Amy: To be a parent is to know worry. There’s no escaping it, and there’s really no cure for it. As my blogging buddy David Keith says, “If you can’t stand guilt don’t become a parent.”
There are a lot of reasons for our parental angst, partly having to do with the sense of responsibility and complexity that comes with being a parent. We make a huge, ongoing emotional investment in our kids. But, as parents, we come with our own set of emotional baggage that has been transmitted from our own parents and from their parents before them. Anxiety and worry is often handed down throughout the generations, through unconscious family and cultural patterns.
In my family therapy practice, I frequently have parents bring their children in for behavioral problems, or because they worry that their child is anxious or depressed. Sometimes, parents want to come in because of their own anxiety about their parenting: Are they too harsh? Too lenient? When to be firm? When to be flexible?
Indeed, being a parent is a rather mysterious, and potentially quite confusing adventure. And it’s probably, other than marriage, the most important opportunity for growth we will ever know. Being a parent challenges many of our assumptions: Our kids tend to come with their own script, and they have their own growth patterns and predispositions that may seem quite foreign to us. I believe “control” is the operative word. Kids challenge our need for control, big-time. If we were unaware of our “control” issues before the birth of our children, we certainly learn about them later.
How we honor our children’s sense of “self”–different from our own “selves”–and still maintain our ideas about responsibility as parents is probably the biggest balancing act of all time. It’s an ongoing challenge, and the complexity of this undertaking increases when we add the “Two-Parent” dynamic to the mix. The state of the marriage can add quite a bit of pressure to the parenting equation. This pressure may be subtle, but it can be quite powerful.
We share many stories about how the underlying conflicts in a marriage produce stress in the kids, sometimes showing up as a battle between one parent and a child. This common scenario is often difficult to observe when it’s happening to us. When we’re INSIDE the stressful situation, especially as parents, observing pattens of interaction can be difficult.
But our kids generally have a sense of what’s going wrong and what needs to change. I remember I saw one family with two young adult sons, and the father was clueless as to the anxiety he was generating in his kids by his excessive demands. The father was blind to his own self with his kids. Both young men were riddled with anxiety, which showed up in different ways. At one point, the youngest son, in an effort to enlighten to Dad, said to him, “It looks different from the inside out than from the outside in.” The son could see things that escaped the father’s view.
So, when parents come to see me with confusion and worry, I always respond to their self-questioning as a sign of health. I have a great deal of respect for the parents who are unsure of themselves, who have questions and concerns about how they operate. Aren’t we all students, most of our lives? On some deep level, we know that raising kids can bring up many of our own unconscious, unresolved issues. This parenting project, while potentially very joyous and fulfilling, is probably one of the most complex of life’s demands. Who says we should be experts?