I have been thinking a lot recently about the incredible amount of societal pressure that comes with parenting. I can’t know for sure how this compares to parenting in previous generations, but I have the sense, backed up by conversations with my mom, that perhaps today’s parents face a great deal more external pressure than parents of years gone by.
I frequently see reports of new studies showing that this parenting method or that one is causing our children permanent psychological damage, or that this parenting method or that one is clearly the only way to raise high-achieving, well-adjusted children. I often see links to these articles on the Facebook pages of friends who already follow the method endorsed by the study and likely appreciate feeling validated. This is understandable, but I find it to be less than helpful.
Honestly, I wish researchers would give up studying which parenting philosophies and methods are more or less effective. The research seems awfully dubious. (So this method of parenting is the root of psychological damage? And how exactly did you isolate the parenting method from all other factors? Causality seems to be a problem here.) I am not a parenting expert. I am not a psychologist. But my experience thus far is that parents who are relatively informed and are themselves stable and well-adjusted people are best left to sense what their children need and to parent according to their instincts and the wisdom of the other parents in their support circles. And it seems to me that at-risk parents need community support and educational resources on the basics, like proper nutrition and safety. Research studies on co-sleeping or crying it out do very little to help parents of any stripe. Instead, those studies offer conflicting and questionable results that serve to confuse and divide parents.
But the pressure goes beyond the latest studies, and beyond parenting, for that matter. I have the strong feeling we are all getting the message that a successful life involves most of the following: a loving, still-starstruck-after-all-these-years marriage; at least one spouse with a high-powered, well-paying career; a beautifully-designed and decorated home, which is kept perfectly organized and spotlessly clean; at least two well-groomed and perfectly-behaved children dressed at all times in fashionable wardrobes and stylish accessories, which really should be hand sewn or knit; homemade, gourmet meals made with healthy, organic and locally-grown ingredients (bonus points for having grown them yourself); fun and creative outings, play dates, crafts and organized classes or activities for your children every week, all captured with beautifully-shot photography; volunteer involvement in a range of church or community projects; a regular exercise regimen, which should include some type of adventurous outdoor activity or significant sports achievement; keeping informed of current events, key local, national and international developments, and significant achievements in science, art, literature, technology, and of course, those important parenting studies; stellar personal grooming that includes maintaining your college weight while staying current with the newest fashions and style trends; for Christians, active church involvement, at least an hour a day in prayer and private devotions, and daily family worships; regular romantic dates with your spouse; all of the above documented carefully in a well-written blog, journal or scrapbook for your children or the world to read and marvel at the picture-perfect life you have created.
Yes, that’s a snarky exaggeration. But how many of us can identify with that list of completely unrealistic expectations? How many of us are trying to meet a standard of success that simply does not exist in the universe we inhabit? None of the items on that list are bad things, and many of them are truly important. But I confess that a significant portion of the frustration I have experienced in the transition to two children has originated with having to let go of unrealistic expectations for what I can actually achieve in a day. I have almost daily conversations with friends – married, single, no kids, one kid, four kids – who struggle with feelings of failure because they have gotten the message that what they are accomplishing is not enough. I honestly don’t know quite where to lay the blame. Has it always been this way? My guess is no. I suppose we have done this to ourselves, but how? And how do we change it?
Maybe it begins with a little truth telling. I keep a blog here and share photos of my family and the memories we make together. I love focusing on the beautiful things in my life. But lest I give a false impression, let me be clear: I absolutely cannot keep up with the laundry. There are often toys scattered from one end of my house to the other. I am late to almost every appointment. I am always tired, still carrying plenty of baby weight, and struggling to maintain any kind of regular Bible study or prayer life. I try to cook healthy meals for my family, but we eat an awful lot of veggie burgers from the freezer. My house is currently clean because my mom felt sorry for me and paid for her cleaning lady to clean my house, too. There is plenty more of this, but you get the picture.
The truth of parenting – of life – is that it’s messy. It doesn’t look like a picture from any magazine I’ve ever seen. We all juggle incredibly busy lives the best we know how. We prioritize. We can and do lead fundamentally happy and fulfilled lives while also feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I can love my kids with a bone-deep passion and be incredibly grateful to be their mom while simultaneously feeling bone-weary and terribly annoyed with their latest antics. That’s reality, and it’s okay.
No study is going to tell you the perfect parenting method. Here’s the truth: It’s a lot of trial and error. No one can promise that even if you do most everything right, your kids are going to turn out just as you hoped. And those other parents who seem to have it all together? They don’t. There are big problems in our society. There are fundamental things going wrong. But putting more pressure on ourselves and others to do more, to be better, to meet some elusive standard of perfection, to feel constantly happy, is not the answer. Instead, we have to find a way to know our core values and what truly matters and let the other stuff go.
That’s easier said than done, as I very well know. But it’s my challenge to myself and to you. Figure out the stuff that matters. Let the other stuff go.