Spend any time in the self-help section at the bookstore (well, alright, the self-help section at Amazon.com), watch TV or movies, and you’ll keep bumping into this mythological character, one that causes a huge amount of grief and unhappiness in our culture: the perfect parent.
Whether it’s the perfect selfless Mom who has no life outside of her children but keeps the house squeaky clean, scrapbooks every week of the family’s adventures, all while also managing to be the head of the PTA and a yoga instructor or the perfect Dad who similarly has no external life, is dedicated to doing all of the housework while ignoring his favorite sports team and manages to be that funny, safe guy at the playground on a Saturday morning with the kids while mom gets to enjoy her new novel, this mythic parent is remarkably pervasive.
The problem is, they don’t exist. There are no perfect parents.
We might have perfect intention, but we’re all just human so our implementation often leaves something to be desired. If it were just a script we could read the night before, editing, tweaking and changing scenes to optimize the collective outcome, but of course that’s not how life works, and however well prepared we are, we’re stuck trying to figure out in the moment what to do in any given situation.
Years ago I can remember going out with another family and when their little girl knocked over her glass of water, the dad immediately said “that’s okay, are you hurt honey?” and started cleaning up. I thought to myself how he’d been so relaxed, so supportive, and how a potentially difficult situation was instead defused effortlessly. “I want to be a parent like him when mine are that old” I thought, and now I watch myself and I am like that. Most of the time. That’s cool.
But there are still times when it’s one darn thing too many, when I know that the reason the water’s been knocked over isn’t innocent, isn’t benign and accidental, but a continuation of a long, difficult period of time where we have been arguing, the child’s in a bad mood, angry towards someone else, or just cranky and frustrated that it’s water, not soda or a milk shake. In those situations, I still sometimes try to be calm, mellow and thoughtful, but it doesn’t always work. And then there are the times that I too am stuck in that unpleasant place of being reactive, not thoughtful. I’m the parent, yes, but I’m just a person too.
And we don’t have much space for that, either as individual parents — who are all too often unsympathetic, even as we think about our own flaws and missed opportunities to be a great parent — or as a culture. Don’t believe me? Analyze your reactions next time you’re at the supermarket and see a parent pushing a cranky child and yelling at them. Or hitting them.
What’s the backstory? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe we’re all just human, all just parents doing our damnedest to be the best we can. And maybe that’s what we need to learn how to accept. There are no perfect parents, and we are all striving — or should be — to be the best parents we can be. But there’s no destination on this journey, just a long road that sometimes feels joyous and rewarding and other times is just a slog through the swamps of emotions, exhaustion, hormones, external events or random badness.
But that’s me. How about you.
Are you the perfect parent? Or did actually having children humble you like it has so, so many other parents before you?