A few days ago I received the following email from a reader, a touching plea for help:
“I feel my twin 14 year old son’s deserve more than someone like me. I messed up my life and now I’m supposed to raise them not to make the same mistakes I have made????? What scares me is the fact that they love me and trust me when I don’t. They are everything to me and, I’m scared to death I will fail them.”
My answer to him was thus: “It sounds like you might need someone to talk with about your fears and concerns. Do you go to church? A pastor or rabbi could be a very good person, or a favorite uncle in your family, or even a therapist? I think some lack of confidence is inherent in parenting because it’s an incredibly difficult, always changing task. Certainly once you think you’ve got it all mastered that’s when you’re usually forcibly reminded that humility and a sense of humor are critical for survival.”
I want to expand on this idea here, however, because his question has bugged me since we emailed back and forth.
The problem is that for many people there’s a expectation of perfection associated with parenting: you can’t really be a good parent, well, a “good” parent (I’m adding the quotes), unless you’ve already attained a certain level of goodness.
That’s completely bunk however, because we’re all human, we all have our weaknesses and foibles, we all have our challenges.
Heck, if only perfect people were allowed to have children, we’d die out as a race in a single generation. No-one’s a perfect parent, it’s just not possible. If you think you’re close to attaining perfection as a parent or you know some other parents (especially at your children’s school!) who seem to think they’re perfect, it’s a pretty sure bet that life at home isn’t what you’re imagining.
Reminds me of how so many of our friends would tell my ex and I what a lovely couple we made, even as we were fighting and eventually decided to go ahead and divorce. Ya just never really know.
Back to the original writer. I have found that humility is a real benefit as a parent so while I feel strongly that the writer needs some support to help understand and work on addressing his own challenges and ensuring that he is helping his boys grow and mature, I also feel that as they are able to handle it, there’s much benefit to him being candid about his own mistakes too. It’s a tricky topic, but “I did X and it turned out really bad because…” makes you human and accessible to your children.
It can go wrong, however, and I’ve read more than once about teens who justify taking drugs or drinking alcohol by pointing to their own parents who either currently exhibit the same behaviors (a particularly tricky issue in pot-legal Colorado) or were big into partying when they were younger. It’s “do as I say, not as a do” which rarely if ever works.
So what makes a man a good father? A stew of love, humor, empathy, humility, and, perhaps most of all, time. That last one’s a real challenge for some guys too, but parenting’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s hours, days, weeks spent year after year after year, even when the going’s tough, that’s what really makes a good father. And a great father? Well, let’s just get out the gate before we worry about winning the race, shall we?
That’s my advice to this anxious, insecure father. What would you advise him based on the message he sent?