One of the more common experiences I have with clients is working through the shame they experience because of their perceived failure as a parent. It is not uncommon for parents struggling with challenges in their own lives to lament and feel trapped because they are convinced their own problems are getting in the way of their children’s lives. While there is some truth to this, in that we can let our stuff get in the way of our relationship with our children, this is not to say that our challenges must become the challenges of our children. Often we can take some steps to navigate the communal and family experience of distress not only to our own benefit, but to the benefit of our families. The way we approach challenges and mistakes can and should have a positive impact on our families. I think that the best way to illustrate this is with a story.
Years ago, shortly after my second daughter was born, we decided to go for a hike as a family. My oldest who was close to 4 was going through a phase where she would only wear princess dresses gifted to her by her grandmother. My parents lived in another province and my mother it upon herself to ensure that the girls were properly spoilt with glitter, sequins, and brightly colored plastic and lace fabrics. Essentially, not the best hiking wear, even for a walk around the lakes near us.
On this particular day, I was failing quite miserably in convincing my daughter of the practicalities of her hiking attire. It was a hard “No!” to pants, shorts, or even a summer dress, it had to be a specific magical ice queen’s dress that she would wear. Somewhere along the route of trying to convince her I lost my way. It quickly became a power struggle and a power struggle I was bound to lose. I lost my temper, raised my voice, and proceeded to miss the mark on several of my own parenting expectations for myself. This loss of plot culminated with me removing all of the glittering princess dresses from her closet and throwing them (with a flourish) down the stairs into the unfinished basement while my daughter cried. I remember the image very clearly as the dresses floated into the darkness of the basement with the glitter and sequins reflecting the light.
Immediately I knew I was wrong. I felt overwhelming shame. I was someone who was supposed to know better, I was someone who was supposed to be an example of good parenting and in this moment I had lost the plot. That shame hurt, and I actually followed the dresses, walking head bowed into the basement, closing the door behind me.
Graciously, my wife was there to pick things up. She helped the girls settle and I could hear her talking with them. She didn’t throw me under a bus, or say I was wrong, instead she created an opportunity. She encouraged my oldest to talk with me about how I had made her feel. I could hear this from where I sat in the basement and I remember something from attachment theory that had always given me encouragement.
John Bowlby in his study of how infants attached to their mothers and caregivers identified that children and mothers who formed secure attachment did so though establishing a few consistencies in their life. Mom would be predictable, allow the child to explore safely at their level of ability, remained in appropriate proximity, and were able to tune into the need of their child – mom would become the safe place from which to explore the world. However, parents were not required to be perfect at this. In fact, the phrase “good enough parent” was the term that would be used to describe how these parents were able to do this. Not perfect, excellent, or even best, but good enough. Later research would expand this and note a few other things that were important – primarily the ability of good enough parents to repair ruptures in their relationship with the child. When things went wrong (like angrily throwing dresses down into a basement), the reunion or when everyone returns to calm down and discuss, can be more powerful than the incident itself.
Listening to my wife and daughter talk and remembering the research of Bowlby I was encouraged enough to allow for a reunion with my daughter (not allowing her, but allowing myself). I could walk through my shame. I walked upstairs and asked her to come with me to the living room. I was calm and spoke gently and she instantly came with me. We sat down, she climbed onto my lap and I said something very simple. “Daddy didn’t do a good job of that did he?” To my surprise she affirmed this stating that yes, daddy yelled and was not very helpful and it had made her sad. I acknowledged this stating that I did raise my voice. I explained that how I had acted was not helpful and was hurtful to her. However, what I was trying to encourage her to do was important. It was not that I didn’t want her to enjoy her new dress, rather I knew that her dress would likely get very damaged by going on the walk. At this she suddenly shifted and later we went on our hike with more appropriate attire.
To this day she brings up the story. Other times when I have lost the plot she has either gone to mom or directly confronted me, letting me know that my voice is not helping. Likewise, acknowledging that I am wrong often with my kids has become easier and easier. At one time I thought we as parents had to demonstrate authority through showing the right way to do things. This was not a reflection of what my parents taught me, but rather a reflection of the fear and inadequacy I felt as a new parent – despite my knowledge of Bowlby’s work!
We as parents do not have to be perfect, we just have to be good enough and able to model the positive learning that can occur from “failure”. When our children experience our “weakness” they don’t necessarily see this as the failed result of our challenges. Rather, our children are watching to see how we are handling our challenges. Being able to step back, gather ourselves, and return with grace both for the other AND ourselves can build lasting, emotional bonds of security.