Like many people who constantly dole out advice, I’m constantly eaten up with self-doubt.
Absolutely eaten up. For every 800 reassuring words I write, I spend at least an hour quaking with fear that all I know how to do is give advice, and I have no idea how to take it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never written a whole book about parenting: I don’t know if I could survive the tragic irony of shaking a needy child off my leg because I had to write another chapter about her needs.
Of course, even parents who don’t give parenting advice deal with this self-doubt, these bouts of terror. The stakes are so high. What if I’m doing it wrong? I can *see* that I’m doing it wrong. *Look* at all the things I’m doing wrong!
In a way, this worry is a sign that you’re a good parent. Truly terrible parents don’t care if they’re doing a good job or not, or else they think they’re doing great. Or if anything does go wrong, they think it’s someone else’s fault. So first of all, remember that good parents are the ones who worry if they’re doing well.
But of course there is such a thing as worrying too much. Overwhelming anxiety over parenting can manifest itself in all kinds of destructive things: Depression, despair, even anger at the very kids you’re anxious about. You can be so worried you’re letting your kids down, you end up furious at them for having been let down by you. So while we can tell ourselves that anxiety over parenting is a good sign, it’s not a place you want to get stuck in. How to get unstuck?
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One way is to tell yourself about all the things you’re doing right. There are probably more than you think; and you can probably find a good side even to the things you may be doing wrong.
The goal isn’t to lull yourself into complacency. The goal is to push back against a snowballing cluster of self-accusation — which, despite how big it seems, is probably mostly empty. Most of us are very ready to believe bad things about ourselves, but reluctant to believe good things; and we tend to believe that bad things are the truthiest truth, whereas good things are paltry and inconsequential.
But why should this be so? If we think back on our own childhoods, we can probably remember bad parenting that hurt us, but also good parenting that stayed with us and continues to strengthen and comfort us even as a memory. This shows that good parenting is real parenting, and it is powerful. So it’s good practice to remind yourself of what you’re doing right. There is probably more than you think, and it probably means more than you realize. Go ahead and list it off for yourself, the slight and the huge, the occasional and the constant. Most parents are doing so much better than they think they are.
And what if there are real problems? What if you do identify things that need fixing? Rather than condemning yourself entirely and resolving to overhaul the whole relationship, it’s still a good idea to start with what you are doing right. Try building on what is already there; and start small. Just do the next right thing, the next time you have a chance, and that’s all. You may find that making one small change is not only achievable, but it builds on itself; whereas swooping in and attempting to reverse something huge is almost doomed to failure, and will end up making the problem only more entrenched.
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When we feel more confident about the parenting we’re already doing, this gives us the energy and confidence to make changes that do need to be made. It’s so much easier to rouse yourself to greater efforts when you’re already steady on your feet, and not mired in self-accusation.
So it might feel odd, but go ahead and list what you’re doing right. Listen to and believe the good things others say about your kids; think about what mistakes you’ve corrected; think about how you’ve improved your approach over the years, and what you’ve improved over the way you yourself were raised. Think about what you’re doing better than other parents (just keep it to yourself!). Actively look for the positive things you do — and yes, the ones that come easy still count. Making a list and telling it to yourself gives it power.
Parenting is hard and humbling; so don’t rob yourself of the rewards of satisfaction. It’s good for your kids, and it’s good for you, too.