There’s No Such Thing as Perfect Parenting (A Final Reflection)

When I’m a parent, I’m going to do better. That’s what I told myself when I went through Faithwalking in 2013 and learned that we all have childhood wounds, many of which are caused by our parents. Armed with the knowledge and experience of those retreats, I felt powerful and sure-footed. I knew all the pitfalls, so how hard could it be to avoid them?

Then I became a parent. My parenting journey began quite non-traditionally when I was 24 years old and Kalia, who was 16 at the time, moved in with Rachel and myself. In those early days, I didn’t have a clue what it actually felt like to be a parent – to eagerly make sacrifices on your child’s behalf simply because they are an extension of yourself. I felt like I was going “above and beyond” when I drove Kalia across town or gave her $20, things parents frequently do for their children without a second thought. But I did recognize that I had a certain responsibility towards her, to support her through school and guide her in making life decisions. When she floundered financially or socially or emotionally, I felt the weight of it. I wanted to help her succeed, and I began to see that doing so wasn’t as straightforward as being present and giving advice. I would try something, and it wouldn’t work, and then try the opposite thing, and it wouldn’t work, and then try doing nothing, which wouldn’t work, and then double down, and…you get the idea. There was no formula, no manual, no “3 Easy Steps to Successful Parenting.”

And then I became a parent again, when I married Joel and gained a teenage stepdaughter. Grace was 15 at the time, and so I was blessed with a short season as a carpool mom. In all those hours driving back and forth, I found myself understanding the parenting mindset more fully. Here I was doing something that would have previously felt utterly pointless – meaning, it didn’t serve me directly – and yet, I was grateful for the opportunity to be there for Grace in this way. Not to mention, it was 20 minutes of uninterrupted conversation automatically built into the day, a gift I would not fully appreciate until it was gone.

I consider it a blessing that I entered parenthood through side doors, because I knew I wasn’t starting with a blank slate. Both Kalia and Grace had a decade-and-a-half of parenting and formation before I came onto the scene. My influence was limited not only by their age, but by the fact that I’m not their “real” mom. And yet, I still find myself trying to ensure outcomes that are well outside of my control. I want them to be happy, and to learn to manage their stress, and to succeed in school, and to flourish in relationships. I want to give them exactly what they need to do these things, and to do no harm in the process. In short, I want to be the “perfect” parent. I can only imagine that this desire is much stronger if you are starting with an infant, if only because it feels more possible to “get it right” when you have a fresh start.

The work I have done personally and professionally with adults improving their relationship with their parents has led me to a new perspective, which can be summarized by this mantra: “There’s no such thing as perfect parenting.” I have come to see that, when it comes to determining our personal satisfaction and success, the way we choose to respond to our parents is just as important as the choices our parents make. Maybe this sounds obvious, but for me it was a much-needed revelation. Something in me believed that if I could just be a better parent, then everything else would fall into place. But in listening to the things that 30 and 40-year-olds are still angry with their parents about decades after the fact, in hearing how different and even contradictory their grievances are, I began to see that there is no way to “get it right.” Some people are angry with their parents for not helping them enough; some people are angry that they helped too much, and didn’t let them learn how to do things on their own. People are angry that their parents didn’t make enough space for their feelings; and others are angry that they were given too much space, and so never learned how to set boundaries on their emotions. Some parents asked too many questions, others didn’t ask enough. Some shared too many of their feelings, others didn’t share enough. I could go on.

This is my takeaway: We are all doing the best we can, every one of us, parents and children alike. And for every one of us, “the best we can” is simultaneously good enough and not good enough. It is good enough because it has to be, and because it can be. If you can learn to be gracious with your parents, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and recognizing that they were also wounded by their parents, I think you’ll find that much of what they did (or didn’t do) can be explained by misguided love and their own wounds. The anger that you feel is inside of you, and you have the power to let it go. I’m not saying that it’s easy, or that it will happen instantaneously. I’m just saying that the process begins with you, not your parents. So if you are an adult and you are still angry, the ball is in your court. A new perspective is available to you, if only you will seek it.

I also say that “the best we can do” is not good enough, because I believe we were designed to need more than just parental love. Every kid has different needs, and no parent can perfectly love a child in exactly the way he or she needs. Some parents hit closer to the mark than others, but there is no child who feels whole and complete from their parents’ love alone. In addition to parental love, we all have a deep need for peer companionship, as well as the need for a Love that is larger than anything humans can offer us. I am talking about being connected with the Divine Source of Love. I believe that when we have access to this inexhaustible resource of Love, it is much easier for us to forgive people in our lives who fall short of meeting our needs. This is not to say we can dispense with needing human love altogether – I do not believe that is the case, and in fact I believe one of the primary ways we experience God’s love is through other people. I think we need both, and that we will be happiest and our relationships will be healthiest when we are able to strike this balance.

Since much of our dissatisfaction with life comes from unmet expectations, maybe it is time to explore new ways of thinking. What if our expectations – either to have “better” parents, or to be “better” parents – were never meant to be realized? What if we have set ourselves up for failure by expecting more from ourselves and others than can reasonably be given? The following statements are meant to counter the unhelpful expectations many of us have about our parents and our role as a parent. Read each statement aloud, “trying it on” to see how it feels. With each one, ask yourself, “What if this were true? How would that change things for me?”

