Friday, February 18, 2011

Being The Best Parent In The World

I believe that infants and babies whose mothers give them loving comfort whenever and however they can are truly the fortunate ones. I think they’re more likely to find life’s times of trouble manageable, and I think they may also turn out to be the adults most able to pass loving concern along to the generations that follow after them. – Mister Rogers

As a preschool teacher, I get to know too many women who are tied into knots over every detail of their parenting. To a certain extent, I suppose it's always been this way, but I have to believe that modern life has greatly exacerbated and magnified the anxiety level.

Throughout most of human history the job of raising children has been strictly “women’s work,” and like all of the other things that fell into that category (e.g., cooking, housekeeping) it required a set of job skills passed down from women to their daughters. Girls were expected to help out with their younger siblings in a kind of generational on-the-job training program that ultimately lead to a societal assumption that all women are naturally gifted caretakers. I’m not going to dismiss the possibility of a genetic “mommy instinct,” but I will assert that this kind of lifelong learning at the feet of “the master” lead to more realistic expectations about the job and greater confidence in carrying it out at a younger age.

In much of the world this continues to be the experience of girls. I’m not saying that it makes them better parents. What I am saying that this experience means that they are less likely to get tied up in knots about it.

Parenting is still something we learn on-the-job, but most of us today don’t start learning it until we have a baby of our own. Like any new job, there’s going to be anxiety, self-doubt, and moments of feeling out of control. Add to that the fact that most of us have internalized, at least at some level, the vestigial message that being a “good” mother is an instinctive part of being female. Then subtract the very real day-to-day support of older, experienced women (grandmothers) and the hands-on help of younger women (12-year-old daughters). And finally, calculate in the reality that most young mothers now have jobs outside their home (or the nagging feeling that they should) and husbands who aren’t as fully engaged in parenting as they might be, and we’re looking at an equation destined to produce anxiety.

An enormous industry has arisen to fill the void left by grandmas, one that produces thousands of new book titles, studies, theories and warnings every year. And while I’m sure that each one is issued with the best of intentions, many mothers experience it as a flood of things they should know and do, but don’t.

A few years ago, the subject of parental anxiety was the topic of our monthly parent education session. Mothers voiced their frustration and concern that it seemed like whatever they did they were somehow failing their children. They feared they weren’t patient enough. They were concerned they weren’t providing enough of this or that kind of experience. They worried about diet, exercise, role-modeling, emotions, sleep, television, toy choices, attachment, separation, you name it. It was a tense and somewhat angry meeting.

Finally, our parent educator Jean Ward, a wise, calm, experienced woman, said, “Listen, if you do what the parenting experts say 35 percent of the time, you’re the best parent in the world.” As she let that statement hang there, the release of tension from the room was palpable. I have no idea where she came up with that statistic, or even it’s true (although I suspect it is), but if I could have read the thought bubbles around the room, I’m sure they would have said something to the effect of, I can do that.

A companion phenomenon that I’ve observed as a preschool teacher is that the most anxious women tend to be first-time mothers of 2-year-olds, and they always become noticeably less anxious over time, just as what would typically happen with any new job. And most of them are downright cavalier by they time their child is ready for kindergarten. It’s all about experience. If they’re bringing their second kid to preschool, they come in exuding confidence. And if they have a third, they seem as wise and calm as any grandma who ever lived.

I’ve not written about fathers in this post because, to be honest, it’s very rare to come across one who is tied into knots over every aspect of his parenting, even among stay-at-home dads. Of course, it could be a function of our notorious unwillingness to confess weakness, especially to other men, but I suspect it has much more to do with the fact that we aren’t as burdened with the weight of historical expectations. Men tend to be “graded” as parents almost exclusively on effort and earnestness, which in my view is really how it should be for parents of either gender.

(Reposted, with editing, from 8/25/09)

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Angela - Starting Daycare said...

I love this post. As a parent of 4 ranging from 16 to 2 I am constantly trying to be mother of the year but no matter what you do and how hard you try to do the best for your family 24/7 I never feel like its enough at the end of the day. I am constantly trying to better my kids lives and give them what they need to be respectful, competent, thriving human beings. Life is busy and being a mom is amazing, its nice to know that sometimes what you are doing IS enough. I do home daycare and I also try to give as much as I can to these children. Love....sometimes that is all they need!

Juliet Robertson said...

Brave and interesting post. :)

Anonymous said...

I found I was a much better parent once I latched on to the phrase "Not gonna win Mother of the Year this year. Oh, well." It gave me permission to fail and then try again...which after all is what we all do all the time.

Annicles said...

I worried enormously when I was expecting my first child and my father told me that "good enough" is good enough. We can damage our children by being too good. It leads to "helicoptor parenting" and that is just as bad in a different way to not being good enough. So good enough is what I aim for now, and admit that we all make mistakes along the way, to ourselves and out children. We are all healthier for it.

Now, I had better think about breakfast otherwise they will have scavenged the kitchen clear of the leftovers I wanted to serve up for lunch!!

Jenna Baxter said...

Hi Teacher Tom, my name is Jenna Baxter. I am a student at the University of South Alabama and majoring in Elementary Education. I am in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class and have been assigned to comment on your blog. I will post a summary of your blog and my comments by March 6 on my class blog, which can be found by clicking here. You can also follow me on twitter @jennabaxter1988.

First of all I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. As a mother of a four year old, I can definitely relate to the anxiety felt by many mothers. Being a woman, I am just supposed to be a perfect mother (something we all know is impossible). When I was growing up, I did not have any younger siblings to take care of. My son really is the guinea pig of my parenting skills. As he has grown older I find myself not freaking out as much as I used too. I have come to the realization that there are going to be ups and downs in parenting, and that I just have to do the best I can. I do also feel that it is important for young girls to be taught some of the skills they will need when they one day become parents. This will hopefully lessen some of their anxiety. As a society, we also need to get away from this belief that women are "born" caretakers and they should be perfect at it. I believe that if you try your best and you show your children that they are loved, then you are a great parent! Thanks again for letting me read your blog! I found it very insightful.

Colleen said...

I really needed to hear this today...I've been beating myself up all morning. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This reminder was exactly what I needed to hear today. And it reminded me of a parent education group meeting at our preschool coop and the very wise, incredibly calm teacher of the two year olds made a similar comment, She told us we only have to do it (parenting) right 20% of the time to be doing great. And luckily our kids will give us so many teachable moments and practice sessions that we will still be effective. The sighs and the laughter were audible.
I am a newbie to your blog but will be reading more. Thank you.