Stop Trying to Be a Perfect Parent

How good a parent are you? Are you a perfect parent?

What an annoying question, right? It’s almost as bad as asking which one of your kids do you love most.

But we are constantly asking ourselves how good we are, even if we don’t mean to or don’t realize it. It happens because we live in an age of extreme scrutiny when we are constantly being judged on our actions and accomplishments

The times we live in are pushing us to be our BEST SELVES, in all capitals. Self-help books, items on morning talk shows, social media posts – everyone and everything is telling us that we need to make ourselves better. If we just do THIS we will feel great and be awesome.

Admittedly, I’m part of this trend myself. As a psychologist, I constantly work with people who want to feel better. As a parenting coach and blogger, I write about doing a better job as parents and how you can feel better about yourselves.

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However, I also acknowledge that there is no such thing as perfect. When I work with my clients I never push them to be perfect and best. I help them accept the place they are in and find in themselves the places they want to move to, helping them do so.

As a parenting coach, I do my best to help parents feel better about themselves not by striving to some inaccessible model of perfect mothering, but by first owning their own place, with its strengths and flaws and then moving on to where they want to be, as long as this place is not perfectville.

The perfect chase is futile. Trying to be a perfect mom or dad is like chasing our own tails. We can’t win. We will never be satisfied. And the chase will only exhaust our energy and spirits, putting us in the fast track for anxiety and depression.

It’s time to stop trying to be a perfect parent.

What we need is not the next “Become a perfect parent” book. We need a change of mindset. We need to move away from the perfect game and find a way to be the Good Enough Parent.

Donald Winnicott and The Good Enough Mother

The Good Enough Parent concept is derived from the writings of the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He wrote about the good enough mother but in the spirit of the 21st century, we should include every parent in this.

Winnicott talked about how mothers tried to match their babies’ needs 100% of the time. He claimed that as babies grow, it becomes harder and harder to answer each and every one of their needs and thus, they are bound to feel some disappointment from their moms.

stop trying to be a perfect parent
Photo by Michal Bar Haim

Think about a hungry baby that has to wait a couple of minutes until the formula bottle is prepared. Or maybe mom is busy with one kid so the other needs to wait a bit before she can attend to him.

Those moments of waiting have an intrinsic gap between the child’s needs and the parent’s availability. The so-called perfect-mom, according to Winnicott, can’t handle those gaps and won’t allow them.

Those gaps, according to Winnicott, are what enables the growth of the child’s self. They help the child move away from being totally dependent on the parent. The child learns to differentiate between himself and the parent and develops some ability to trust himself.

Helicopter and Lawnmower as Perfect Parents

Trying to be the perfect parent is depicted in the parenting styles known as Helicopter Parents or Lawnmower Parents. Those are parents who have a hard time stepping back from their children’s life. They are always present, doing their best to prevent their children from dealing with hardships or pains.

They do so out of good will, but we know too well that these kinds of parenting are doing a disservice to the child. By always being present, removing every obstacle, preventing every pain, the so-called “perfect” parent actually doesn’t give the child a chance to grow up and be him or herself, and the child will never learn how to cope in the world.

lawnmower parenting
Image by Photo by Rémi Müller

Being a Good Enough Parent is About YOURSELF

Winnicott’s concept of the good enough mother was all about reacting to the child’s needs in a less-than-perfect (albeit not neglecting) ways. But I want to drive the point even further and talk about the parent’s mindset.

As I wrote at the beginning of the post, being a parent these days is a hell of a confusing job. You got books, blogs, and magazines to tell you how you should act and react. There are so many external stressors telling you to do this or that. And all those seemingly perfect Instagram posts that show well-behaved, good looking, tidy kids doing awesome things. And then you look at your own life and feel like you’re just not doing it right.

So you try to do better. You put your kid in all those extra classes. You work your ass off to drive her around activities and get the best groceries so you can cook all those healthy Instagram meals. You do and give whatever they ask so they won’t ever feel disappointment.

But that doesn’t work for you. Because it’s not what your child really needs, and it’s also making you tired, anxious and disappointed in yourself.

stop trying to be a perfect parent
Photo by Kylli Kittus

Being a Good Enough Parent means that you are, first and foremost, accepting that you can’t do it all and shouldn’t do it all. It means that you accept and embrace yourself as an incomplete, imperfect human being. It means that you strive for taking care of yourself, not only your child.

Do you know those inflight safety movies that show before take-off? They always say that in the case of losing air-pressure in the passenger cabin, oxygen masks will fall from the compartments above your head. And it always says that parents should put the masks on themselves and only then on the child.

And that’s so true! You can’t take good care of your child if you’re not taking care of yourself. Stopping the “perfect” chase is one way to take care of ourselves.

Being Good Enough Doesn’t Mean Giving Up

You may think to yourself something like “But I don’t want to be neglecting, self-centered parent. I want what’s best for my child!”.

And you’re right! You want what’s best for your child, you want to take care of him or her, and do whatever you can so they’ll live a happy, healthy life.

Being Good Enough Parents doesn’t mean we are giving up on being a committed, mindful parent. It means we accept our flaws, but no succumb to them. It means we accept the fact that we can’t do everything and be everywhere for our kids, and that they don’t need us to be.

Just like the Serenity Prayer says: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.

Being a Good Enough Parent means we accept the things we cannot do for our kids – such as removing every obstacle from their way or always entertain them. It also means we find the courage and commitment to do the things we can – even if it seems too hard.

For example, if your child is having issues with separation anxiety, you should find a way to help her even if it means challenging your own thoughts and feelings about separation, anxiety and what it means about your parenting. Check out the following post if you want to learn more about how to support your child through anxiety.

Being a Good Enough Parent means we acknowledge our limitations, but we’re not stuck in place. For example, I know that sometimes I can’t tend to both my kids and although I prefer that they’ll play or read a book, I let them watch TV or play with a tablet when I need to prepare dinner or wash one of them. It doesn’t mean I’ll stick them in front of the TV for the entire afternoon just to have time for myself, though.

And eventually, being a Good Enough Parent means being a mindful parent. It means we are taking the time to observe ourselves. We check in with our thoughts, sensations, and feelings, and making informed decisions, based on our own values. Decisions that we can live with, instead of acting automatically.

If you want to learn more about being a more mindful parent, click the button below to download my free mindfulness guide for parents.

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Conclusion

We get so many messages about being the best parents in the world. And we are bombarded with social media posts that show how other parents are nailing it (they don’t, though). But trying the be perfect parents is futile. It will only put you in a race that will leave you high and dry from all sides.

You don’t need to be a perfect mother or father. You should strive to be a Good Enough Parent. That means you know your limitations and accept them, but also try to be better. Not the best, but better.

By being a Good Enough Parent, we are also teaching our children a valuable lesson: that they themselves don’t need to be perfect. That they are worthy of love even if they have flaws.

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