite my admitted hatred for the same behavior in other moms. That’s the rub in ideals. They inspire clinginess, no matter how quixotic or Pollyanna the criteria are. It’s easy to blame idealistic parenting on shiny, happy mommyblogs and other kid-centric media but I think even without them, we have much higher expectations of ourselves as parents than we do of ourselves as just people.
I long ago accepted and forgave myself for not being the person that I wished I was but that hasn’t happened in my parenting persona. Why? I guess because the stakes are higher, aren’t they, when it comes to our children? I would love to be the person that reads a book in bed, in lieu of turning on the TV. But so what if I’m not that person. I don’t beat myself up over it. On the other hand, if I turn on the TV for my kids to keep them occupied for 15 minutes, instead of finding some creative activity for them to do–holy hell, the guilt.
There’s another problem here, I’ve realized. Why do I separate myself into two parts– the person part and the parenting part? Shouldn’t they be one and the same? Not always. As a parent, I try to model good behavior, healthy habits and so on. The parent in me would never smoke a cigarette in front of my children, but when I spent a week in Europe with friends last Fall, I chain-smoked the entire trip. That’s who I was before I became pregnant and that is the person I still am, but as a responsible parent concerned not only about setting an example but about my children’s health, I pretend I’m a non-smoker. I mean, that’s kind of a common example, I think but it’s the most visual one I can come up with.
At my core, who I am as a person is the same as who I am as a parent– loving, kind, generous, thoughtful but also impatient, easily bored, and unmotivated. I wish I could eliminate those last three traits and add a whole bunch more positive ones. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m a bad parent but a lot of times I think I could be a better one. It would be nice to be a perfect one! I’m the first person to tell you that it takes a lot to screw up your kid. I think all of us with imperfect childhoods and imperfect parents can attest to that. Otherwise, all of society would be going to hell in a handbasket, instead of just those unlucky ones who didn’t escape the odds.
My goal, though, is to do more than just not screw up my kids. That’s kind of a low bar, isn’t it?– “don’t screw up your kids.” All the time, I think about something my dad says often– that we are not raising children but future adults. And if I want my children to productive, happy adults, I need to lead by example. That’s not to say that I hide everything negative– I think it’s healthy for children to see adults get frustrated, and it’s even more healthy for them to see how people handle frustration. I mean, I get frustrated pretty often, and don’t always handle it in the most graceful manner. Sometimes, in watching my children deal with their own frustration, I realize that I need to be better at modeling constructive ways of dealing with emotions like frustration. I suppose that is what I really mean when I say that I wish I were a better parent, or that there is a difference between who I am as a person, and who I am as a parent. Being a better parent inevitably makes me a better person. Without my kids, I wouldn’t have a sounding board that gives me feedback on the effectiveness of my behavior.
My friend Heather told me a sweet story about her son, who is about to turn 5. She tells him all the time, “I love you even when you’re being cranky (or naughty or whatever).” The other night, as she put him to bed, he said to her, “I love you even when you’re being cranky and mad.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea. I like this story because it just goes to show that kids recognize and accept our faults and love us anyway, so shouldn’t we also love ourselves as parents anyway, instead of flogging ourselves for not doing it the way we think it ought to be done?