How Self-Esteem has Made us Neurotic Parents

Or: How Self-Esteem Fucked with my Parenting.

My daughter recently turned one, which makes me new to this whole parenting thing. It also means that parenting and/or my child are the only things I’m capable of talking about anymore. The majority of my time over the past couple of years has been consumed with writing about self-esteem and learning how to not fail at parenting. While I wasn’t paying attention, one of these ideas got out of its cage and *ahem* intermingled with the other idea, creating a litter of mutated and grotesque little ideas all their own.

I, like most of my generation (Y, in case you have yet to gather that from the overall snarkiness of my writing) have been relentlessly assured of my status as a winner, my destiny of success, and my overall ability to be the best at anything I give even the most cursory of attempts. This, as I have exhaustively discussed, has been a pretty complete failure for a whole lot of reasons.

Now that most of my generational cohort and I have reached parenthood, the impact that snowflakes and trophies and esteem have had on us is becoming clear in new ways.

Holy shit, we are all completely and hopelessly neurotic parents. Just one white-hot mess of a parent after another.

We expect to be uber-parents because the idea that we were uber-kids was beaten into us during the nineties. The stink of this value set is on all of us, even those of us that have been crying bullshit and shenanigans since adolescence. The uncomfortable truth is that, deep down, most of us expect to succeed with little required effort on our part. This is not a mentality that mixes well with parenting.

Parents are quick to point out that the act of having children and being a parent is simultaneously the hardest, happiest, most challenging, most rewarding thing they have ever done. I am no exception to this. I can’t fully elaborate what it is that is so hard about parenting beyond some very abstract argument about the gravity of shaping another human being and the implications of that, but it’s a very difficult and happy and heavy thing to do.

If there have always been ‘Type A’ people who were driven by achievement, then we are ‘Type A+’ because we have a fundamental need to be good at things. Failing to be perfect (which doesn’t mean you’ve failed at all, mind you) invalidates one of the most important certainties that we’ve been given by society – that we don’t fail. We want that parenting trophy, goddammit.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I’m one of those Type A+ people. Things have often come easily to me, so I developed this habit of not doing anything that I wasn’t immediately able to master…you know, to preserve that illusion of success and superiority that I like to bitch about so much.

Parenthood was a difficult transition for me. Mastery didn’t quickly occur. It still hasn’t and probably won’t, at least not for a very long time. I felt unsure of myself. I felt clumsy and hapless. I felt inadequate because I wasn’t immediately a perfect parent. My self-worth was damaged by my inability to live up to my incredibly unrealistic expectations.

Many parents have similar experiences. We think it’s entirely possible to give 100% to our careers, our families, and our social lives. When we find that we don’t exactly have 300% to give, many of us assume we have failed in some way. We have failed if we aren’t growing in our career, if our kids aren’t reading and doing simple math when they are three, if we aren’t getting to the gym four times a week, and if our house isn’t spotless all the time. If we aren’t careful, this can suck a whole lot of joy out of parenting and life in general.

We aren’t supposed to be perfect. Our children aren’t going to be perfect, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Parenthood is one big exercise in doing the best you can, and that’s true for damn near everyone. Sometimes you meet people who seem to make it all work. I have no idea how they do it, but I’m fucking terrified of them.

If we can stop holding ourselves to the ridiculous standards we were made to believe in childhood we might actually be able to enjoy the process of raising our kiddos into less neurotic adults. We totally won’t, and some other unforeseeable factor will be the driving force behind our children’s neurosis, but we can at least enjoy the process and be okay with the idea that we did our best.

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8 comments

  1. This may or may not lighten the load. Some professional said this and it’s true! All parents damage their children in one way or another. As parents, we don’t know how and sometimes it takes a long, long time, if ever, to reveal itself. We have no control over how our child perceives our parenting skills. My son, (50 yrs.) feels he had wonderful child/teen years.. My daughter, (47 yrs.) loudly proclaims hers was awful, damaging her for life.

    Now, when I see how my son and his wife are raising my grandsons I know I lived up to the responsibility of good parenting. Also now, I leave it up to my other child’s therapist to help her understand herself and all her life’s experiences more fully.

    GT

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations, you got it! Surprise! there is no such thing as a professional or perfect parent. Each and every parent is and always has been an amateur with each and every child. “Parenthood is one big exercise in doing the best you can, and that’s true for damn near everyone…If we can stop holding ourselves to the ridiculous standards we were made to believe in childhood we might actually be able to enjoy the process of raising our kiddos into less neurotic adults. We totally won’t, and some other unforeseeable factor will be the driving force behind our children’s neurosis, but we can at least enjoy the process and be okay with the idea that we did our best.”
    I would suggest that the first step toward enjoying the process and being okay with the idea that you did your best is to finally be totally okay with the idea that your parents did the best they could with the tools they had at hand too. The problem is that fully crossing that threshold of understanding into adulthood means putting a lot of the child centered therapists and self-help guru’s out of business. You know who I mean. The ones still stuck in their own childhoods intent on helping the adult sized children who show up in their practices how to apply new knowledge to past generations in order to document parenting imperfections. So they can continue to collect a paycheck by showing up to help their clients work on repairing the so-called damage. The same ones who invented and advanced the ill-conceived praise = self-esteem movement that your generation got lathered with in the first place.
    Just as there are a whole many of us parents who’ve been dumped for never buying into the ill-conceived self esteem movement by adult sized children who’s addiction to the ‘I’m special’ movement took hold by being culturally enmeshed in it outside of the home, there will be many of you who will be dumped despite giving your very best efforts to the process of parenting. Let’s face it, no matter what is trending today in parenting practices the one thing we can all be sure of is that by the time this generation of children are ready to cross the threshold into adulthood anything and everything your doing with your kids today might possibly be understood as toxic. Then what? How bout we not only step off the self-esteem train wreck, we also step out of the practice of dissecting parenting? Keep up the good work!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow – thanks for such a detailed and well thought out response! Letting go of a lot of the insecurity that comes from believing that perfect parenting is possible and buying into the image that is sold to us has definitely helped me become a less anxious, and much better parent.

      Like

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