For parents:

1. There is no such thing as perfect parenting.

2. My child needs more than I can give, and that’s ok.

3. No matter how good of a parent I am, my child will still have grievances against me – and that’s ok.

4. No matter how good of a parent I am, I will still hurt my child – and that’s ok.

Now switch into the child role, thinking about your own parents (whether they are still living or not.)

1. My parents did the best they could. (What if this were true? Sit with that for a moment.)

2. My parents were never meant to give me everything I need.

3. Even if my parents had been perfect, I would still have found reasons to be angry with them.

4. Even if my parents had been perfect, I would still have been wounded.

At the end of August, Joel and I found out that we are going to become parents again, this time in the “traditional” way. (Yes, the photo at the top is from our actual ultrasound!) We are expecting our little one to arrive sometime next April, and are very excited for this next season in our family! I am so grateful to Kalia and Grace for helping me learn some of these hard lessons of parenting, and I know this child will be so blessed to have them as big sisters.

As I prepare to be the parent of an infant for the first time, I am once again tempted to believe that I can finally “get it right.” But I also know that this is the road to anxiety, frustration, and shame. I wasn’t meant to get the final say in how my children’s lives turn out. God has entrusted them into my care for a time, and I am going to do my best, but ultimately they get to decide who they want to be and what they want to make of their lives. They get to decide how they want to respond when I fail them (because I will). They can choose to cultivate anger and resentment, or compassion and creativity; they can choose to isolate and play the victim, or to invest in other relationships and seek the wisdom and comfort of a Higher Power. These are things I want for my children, even if they only come through my failure. And so I embrace what I know to be true: I will not be a perfect parent, because I was never meant to be. I will do the best I can, and it will be good enough (even when it’s not).

Reflection Questions:

  1. Look back over the 8 statements for parents and children – what do they stir up for you? Which one is the hardest to accept? Which one brings the most relief?
  2. What do you think about the idea that we all need more than just parental love to be whole and complete? What other sources of love have been meaningful in your life?
  3. What would it look like to extend more grace to your parents, or to yourself (if you are a parent)? How would this change your relationship with your parents (or with your children)?

2 Comments

  1. Sharon Thomson on October 15, 2019 at 4:40 pm

    Congratulations! I’m so happy for you and Joel! You have so much wisdom, I’m sure you will be good parents.

    Discipline and correction are never pleasant and none of us like it. So it occurs to me that it’s almost a given that kids will get angry at their parents sometimes since parents have to correct and discipline their kids sometimes (a lot?).

    I have trouble accepting the belief that my parents did the best they could. I think there were ways they could have done better. But either way I still have to forgive them. Reframing it as “misguided love and their own woundedness” does help.

    Also what you said about the anger being inside me so I can let it go is really good. Also that even if they had been perfect I would still be wounded. Sometimes I feel like I have been reparenting myself for many years. But maybe that is just a normal part of life (?)

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Deborah Pulis on October 29, 2019 at 11:21 am

      Sharon – thank you, it’s great to hear from you! And thank you for being willing to share your thoughts on this! That’s a good point you make about discipline and correction – even if this is handled in the best way possible, it still might not be received or experienced as a good thing by the child, at least not in the moment. We hope they will be grateful for it later on, but there’s no guarantee!

      I completely understand the struggle to accept the idea that our parents did the best they could. Sometimes, this really doesn’t feel true! Sometimes, like you said, it feels obvious that they “could have done better.” I think it’s helpful to follow this line of thought to its natural conclusion though. If my parents actually COULD have done better, not in a theoretical sense (e.g. there are things I WISH they would have done differently), but in a real sense (e.g. they were actually CAPABLE of doing better), then we are faced with the question, “Why didn’t they do better?” Either there were obstacles that got in their way, in which case it would still be accurate to say that “they did the best they could, under the circumstances,” or we have to conclude that they CHOSE to do a bad job. This leads to another question, “Why would my parents choose to do a bad job?” Because they didn’t love me enough? Because they wanted to hurt me? Because they just didn’t care enough to give it their best effort? All of these “meanings” are incredibly disempowering, and believing them will not help me to heal and move forward. Since we are in charge of the meaning we make, I want to choose meanings that empower me to love and forgive. So for me, I take the idea that “they did the best they could” as a premise, rather than as something to be proved or disproved. I just assume that it’s true, and then if the other person’s actions are incredibly harmful and dysfunctional, I assume that they must have experienced more pain and dysfunction in their past than I can imagine. Now, that may or may not be true. But when I choose to think this way, it allows me to be the person I want to be – compassionate, empathetic, forgiving – as opposed to angry and resentful.

      Now it’s important to remember that, just because they did the best they could, that doesn’t mean they’re “off the hook.” The pain they caused is very real, and they can still take responsibility for that, if they so choose. (Think about the Faithwalking concept of “cleaning up messes” – having good intentions doesn’t prevent us from making messes. A mess exists when I’ve impacted someone in a negative way, which can happen even when I’m trying to do good.) So when we’re able to think about it non-dualistically, we can recognize that “they did the best they could” AND it’s also true that “the best they could do” fell far short of what we needed. The first statement empowers me to approach them in love, the second gives me permission to grieve my wounds. Both are important for healing and maturity.

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