When my first daughter was born in 1980, women had begun to enter the workforce in record numbers, breast-feeding was the preferred feeding option, and the question of whether or not to let your baby cry was in the forefront of a mother’s mind.
Times had begun to change quite a bit from the days of BettyDraper in the current popular TV show Mad Men about 1960s advertising executives, and the Ozzie and Harriet Show that was popular back in the 1950s portraying the “perfect family.”
When my children were young I wanted so badly to know the best parenting techniques and I was relentless in my pursuit for all the right answers. I studied with a very well-known parenting expert in the town were I was living at the time. I even enrolled in her early childhood education program at the local university and was hired as her teaching assistant.
Dr. Katharine Kersey taught me so much about how parenting styles had changed since the advent of child development research in the 1950s. She taught me 101 techniques of positive discipline and I was on my way to being a perfect parent for sure!
I was very happy about the way I had learned the latest child development research and parenting techniques. I felt more and more competent every day. I was hired by a large pediatric practice in Virginia to provide parent education classes and consultations to their patients. My life appeared “perfect” and my children were (as others commented) “very well-behaved.”
Then the “real” things happened. I spent some time in therapy healing unresolved grief from having lost my father suddenly when I was eleven years old, I divorced my husband of fourteen years after many years of being verbally and emotionally abused, I began working on a Ph.D. in psychology, and then I lost my job.
Being the perfect parent I had set out to be now had additional challenges. Ones that changed the whole meaning of “how to be a perfect parent.” Ones that no one wanted to talk about. Ones that left me often feeling anxious, depressed and completely depleted.
After many years of teaching parenting classes, facilitating parent support groups and raising my own four children, I discovered there are no easy steps to being a perfect parent. The truth about being a good enough parent lies in the unconscious, or in what Carl Jung calls the “shadow.”
As a result of my life’s experiences and the thousands of stories I have heard from parents I have known both personally and professionally, I published a book entitled: Living in the Shadow of the Too-Good Mother Archetype.
Now as I am talking with parents and educators about the book, I sometimes look in the audiences and see blank stares or even angry scowls. Few people say things like: “Your book was terrific and now I feel like a much better parent.”
Even though I have had a lot of positive feedback, such as the endorsements on the cover, I have noticed that sometimes the book creates discomfort for readers. I had one mother say it made her “sad.” I had another mother say it was hard to read because it brought up many emotions she didn’t want to feel and memories she wanted to forget. The most uncomfortable responses for me are the things left unsaid by the people I know have read the book.
I didn’t intentionally set out to write a book to make people sad, in fact the opposite intention was my motivation. I had learned from my own work and my work with other parents that true joy comes from embracing the darkness. If we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and stand in the pain long enough to get to the other side, only then do we fully experience the pure joy of being authentic and engaged in a meaningful life.
Well-known social worker and shame researcher, Brene’ Brown explains the common resistance to being vulnerable in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Dr. Brown says it is more important for us to understand the the “things that get in the way” then the ”how-tos.” Often we want to avoid the “things that get in the way” because they bring up uncomfortable feelings.
I admire the work of Brene’ Brown and feel she touches on the heart of what I believe can be discovered in the shadow of perfect parenting. The problem is I can’t give you the bullet points to get there. Each individual has to discover themselves what is getting in the way of living an authentic life, and each parent who is willing has to be brave and tenacious enough to stand in the discomfort to really know what parenting from the heart is all about.
We live in a fast-paced, media driven culture that opens up blog posts and immediately tries to find the bullet points, looking for lists such as: “What are the five steps to make me a perfect parent?” Parents are hoping to read the lists quickly so they can reach their perfect parent goal and get on with the rest of the to-do list for the day.
So here it is folks!