Pregnancy is one of those times in our life that invites us to review our own childhood and the parenting we received in order to figure out what kind of mum or dad we would like to be. Not surprisingly, it is also often one of those life transitions that brings people to therapy. Often times there is real fear in my clients to re-enact familiar yet unhealthy patterns of parenting they experienced as a child. And even if there is a clear intention to do things differently, with the lack of appropriate role models, that is much easier said than done. How different exactly? What is a better alternative to what I know?, we may ask ourselves.
Then our baby is born and all over sudden our world is turned upside down. We have brought this little helpless being into this world and now he or she depends on us 24/7. There is no letting off. There is severe sleep deprivation and literally no time for even basic self-care - a real test for anyone working on their mental health! And this is especially true for all those women who are breastfeeding on demand. From one week to the next, our identity may shift from being a successful and experienced professional appreciated by clients and colleagues alike to a mere a source of food. And even that role we may struggle to fulfill as we have little clue about the intricate workings of our body that are required to ensure a continuous milk supply. How easy it is in this situation to feel like a useless zombie. And that is only the starting point of this difficult journey into parenthood.
Even if we have spent time with nieces and nephews and children of friends, there is no way of really knowing what it feels like to be a parent until we are one. The level of responsibility and worry is unprecedented - and it does not stop. We worry about our child's mental and physical development; we worry about our child's health and well-being; we worry about our child's future - we feel responsible for everything! And we are trying to miraculously balance our parental role with looking after ourselves. We also have needs - needs for mental stimulation, needs for achievement, needs for social interaction, needs for rest and relaxation, to name but a few.
In my many years of working as a therapist, I haven't found any one parent who is not struggling with this continuous balancing act of looking after their children and looking after themselves. Guilt is a common theme here. We either feel guilty for neglecting our children or we feel guilty for neglecting ourselves, or both. Either way, we don't feel like a good role model. There is just no ideal solution to this dilemma. And worse, the context keeps changing all the time. Whether we parent a baby or teenager - the moment we begin to feel slightly more settled in our role, the moment we think we finally figured things out, our child changes again. What worked so beautifully yesterday may no longer work today. Now if this doesn't train mental flexibility!
In addition, being a parent is a continuous exercise in letting go. After being drafted into this most demanding 24/7 role and being asked to sacrifice so much of our previous life, we are being asked to gradually make ourselves obsolete in the process. Achieving our child's full independence is considered the ultimate goal. And what about us? What about our own sense of meaning and purpose? For many of us, this aspect of parenthood is particularly painful. And this becomes especially noticeable at different transition points: the start of nursery, school or university; our child's marriage or pregnancy. How do we know how much to empower our child and how much to protect them from danger; how much to advice and assist them and how much to give them the freedom to figure things out for themselves? No wonder parenthood has often been described as the most challenging job there is.
And if this wasn't already challenging enough in ordinary times, the current level of uncertainty about the world can make us feel even more shaky. How do we parent our children in these uncertain times? How can we give them motivation and stimulation at home? How can we validate their fears without increasing their anxiety? How do we keep our children safe without imposing too many restrictions and limiting their joy in life? And what about their future - how can we prepare our children for what there is to come? Do traditional structures of school and university still apply? Do we need to do more or different things to help our children navigate this world? How can we protect them from our own anxiety and sadness? These are only some of the questions parents are facing at the moment, and as usual, there is no manual with clear answers. We are all just feeling even less prepared. In many situations, we can't even ask our own parents for advice and may be managing their anxiety, too.
Arriving at an answer to any of these questions may require careful consideration and weighing up of individual feelings and circumstances. Personal reflections and conversations with your partner, friends or family may give room for this. Therapy may be another useful space for exploration. While there may be little possibility of answering these questions in a general way, what I hope to achieve with this post is to contribute to an acknowledgement of the inherent challenges of parenthood, especially in current times. If you are struggling as a parent, you are certainly not alone. This is a humongous task, and even more so right now. Whether you are doubting your parenting skills, fighting your way through each day or feeling close to giving up, please know that many others are sharing the same thoughts and a very similar journey with you. Please reach out and don't suffer in silence! What you are doing each day as a parent is so important. As one step out of your current crisis, consider the exercise below.
Write down the three most difficult challenges you are currently facing as a parent and rank them in order of importance. Describe the most difficult challenge in as much detail as possible in writing. If you are an extrovert, you may prefer talking about the problem to a friend or therapist, maybe even a fellow parent, as long as they are able to just listen. Notice how by defining the problem in detail you are lowering any related fears and are already starting to problem solve. Brainstorm different solutions without committing to any one of them at this point. Try to free your mind: what is the funniest, the most outlandish or most outrageous solution you can come up with? Sleep on it. Revisit your list the next day and see if there is one simple solution that makes a little difference and feels easy or attractive to implement. Make it happen for yourself. Remember that as a parent you also have needs and that you can only look after your children if you keep looking after yourself.
What thoughts or practices help you to strengthen yourself in your vital role as parent? How do you decide how much to empower and how much to guide your children?