The Fear of Failing as a Parent

It is the things I say when I am exhausted and under stress that I must remember later and pay close attention to. Those are the moments when my guard is down and I can finally hear the fears that lie so deep that I’m unwilling to admit they exist when I am in a calmer frame of mind. The one that surfaced this past week was when I heard myself say to Howard “I’m afraid I’m going to get this parenting thing wrong.”

Logic tells me that I’m not and that I won’t. Yet the fear is real and its existence shapes my reactions to a host of events. Because of the fear, I am highly sensitive to anything said or read which supports the theory that I’m making parenting errors, even if that is not at all what the speaker or writer intended. My fear layers on extra implications to the words of others.

The place I’m currently seeing this is my foray into psychology. I’ve been doing reading and have had the chance to visit with both a psychologist and a psychiatrist in hopes of figuring out why my usual means were not enough to help my daughter with her anxiety. It seemed that I was not able to do enough on my own. Except then the troubles all but vanished, and they did so before any of the new interventions had enough time to be effective. It is hard to claim that therapy helped my child when the anxiety abated three days before therapy began. Unless the fact that there was going to be therapy was a sufficient fix. I’m left as clueless as I began, not knowing why my methods where not working, not knowing what suddenly did. I really want to have something repeatable. Instead it feels like if the anxiety swells again I’ll be thrashing about in the dark again.

On the first appointment, the therapist talked about the importance of setting up consequences and applying them consistently. Part of me was agreeing completely. I could see some structures and consequences which, if applied, would resolve some repeating conflicts in our house. I let that part of me control my face. I nodded and took notes, making plans to apply at home. Another part of me was resentful. I already knew this. I’ve already done this. Yes it works, but I wear out and fail to maintain it. I’d hoped for new solutions and the therapist was suggesting long-familiar ones which depended upon a significant commitment of energy from me. I had to be willing to spend that energy no matter what other demands had been placed on me that day and no matter how exhausted I was. The resentful part of me did not want to be asked to do more.

Then there was the wailing little voice in the core of me who was only able to hear that my daughter’s troubles are all due to my failures of parenting. I’m not completely consistent. I am great at creating structures that encourage growth and discourage unwanted behavior. I have learned over the years to try to create structures that function with as little maintenance from me as possible, but I still fail to maintain them. I allow them to fall apart because I’m too tired or busy to enforce. Thus a time limitation on playing Minecraft–which is valuable and useful in encouraging the kids to explore other interests–somehow morphs into them coming home from school and playing Minecraft until dinner time. The therapist says that consistent rules and consequences make a difference, and I know that she’s right, but deep inside I hear “You would not be having this problem if you hadn’t failed at rules and consequences. You already knew this and you failed at it.”

My logical brain tells me that I’m doing fine, that even when things slip, we pick up and rebuild. I tell myself that circling around is the best anyone can do, that no one can be perfect all the time, that over the long haul it is the average patterns that matter most. But my logic brain also knows that the way we live has been teaching my kids that rules will relax if they just wait it out. I’m not sure that is a good lesson, but it is one they definitely know. My logic brain also knows that I’m doing the best I can and I should cut myself some slack. I’m not consistent, and I’m not sure I can be, and it may be that the best I can do is not good enough. This certainly seemed to be the case with my daughter’s anxiety.

One solution I’ve been applying to this dilemma is to turn my kids lives over to them as much as I possibly can. I build structures that emphasize taking responsibility for choices. I offer them as much control as I can reasonably give them for their age. Empowering children is a good thing because it acknowledges the importance of free agency in human existence. The choices my twelve year old makes have far more power over who she will become than the choices I make for her. Or so I want to believe, because then it is not completely my fault if some disaster lays in the future. If I am not solely responsible, then it is okay for me to rest. It is okay for me to let down my guard, and I am exhausted from the quantity of on-duty time I’ve been assigning to myself lately.

A very wise friend once told me that all parents get it wrong. Every single last one of us. I guess then the goal is not to prevent making mistakes but to get it wrong and move on. All I can hope to do is get things less wrong each time I circle around and rebuild the systems that have fallen apart. I have to accept that not only am I unable to predict and fix the challenges of my loved ones, but that I am not supposed to. Their struggles are not about me nor my parenting. I need to acknowledge my fears and let them go, because yes I’m going to get it wrong. Again and again I’ll get it wrong. Yet somehow my kids grow strong and bright despite my failings. I must spend less time trying to figure out why things happened and how I could prevent them from repeating, and spend more time just responding to the needs of each day.

Or maybe I just need to get more sleep and exercise so that I spend less time angsting over whether or not I’m a good parent and spend more time just enjoying the fact that I am one.