Sometimes, it takes one powerful question to help you flip the script and pave a parenting journey where mistakes are golden and fear is your compass.
Lu Hanessian, MSc
“Mom, nobody’s perfect,” my boys used to remind me years ago. (As I recall, I needed a lot of reminding.)
We’ve grown since those days. And these days, as a parent educator in touch with moms and dads around the world, I hear a familiar and universal story. A story of doubt and fear, worry and regret.
And now? In a pandemic? There is no roadmap. No directions for what lies ahead. Parents are doing everything they can to make things work, worried we’re missing something. Falling behind. Losing our mind.
One thing the pandemic didn’t change?
We get caught in the ‘better’ trap.
We berate ourselves for things we didn’t know earlier. For mistakes we made in the absence of knowing better. For those we made when we had the insight, but not the courage to choose better.
We allow ourselves to get hooked. Between present and past. Between expectations and experience. Between what we do and what others think. Between our choices and everyone else’s (better) choices.
“Mom, nobody’s perfect…”
If nobody’s perfect, why do we berate ourselves? For our perceived failures. For short fuses and crossed wires. For wild eyes flashing with rage and fatigue.
For all those blinding moments when we mistook our toddlers for the enemy faction. For those private moments when silently convinced ourselves that our kids might have been better off with someone else.
We absorb countless messages throughout our lives and parenting journey. We learn to feel inadequate, to be fearful of judgment — and avoid both.
We’re often scrutinized, sometimes chastised, for our choices along the way.
Even if we think we are immune to cultural pressures to conform or exceed expectations, we often create our own measuring sticks. And beat ourselves up with them.
We feel heavy with guilt for our children’s struggles, failures, and mistakes. We get so entrenched, the equivalent of digging a mental ditch and sitting in it. Ruminating. What-if-ing. Missing the present moment.
In the face of our child’s struggles, we slide into helplessness, because we can’t fix and solve and make it better. Because, amazingly, maddeningly, we don’t have all the answers. (Dammit.)
Somehow, we bought into the notion that raising excellent humans is achieved through controlling all the variables. As if the trajectory of our children’s lives was 100% our responsibility.
It’s as if we think our children are a jumble of complex parts that come with no instructions, and we have to figure out how to put them together or they’ll end up a pile of disjointed pieces, unfinished, or worse, something entirely wrong.
We have become accustomed to feeling hyper-responsible for the process and the outcome. It’s a short jump from feeling hyper-responsible to feeling hypersensitive to criticism and judgment. Especially our own.
Sometimes, we get in our own way. Isn’t that what self-judgment does? We may feel fearful of blame and loss. We may feel powerless and small. We may feel the walls closing in. And, then, in an instant — over seemingly nothing — an old painful feeling is re-awakened in us.
“Nobody ever listens to me!”
“I don’t matter to anyone!”
“I’m always the bad guy!”
Our worst critics are not the strangers who grimace at us and our kids. They are not the well-meaning relatives who hover and nitpick. They are not the friends who compare because they care.
Our most merciless critics? Ourselves.
We must stop holding ourselves to inhuman standards. What does it take to call a truce?
I offer you these four empowering shifts to help you harness your fears, and enjoy your own parenting journey — detours and all.
1. Reframe messing up as growing up.
We’re biologically designed to mess up. That’s hard science. The more we hit an impasse, feel stuck, and work our way through, the more we strengthen our neural circuits of attention, problem-solving, empathy and intuition.
The more we try to make sense of our stories, the more we invite self-reflection. And that process of thinking and wondering integrates the brain.
Our brains grow new neural pathways when we fumble, fall, and figure out why in order to pave our way together.
Messing up grows connective tissue. But, only if we get curious about it. Reflection is key. Something amazing happens when we practice mindful awareness. It’s not just that we build a more integrated brain when we reflect — it’s that it promotes healthy brain development in our children, too.
Mess up. Find your way through the tangle of it. Figure out the how’s and why’s with kindness toward yourself. No deadline. No rush to judgment.
You become calmer, more tolerant, more grounded. You begin to see patterns. Noticing takes attention. Catching yourself mid-meltdown takes awareness. Paving a different path takes trust.
Messing up becomes waking up. You relate to your kids from that place. Again and again. It shapes them.
We build resilience through adversity. Through facing pain with compassion. Attending to needs. And staying connected to ourselves and each other.
2. Fear is a compass.
When you listen to your fears, you can feel where the fire is burning. You notice the unmet need behind your anger. Behind your anxiety. Behind your heavy heart.
And something else. All those unmet needs behind your fears? You begin to notice that they live in your child, too. Not because you did something to put them there. But, because your child — like you — is made of flesh and relationship radar and a deep yearning to stay close.
Especially when the world is upside down. And, for our kids, living in an upside down world can feel downright terrifying.
There is a powerful opportunity here. As parents, we can help them navigate that fear by tending to needs. Day by day. Hour by hour. And calming ourselves and each other through play. Storytelling. Talking. Moving. Singing. Drawing. Laughing. Hugging. Spending some time in nature. Staying socially connected in creative ways.
If this sounds impossible, it’s not for lack of trying. You are doing what you can in an unimaginable scenario. Still, with fear as a compass, you and your kids can use your imagination to create another scenario. And another. Einstein said so. Fifty odd years of resilience research back him up.
3. Consider mistakes as missed takes.
‘Missed takes’ are there for the taking. We take another.
It can be helpful for us to know that our perceived failures are actually golden opportunities for growth. Without our motivation to work with and through our human imperfections, in relationship, our brains would not grow in complexity and capacity.
It’s one thing to mess up and find our way. It’s another level of personal power when we become aware that we have the agency to do so.
It’s so easy to fall back on our defenses. It wasn’t my fault. I can’t do it. I’ve never been good at X. I don’t have the power to Y. He pissed me off. She pressed my buttons. I can’t deal with this.
“Missed takes” is a paradigm shift. It asks us to ‘take another’ because we recognize that we have the option to try again a different way.
It takes flexibility, trust, and tenderness toward ourselves.
Our kids learn that “missed takes” widen their inner world of possible responses, instead of defensive strategies of reactivity and meltdowns. “Taking another” is like taking an off ramp to a different outlook.
4. Flip the script. Sometimes, all it takes is a question.
Here’s the question:
If you were perfect, how would your teach your children humility? Forgiveness? Authenticity? If there was such a thing as a “perfect” parent, how would our children learn what it really means to be… human?