New parents are under a lot of pressure to get things right. There is advice everywhere you turn and, worse, a new understanding of the importance of the early years in shaping children’s future lives. It’s understandable to fear that at any moment a parent could miss a key step in the complex process of raising a child and set the child up for failure without ever intending to.
It’s time to calm things down. Yes, we know more today about infant and preschool development and we understand better how the developmental pieces fit together. But children themselves haven’t changed one whit. Babies are still the same as babies have always been, since you were young, since your parents were young, since even George Washington was young. Babies are the same as ever and knowing more about how they grow doesn’t mean we need to worry more about that growth.
But perfection is still the goal of many new parents. A recent study of Midwestern parents of newborns found tremendous pressure to be a super mom or a super dad. Researcher Carrie Wendel-Hummell found that the stress of new parenthood is felt equally by mothers and fathers. Both parents are liable to feel anxiety, depression, and stress, even though post-partum depression is traditionally thought of as a maternal issue. And, while worry about finances and employment surface in the period before and after a new baby arrives, parents cite the pressure to be perfect in their parenting as an overriding stressor.
Wendel-Hummell said, “Middle-class mothers often try to do everything to balance work and home life, and fathers are increasingly attempting to do the same. This pressure can exacerbate mental health conditions. If everything is not perfect, they feel like failures.”
Another look at the same problem was published this month in Nature, when seven scientists warned against blaming parents – mothers, particularly – for prenatal conditions that might lead to post-natal effects for the baby. It’s easy to find studies that blame mothers’ diet during pregnancy, exposure to second-hand smoke, and even stress reactions after a traumatic event as somehow the mothers’ fault. The unspoken assumption in news reports that present these studies is that mothers (and sometimes fathers) are irresponsible and selfish and don’t know how to control themselves to create a better life for their children. This is simply unfair.
Not only are parents and expectant parents human beings too, with all the foibles everyone else has, but information available to parents is not all that conclusive. It’s possible to find prenatal recommendations that oppose each other. It’s possible to be told one thing by one’s mother-in-law and something completely different by one’s mother, or best friend, or pediatrician. To blame parents for their children’s disabilities and issues is to assume that it was all that easy to tell what to do at all. It isn’t.
So what’s the solution? Here are some tips:
- Believe in yourself. Everyone wants to be a great parent; it’s more likely than not that you’re, if not great, then at least good enough. Good enough is good enough.
- When the worry and stress of your new parenting role seem overwhelming, get help. Realizing you need some support doesn’t expose you to criticism – just the opposite: it demonstrates your commitment and care.
- Support your child’s other parent. You’re in this together, so work together to get adjusted to your new responsibilities. Be careful to not criticize each other or ignore your partner’s need for help.
- Don’t look back. Every parent makes mistakes and everyone can look back and see points where he or she should have done things differently. But what’s in the past can’t be fixed, so look ahead. Your family has a beautiful future ahead and that’s what counts.
Being a new parent is sufficiently difficult already without feeling that you have to be perfect all the time. You don’t. Being a new parent is sufficiently worrisome that you don’t need to add in worrying whether how you’ve eaten or exercised for years was all wrong and will cause your baby irreparable harm. It won’t.
There is no way to be a perfect parent, so don’t even try. Be good enough. You undoubtedly are good enough already!
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.